From Chart to Reality: The Editorial Role of the Pianist in a Big Band

Dr. Kurt Ellenberger October, 2005

As someone who has spent a great deal of time as a performer in both the trumpet and rhythm sections of many professional and college jazz bands, I can attest to the different approaches to the written page that occurs within each section. The rhythm player normally has a great deal of freedom, while the horn player does not. For the rhythm player, many parts are basically lead sheets, with some of the rhythmic figures notated, which give the player considerable interpretive leeway. Instinctively, the rhythm player begins to realize that the part is not to be taken literally; it requires significant personal input, within certain stylistic and musical guidelines, of course. This is possible because there is only one bassist, one pianist, and one drummer in the band. Each player can more or less interpret his or her part at will, without having the section descend into complete anarchy.

For the horn player, this amount of interpretive freedom is simply not possible. This is in large part due to the numerical reality of being one voice in a four or five member section within a larger ensemble section numbering 14 or more. If each player were to make the kinds of interpretive decisions that are routinely made by members of the rhythm section, the resulting confusion would certainly be unworkable musically. As a result, horn players in a big band tend to look at the music in a very literal sense, as they should. There is some leeway here as well, but it is severely limited. For example, a trumpet player may take a few pitches or a phrase up (or down) an octave, or a trombone player may rest during a unison line in order to save strength for an upcoming passage. However exciting or pragmatic these changes may be, they are fairly benign from an arranging point of view. They do not significantly alter the arrangement. They keep the arranger’s intent largely intact and they maintain the unity of the horns’ harmonic and rhythmic activity.

A horn player (or non-pianist) leading an ensemble will quite naturally bring his or her background to the leadership of the ensemble. Thus, when the classical pianist in the high school big band is having trouble with the written part, the horn player’s natural response may be to insist that the student learn the part exactly as written in the score. Unfortunately, this type of solution is not ideal.

The role of the pianist in a big band setting

The role of the pianist in a big band is vastly different from that in a small jazz group. First of all, the pianist is generally much less active here than in any other group setting. The reason for this is that there is a great deal of rhythmic and harmonic activity present in the horn sections, and hence a pianist who plays his or her own figures will often be interfering with the overall rhythmic design of the group. Thus, the big band pianist needs to be mature enough to show real restraint, and also needs to be intimately familiar with the horn parts. Given this reality, I believe that arrangers have often been at a loss when writing piano parts. This is likely due to the fact that composers or arrangers are unsure of their target pianist. For example, will the part be played by an advanced student of Jim McNeely’s, by an accomplished classical pianist who doesn’t know what “C7” means, or by a high school violinist with some piano experience who has been drafted into the jazz band? The disparities regarding jazz piano knowledge and skill may be enormous within a non-professional big band setting.

The pianist must listen carefully to the horns (in reality, almost memorizing their figures), and must then determine where a complementary piano figure (i.e., a chord or melodic line) can be inserted into the overall texture. This is no easy task. The best way to learn how to do this is to listen to the great big band pianists – Count Basie or Duke Ellington for example – and to emulate them. Unless a full-fledged piano solo or feature is called for, these great pianists barely play at all during ensemble presentations. Their playing largely consists of brief harmonic or melodic figures (tasteful, elegant, and often minimalist in manner), which combine with the horn figures to create a natural sounding overall musical texture. To use an old adage, less is more when it comes to big band piano. It is not about how many notes can be played; it is really about complementing the group through the appropriate style of playing. In short, a big band pianist must learn to be content with, for the most part, a supporting role.

In terms of notation, big band piano parts generally fall into one of the following categories: a) chord symbols with rhythmic notation, b) chord symbols without rhythmic notation, c) fully notated parts, and d) improvised solos.1

Chord symbols with rhythmic notation
In this style of notation, chord symbols are featured above a percussion-like style of rhythmic notation. The pianist is given the rhythmic notation without any spelled-out chord realizations (i.e., voicings). The rhythms shown are normally used in one (or more) of the following ways: a) they are identical to those that the horns are playing, b) they emphasize (i.e., accent) certain pitches in a horn section’s phrase, or c) they are rhythm section “hits” or “kicks.”

The latter two types are inherently less rhythmically active than the former. Thus, the latter two pose less of a technical or interpretive problem; in short, they are necessarily simpler. The first type poses some significant problems.

The rhythms notated in Example 1a, from 61st and Rich’ It by Thad Jones, are of the first variety. They are identical to the rhythms in the horn section, but the tempo is slow enough to allow for almost all of them to be played without undue difficulty.2 (See Example 1a.)

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The fact that each chord is not spelled-out fully may present a problem for an average high school or college band piano player. Secondly, it may not be appropriate for the player to try to play every rhythm, as this will result in an unnecessary duplication of the horn figures, thus creating a musical texture that may be too dense.

We must assume that the pianist has the option of playing some of these rhythmic figures (using his or her own voicings), while omitting others. How are these important decisions made? A careful listening to the phrasings and articulations of the horns will help the pianist to choose rhythms that punctuate or emphasize the horn phrases.3

Example 1b, from Don’t Git Sassy by Thad Jones, is extremely detailed in terms of both chords and rhythms, some of which are only a sixteenth note in duration. This type of chart is difficult because it does not differentiate between structural harmonies and embellishments (e.g., neighbor chords, passing chords, etc.).4 A professional will see through all of the elaborate ornamentation and quickly get to the basic structure of a piece, and thus be able to play with considerable freedom. However, less experienced pianists will not be able to do this type of reductive analysis. To many, the piece will seem to be an anomaly rather than a variation on a common form (as this piece is). Without this understanding, a relaxed performance will be difficult to obtain. (See Example 1b)

What then, is the form and structure of this piece? It is a very simple eight-measure form (with a few variations) that is closely related to the blues. This is not immediately apparent because of the myriad (and brilliant) embellishing chords found surrounding the simple structure at the heart of the piece.5 The sheer number and complexity of these harmonic embellishments make it necessary for the pianist to make some editorial decisions. Jones’ chart provides us with a great deal of information, but his intent is more likely to show us when not to play, so as not to interfere with the integrity of the horn parts. Musically then, it makes no sense to try to play what is on the page. From a technical point of view, the written part is also suspect and problematic. A pianist could certainly voice all of the chords as written, but they would be exceedingly difficult to play in a fluent and idiomatic manner.

There is also another matter to consider here – namely form. It is essential for the rhythm section members (as well as the horn players) to have a basic understanding of the piece’s form. An understanding of this type allows the rhythm section to play more freely within the context of a big band (i.e., incorporating desirable elements of small group improvisation while at the same time clearly playing all of the composed elements of the big band score).

Example 1c shows the simple blues-based structure at the heart of this form. This is made apparent once the embellishing chords have been removed. (See Example 1c) As before, the detailed rhythms and chords in these measures are just too much for the pianist to try to play. However, the example’s suggested piano part is easy to play, and is purposeful (it accentuates the form) and musically unobtrusive (it does not interfere with the horn figures).


Chord symbols without rhythmic notation
The presence of chord symbols without rhythmic notation, may mean that: a) there is an improvised horn solo and the pianist is to provide improvised chordal accompaniment, or b) the horns are playing harmonized or unison figures and the arranger is leaving it to the pianist to determine where (if anywhere) to play.

In the first instance, the pianist’s task is not easy, but it is obvious. Basically, he or she must work out voicings for all of the chords and improvise rhythms. Example 2a, from Mambo de Memo by Matt Harris, features this type of notation. Here, the pianist’s function is essentially the same as in a small group where the rhythm section interacts vigorously with the soloist; the pianist must instantly change posture and assume the role of a more active participant than anywhere else in the piece. (See example 2a)

In the second instance, the pianist’s task is much more difficult. Example 2b, from Rhoda Map by Thad Jones, illustrates the idea that restraint is required on the pianist’s part. Many inexperienced players simply play too much, and this detracts from the overall effect of the ensemble. Also, the horn rhythms are not shown in this example. In the piano part, Jones merely writes, “comp.” It would be a mistake to simply “comp” freely in this section, as it would conflict with the horns, and make the texture much too frantic and busy. (See Example 2b)

How is it determined what is appropriate in this instance? The best advice is to have the student listen to the source recording. If no recording is available, he or she should obtain stylistically similar recordings (e.g., those of the Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, or Maynard Ferguson bands) and listen intently to what the pianists play, when they play it, and why they play it (i.e., the context, musically, of the piano figures). Register and textural variances should also be noted. In most cases, it will be found that the pianist does surprisingly little playing. Furthermore, knowledge of the horn parts is an important guide. When this knowledge is combined with sound musical judgment, the resulting piano performance is sure to be tasteful and idiomatic.

These are not easy tasks. The pianist is required not only to improvise voicings and rhythms, but also to compose a part around the figures played by the ensemble. Beyond the obvious technical skills needed, this process requires subtlety, taste, and considerable memorization.

Fully notated parts
Fully notated parts (solo or otherwise) may at first seem to be those that are the least open to editorial interpretation. The part may be an actual solo (with or without rhythm section), a reinforcement of horn figures (for coloristic purposes), a rhythm section soli, or some combination of the above. As these parts are completely written out, it is logical to assume that every note should be played as written. There are, however, exceptions to this assumption.


Even when the parts are easy, one might still choose to omit them. Since the written part in Example 3a, from A Hole Lot ‘A Blues by Jim Martin,6 is very easy, why shouldn’t a pianist play them? The part in question is doubled by all of the saxophones, so the pitches are not needed. However, when I performed this piece with the composer, I did not play these measures because I felt that the percussive quality of the piano detracted from the sound of the saxophones. With a professional band, the saxophone section does not need pitch or rhythm cues of a reinforcement sort. However, with a high school or college band, these cues may be of assistance. Although context is very important, musical need – not the score – is the final arbiter.7 (See Example 3a)

Notice how much of the written part has been left out. Also, notice the change of octaves in the part played. This helps it cut through the ensemble sound and provides a timbral shimmer the part would otherwise not have. These are decisions made by the pianist and are not antithetical to the arranger’s intentions. In fact, arrangers expect pianists, and rhythm section players in general, to treat the parts as guides, not gospel truth.


In Example 3b, from Don’t Git Sassy by Thad Jones, we find a moderately difficult part – a composed solo for two hands that is not doubled in any of the horn parts (in other words, it really is a “solo,” as Jones writes in the part). It is a statement of the melody in the piano, and is thematically important because it is the first statement of the melody of the piece. Thus, it may be assumed that it has to be played as written. (See Example 3b)

The problem here is not in the notes themselves. This passage is not difficult for the average pianist who has achieved a moderate level of technical proficiency. It becomes more difficult when we consider the articulations, which are entirely missing from the score. In order to affect a standard “long-short” jazz phrasing on the moving eighth-note figures, the pianist must use a finger legato along with some very nuanced pedaling. The right hand part is not very tricky in this regard, as opposed to the left hand part, which would likely use fingerings of ‘1-4’ moving to ‘2-5’ in order to connect the two parts of second beat in measure 10 (to say nothing of the movements in measure 11).8 I am quite sure that many readers who have programmed this piece will remember the disconnected and choppy phrasings emanating from the pianist during these measures.

As a means of eliminating any difficulties from the piano part, I would suggest playing a single-note line in the right hand with only 3rds and 7ths in the left hand (most of the left hand part consists of only 3rds and 7ths to begin with). The right hand part can then be reintroduced once the student has mastered the easier version. For young or inexperienced students, or for students with small hands, the large chords in the right hand may constantly present a problem because of the repeated octaves and sevenths in the outer pitches.9 The easier version retains all of the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic information needed to introduce the theme. The compromise involves aspects of volume and timbre.

Lastly, there are examples of difficult piano passages, some of which are simply accompaniment parts, others of which are solo features. All but the most advanced students will have serious problems playing difficult written figures, especially with proper jazz phrasing and articulation. These concerns are exacerbated when very fast tempos are considered. Young students, students with smaller hands, and students without sufficient technique will strain to play these types of parts. Therefore, for both musical and technical reasons, it is best to pare down difficult parts to something more manageable.

Example 3c illustrates an extremely awkward passage from Tangerine by Victor Schertzinger. The chord in question falls on the second eighth-note of the fourth beat in measure 19. The size of the chord is too large for most hands, and moving smoothly to the next chord will prove difficult. Here, the arranger has simply written a piano reduction of the saxophone part without regard for pianistic technique. (See Example 3c) Solutions to this problem include a) leaving the part out, or b) playing the bottom note (F#) of the right hand chord in the left hand, and omitting the bass clef part.

Note that there are also chords placed in parentheses, without rhythmic indications. There is no explanation on the score as to what this means. Perhaps they are suggested voicings for comping purposes, but without knowledge of the horns’ rhythmic figures, the pianist could easily overplay his or her part by using these pitches. Once again, a careful listening to the horns will determine what the pianist should play.

This style of notation (i.e., a piano reduction of the horn parts) can be very difficult to realize, especially when chords progress quickly or in a syncopated manner. In order to play with idiomatic phrasing and articulation, both exceptional finger technique and sophisticated pedal control is needed. Even then, an accomplished player (such as a high school pianist with strong technique) will have considerable difficulty because of the variety of dynamics and articulations present.

Example 3d, from The Kid From Red Bank by Neal Hefti, contains a challenging piano part. (See Example 3d) In this instance, the fast tempo of quarter note=280 is the biggest issue. Any tempo even approaching this brisk speed will be impossible for players of limited technical skills to play. Even though the difficulty of the left hand stride pattern is somewhat mitigated by the lack of right hand movement in measures 77-84, the challenge presented to an average pianist is enormous. There are several solutions (in order of increasing severity)10: a) remove all octave doublings in the left hand (beats 1 and 3) in measures 78-79, and/or b) ignore the “8[vb.]” directions in the left hand in measures 81-84, and/or c) move all of the notes on beats 1 and 3 up one or two octaves so that the left hand does not have to move far on the keyboard.

The first two solutions maintain some element of the stride pattern’s excitement while the last does not. Another option would be for the pianist to play only on beats 2 and 4, while the bassist plays on beats 1 and 3. At this stage, however, the integrity of the stride pattern is totally destroyed.

Final thoughts
Most contemporary writers appear to be aware of the above problems and are writing piano parts that are idiomatic. However, although the issue may eventually become moot, it should be remembered that extant libraries in most schools were started in the 1970s and 1980s. They contain some of the greatest works ever written for big band, and it is highly unlikely that this music will be revised to “correct” each piano part. (I purposefully disparage the term “correct” because the piano parts do not need “correction.” There is nothing wrong with the parts as written if there is a seasoned professional on the receiving end; after all, this is how they were conceived.) The problem is that many of these charts are being performed today by high school and college bands. The directors of these groups need to understand that a literal reading of the score serves no greater good. Jazz is flexible enough to accommodate an enormous variety of different skill levels; not only does the music allow for an individualized reading based upon technical concerns, it is probably at its most exciting and vibrant when its participants play within their means.

I believe that herein lies one of the real strengths of jazz. It allows for players at even the most basic levels of technical prowess to express themselves using the technique available to them. Of course, the level of expression will be severely limited by the technique available, but this should not bother us. Jazz accepts beginners on their own terms, capitalizing on their creative impulse, as opposed to their technical prowess.

As educators, we need to remember that we are introducing new generations to this music and its unique methodology. We should therefore not ask for or imply a “classical” reading of jazz scores. That model is appropriate within its own style, but is inappropriate within a jazz setting.


  1. Improvised solos, in general, have received more pedagogical coverage than any other issue in jazz; they are also beyond the scope of this article and are not discussed here.
  2. Whether or not one should play every figure is another matter that is discussed throughout this article.
  3. I have shown a possible interpretation underneath the examples, but these are certainly not in any way meant to be definitive – merely one option that I think complements the overall effect.
  4. Thad Jones is one of the greatest and most inventive minds in the history of big band writing. His music is still very popular today, largely because of blues and gospel inflections, the unabashedly “danceable” qualities in many of his works, and the eminently “swinging” nature of his compositions, yet there is another level at work here; he is the master of harmonic variation. In particular, his use of reharmonization and embellishing techniques is astounding in both variety and creativity. That which often seems stodgy and pretentiously academic in a lesser talent appears seamless, spontaneous, and unbelievably tuneful from Jones’ pen. In a word, Thad Jones’ library is truly a lexicon of jazz theory and harmony, as is the case with this piece.
  5. I have seen many charts where pianists have left hand-written directions in this regard. For example, embellishing chords have been crossed out or placed in parentheses, leaving the relatively simple structures (blues, rhythm changes, etc.) clearly visible and easily recognizable.
  6. Jim Martin’s music is available online at
  7. I performed this piece with the composer and asked him directly about the piano part. His response is reflected in the interpretation given.
  8. This fingering is awkward and difficult to play with proper articulation.
  9. Octave work can be difficult and has potential for injury. Pedagogically speaking, octave work is generally not introduced until a moderately advanced degree of technique has been achieved and until hand size is large enough to easily span the interval.
  10. Of course, the tempo could be slowed, but it would need to be slowed considerably, thus drastically compromising the piece.


Kurt Ellenberger began composing and performing as a teenager in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His first CD for Challenge-A Records, titled Songs From Far West, was received with great acclaim in Canada, Europe, and the United States, and has been followed by a solo recording titled Quadrants, and A Tale of Three Cities, a duo recording with internationally-renowned saxophonist and composer, David Renter. As a multi-instrumentalist (trumpet/piano) Ellenberger has performed with artists such as Kenny Wheeler, Danny Gottlieb, Carl Allen, Dick Lowenthal, and Billy Eckstine, as well as with symphony orchestras in Canada and the United States. He has been featured on CBC Radio (Canada) and NPR (USA) as both performer and composer. Kurt Ellenberger

Ellenberger is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose contemporary, classical and third stream works include music for piano, voice, choir, orchestra, brass quintet, trumpet ensemble, brass choir, strings and two concertos. He is also a published theorist and the author of an improvisation text titled Materials and Concepts in Jazz Improvisation. He holds a doctorate in music composition from the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently the director of jazz studies at Grand Valley State University (Allendale, MI) where he teaches improvisation, composition, and theory.