I’ve been having a great time directing the university jazz band this year (alas, a temporary assignment). The group performed recently for some talented high school musicians from around the state, the kind of students I would like to recruit. After the performance, I was approached by no less than three of them, each expressing an interest in playing in the group in the future. None of them play instruments typical of jazz big band arrangements.
I’ve had this happen with private students, too. I once met with a very young and enthusiastic clarinetist and her mother. They explained to me that the young clarinetist was being excluded from her middle school jazz band because she didn’t play a “jazz” instrument. Their plan was for her to study clarinet with me, and to get so good that the jazz band director would “just have to” accept her into the group.
The clarinet, of course, does have a noble history in jazz music (even big bands), as does the flute, and, less frequently, the double reeds. And don’t get me wrong here—I love playing and listening to jazz on all those instruments, and would love to see every young woodwind player, regardless of instrument, get the chance to participate. But there are some practical barriers.
Students who want to learn to play jazz need opportunities to play in jazz groups. The big band format, by far the most likely jazz ensemble to be found in a school setting, has crystallized into a format with pretty specific instrumentation, and the saxophonists are the only woodwind players who get in on the fun. Parts for flute and clarinet pop up occasionally, but almost always written as a double in what is predominantly a saxophone part. Some school jazz band directors make the extra effort to include a larger variety of instruments, transposing parts themselves or purchasing special everyone-is-included arrangements. This approach of course has significant merits, but also robs the players of “jazz” instruments of an experience that is more authentic. And the stronger the group is, the less likely it is to use a non-standard instrumentation.
Aspiring jazz players, can, of course, look beyond the school system for opportunities, but the grass may not be any greener. Neighborhood garage bands or other non-instructional ensembles in the community can provide valuable experience, but would a group like that care to include a beginning jazz player? Especially one who plays a “non-jazz” instrument?
For this reason, my approach has been to tell my non-saxophonist students who are interested in jazz that the shortest way from here to there is to pick up the saxophone. It hurts a little to tell them that. But by approaching jazz study as a saxophonist, a woodwind player opens up a world of opportunities and resources that otherwise just aren’t available. My university group, like most, has a set instrumentation. One of my oboe students has been a longtime member of the group, playing baritone saxophone. She gets jazz experience that most oboists don’t. But if she didn’t play at least a little bit of saxophone, she would be out of luck.
Clarinetists and flutists who are into jazz can become particularly valuable to a jazz group as members of the saxophone section. It’s not uncommon for an advanced school big band to play arrangements that call for those instruments woodwind doubles. Nor is it uncommon for the saxophonists to have a serious lack of ability to play those parts. A flute or clarinet specialist who is also a strong saxophonist can really save the day.
A handful of musicians have, of course, made names for themselves as jazz players on non-saxophone woodwind instruments. But most of them also have also played the saxophone.
To flutists, clarinetists, oboists, and bassoonists who want to play jazz, I encourage you to continue working hard at your instrument and to seek out recordings and concerts of the top jazz players on that instrument. But also consider taking a few saxophone lessons and getting access to some great opportunities.
Here are just a very few of my favorite jazz woodwind players. Note that all also play saxophone!