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Here are some of my Baritone Sax Articles and Blogs that have been published through Vandoren. Make sure you also check out my articles on Music Education at!

Teaching Improvising in Performance Classes, Regardless of Your Experience in Jazz

Originally Posted by Dansr Music (

Recently, I encountered an article that offered this statement on teaching Beginning Jazz Band:

“We explain how jazz is the first truly American music, then I ask ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a math test and be guaranteed an A on it no matter what you did?’ That is how improvisation works.”

At first I was angry that someone would share that with students. Then, I was disappointed for the students knowing that this was probably their terminal experience with improvising, and that this advice (given to them from someone I’m sure they trust and respect) is the most detailed advice they will likely receive about improvising music for the rest of their lives.

This caused me to think through some of the other misconceptions I have heard around the concept of improvising.

“That kid is our soloist, because he just gets it… he’s obviously a natural.”
“You can’t teach improvising because you just have to ‘feel’ it and there aren’t any rules.”

I can appreciate that it can seem daunting to improvise with these misconceptions in mind. Most people would stop themselves from creating something new after they’ve been told that they aren’t the “chosen one” or that they obviously can’t “feel”.

We, as educators, need to provide talent-neutral statements that include open-ended ideas and guidelines for improvising without limiting our statement to a prescriptive method or style. In other words, we need to empower students to be creative by helping them develop and understand guidelines for different styles of music. Teaching the “Bb Blues Scale” really doesn’t go very far at all in making a student sound like a mature jazz improviser and goes even less far in any other style or genre of music.

Here are some valuable points about improvising that might enable a teacher (regardless of their level of familiarity with jazz) to include improvising as part of their classroom curriculum and to provide tips for young students approaching improvising that will help them develop as musically informed performers and improvisers.

What is Improvising?

Improvising (music) is the act of spontaneously creating new music in respect to a specific style or system of musical guidelines.

I’m using this definition for two primary reasons. First, for most jazz improvising that would be encountered in the music classroom, mature soloists are far more likely to sound mature when they are rhythmically, dynamically, and tonally in sync with the style rather than focused on exclusively being harmonically accurate in the music. There are many wrong notes that can sound just fine if they are played confidently and rhythmically with a style-specific inflection, but even a perfectly constructed scale will sound immature if it’s played irrespective of the style of the rhythm section.

Secondly, students are still perfectly capable of (and should be encouraged to) improvise in ways that haven’t been defined by a style. Students can create their own frameworks and games to collectively improvise during class, even if the music doesn’t sound like jazz, rock, pop or classical music.

How Do You Improvising with a Group?

You can be a master improviser by understanding the style of the music and interacting with the style of the music.

Students and teachers who want to learn to improvise need to spend significant time listening to music. Listening to music is not equal to playing half of “The Complete Atomic Basie” while the students unpack their instruments. Listening to music (for learning purposes) involves dissecting and understanding the roles of the different ensemble members and how the different parts come together to make the whole picture.

Students can learn a lot about improvising with a group of musicians when they engage in picking out each of those instruments from a big band or small group jazz recording. As a very general example, in swing styles, the drummer plays quarter notes on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, while the snare drum and bass drum provide accents and bumps to certain beats; the bass player plays mostly quarter notes that should line up with the ride cymbal of the drums; and the guitar and piano provide chord patterns that fit rhythmically inside the groove of the bass and drums (maybe even complimenting or pushing against the implied accents of the snare and bass drum).


After a student can identify the jobs of the other musicians in the band, it is much easier to interact as an improviser. It can be liberating for a student to realize that the bass and drums can function as their metronome. They get the chance to relax and listen to their peers while they are being musically supported by a foundation of time and rhythm. Additionally, students who are listening to the other instruments and understand that they are playing “with the group” not “over the chord changes”, will also have an easier time matching the other musicians dynamically and melodically.

How Do You Practice Improvising with Your Group?

Teachers have many options to create activities that promote listening skills and style analysis. Here are a few:

Create Games for your Ensemble to Play
This is a very fun way to get students to engage in listening while they play. Allow them to create rules by which a song will be created. In other words, there is no lead sheet or preconceived arrangement, but rather some kind of musical algorithm for the students to interact with. There doesn’t need to be a soloist, just an impromptu composition by the entire group. The students might say, “We will play in Bb, and the rhythm section will play in a swing style. Maybe the trombones can play short rhythms and the saxophones can play a melody while the trumpets add something every fourth bar.” Whether the composition is a total success or a major failure, there is a platform for talking about the elements of composition and how those should inform you as an improviser and performer.

Teach songs by ear
Learning songs by ear won’t take away from your students’ ability to read music. By contrast, seeing chord symbols can severely limit your students’ ability to listen as they play. The blues is a great way to start. Have your students solfege the bass notes and play them on their instruments. Then, play games with call and response and rhythm just on the roots of the chords.

Call and Response Games
Let the rhythm section walk a bass line over a single chord. Choose a student to play simple rhythms in 4/4 time for the other students to copy. Stop the band when a student plays a rhythm that doesn’t fit within the metronome of the rhythm section or when you can hear that something doesn’t sound stylistically appropriate. If you aren’t sure what is wrong, experiment with different musical elements until the student is playing short, simple phrases that also sound mature (even on one note). Most of the time, fixing the rhythm (especially that students may rush to the downbeats) or the volume (students are playing too softly to produce a clear tone that projects) will make a student sound mature very quickly.

What is Our Charge as Educators?

Sometimes teaching other styles of music that we are less familiar with is a daunting task. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you have specialized in a certain area or facet of music, and still have other areas to grow in. Music is such an incredibly expansive subject that you could learn more about it every day for the rest of your life and still have more to learn. With that in mind, we have to be music students along side the students in our class.We still need to continue to train our ears to engage in analyzing music from an aural perspective and challenging our own perception of style and genre so that we can be better and more informed musicians and teachers.

It can be challenging for us to keep learning or it can be exciting to learn along with the people we are teaching.



Quality Ensemble Playing from the Baritone Chair

Originally Posted by Dansr Music (

“Hey man, great set! I love the Bari. Are you guys going to play that one song?”

“Thanks. What one song are you talking about?”

“Oh you know it. It goes ‘Baaaaa weep ba—“

“Oh.” Eye roll. “You mean ‘Moanin’’. We are actually performing the music of Billy Strayhorn, and that’s probably not going to come up tonight.”

“Well I’m pretty sure Billy Strayhorn’s Bari player would have known the song I’m talking about. You should play it in the second set.”

Insert a pause to swallow my words. “Sure thing. I’ll bring it up.”

Somehow “Moanin’” by Charles Mingus has become the “Freebird” of the baritone sax. It’s a great piece of music that every baritone player has or will have played at some point, but the responsibility of the baritone saxophonist in the big band goes far beyond playing their individual tribute to Pepper Adams and Ronnie Cuber on “that one song.”

Actually, the role of the baritone saxophone in a large ensemble setting is extremely important in crafting the sound of the ensemble, and must be approached with finesse and in-the-moment decision making about pitch and volume adjustment to fully support the other sections of the band. In this article, I’m going to discuss the way the sound of the baritone gets used in big band compositions, analyze some of my favorite ensemble baritone moments, and share some other recordings of baritone features with big bands.

The baritone player must remain aware of his role in the music and changes his role to compliment the music. Often, the baritone is scored as part of the saxophone section, part of the trombone section, doubling the fourth trumpet, or doubling the bass player and bass trombone on bass lines. Even these roles can be broken down more specifically. Within a saxophone section, baritone will sometimes double lead alto in sax solis, sometimes play in unison with the two tenors, and sometimes play a part opposite the rest of the section with a call and response to the altos and tenors. Within a single eight bar phrase, the job can also change from one section to the other and back again.

Even minor performance adjustments can go a long way. For example, many of the best professional lead trumpet and lead alto players may play a few cents sharp to help project their slightly brighter sound over the section or over the band. On the other hand, professional bass players and bass trombonists rarely play out of tune and need to remain consistent to support the intonation of the entire ensemble. This means that if you are playing a sax soli in octaves with lead alto and then you switch to play a bass line with the bass and bass trombone, you may have to adjust very slightly from the higher pitch of the alto to the (hopefully) very in tune playing from the bass instruments.

Aside from intonation, the way you adjust the timbre of your instrument can support or affect the sound of the passage. In saxophone solis, playing with a reedier sound may match well with the section, but in playing passages with brass sections, taking the reedy quality out and playing with a purer and more focused tone might be important in creating a quality section sound. I would consider the difference in performing the melody section to “Three and One” with a trumpet player who is emulating Thad Jones compared to the opening measures of Tadd Dameron’s arrangement of “If You Could See Me Now.” You need to be able to adjust the timbre of your instrument enough to compliment what’s going on behind you.

Some of my favorite moments in large ensemble baritone playing come from Charles Fowlkes in the Count Basie band and Harry Carney in the Duke Ellington band. Each of these players was able to make in-the-moment changes of volume, articulation, and intensity that (in my opinion) made the iconic sounds of some of history’s most famous big band recordings. Two of my favorite recordings are the original recording of “Shiny Stockings” from the Count Basie album “April in Paris,” and the recording of “Star-Crossed Lovers” from the Ellington album “Such Sweet Thunder.” Neither of these pieces is a baritone saxophone feature, so examining the way that these players attack their own role in the ensemble is important in providing some clarity to quality section playing.

Following the opening brass statement of the melody to “Shiny Stockings”, the saxophone section hits on the “and of one” and all sustain a low concert Eb. For the baritone, this brings Charles Fowlkes to a low C marked with a forte dynamic. In any true forte performance of this note, Fowlkes could probably bury not only the saxophone section, but also the rest of the band and part of the audience, but in this particular moment, we don’t hear his note stand out above the low C played by Marshall Royal. Following the saxophone soli and the trumpet solo break, the saxophones have a soli background that alternates between solo baritone and the entire saxophone section. In this moment, Fowlkes plays his solo parts significantly louder than his initial entrance in the first moment of the chart, and plays his part with the saxophone section a little quieter to match the section. The timbre and volume of the baritone is unmistakably very important in this part and rightfully performed more soloistically. By the end of the chart, the baritone is back to blending into the ensemble behind a beautiful lead trumpet performance by Reunald Jones.

Duke Ellington’s “Star Crossed Lovers” is a very different more orchestrally-scored composition featuring Johnny Hodges on lead alto. Harry Carney consistently plays at or above the volume of the rest of the saxophone section on both sustained and moving passages. This volume adjustment causes the recording to sound darker and more lush, even in the context of a truly beautiful Ellington album. In the B section of the tune, Carney’s first entrance is a whopping forte piano played significantly louder than the rest of the band that then fades into the sound of the section. This is my favorite sound in large ensemble baritone playing, and comes back a few measures before the end of the piece. The reedy, rich, beefy sound of Carney’s sustained notes throughout this recording is almost as special to me as Johnny Hodges timeless interpretation of the beautiful classic melody.

For some other great examples of baritone saxophonists featured with big bands, please consider finding Maria Schneider’s album “The Days of Wine and Roses” to hear Scott Robinson on “The Willow”; Duke Ellington’s album “Live at the Blue Note” to hear Harry Carney on “Sophisticated Lady”; and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s album “Monday Night at the Village Vanguard” to hear Gary Smulyan on “Body and Soul”. These are a mere three recordings of featured baritone saxophonists, but between these three amazing performances these artists show the incredible range of sound and expression of the baritone sax.