Tips for Mapping Out a Big Band Chart

One of things that will make or break your big band arrangement is the idea that the chart has to have some kind of flow from beginning to end. Ultimately, it should tell a story on an emotional level so that listeners have a great experience listening to it.

If you have ever gotten “goose bumps” while listening to a piece of music (jazz, classical, etc.) you know exactly what I mean. The music connected to you on a basic emotional level.

Generally, music that can do this has a series of climactic points along the way, while keeping the listener connected during the entire piece with interesting stuff.

Its really no different than a great movie – the best movies suck you in and take you right to the climax of the story then drop you down gently so you walk out of the theatre saying “what a great movie”.

Your big band chart should be no different. The goal is for the listeners and players to say “what a great chart” after it is played.

This lesson deals with some things you might consider doing to help you get an idea of how to map out a chart before you even write a note of the arrangement.

3 Replies to “Tips for Mapping Out a Big Band Chart”

  1. curt

    Hi Jim,

    A great topic, something I sort of intuitively do but having it laid out made me think about it.

    The telling of a story reminded me of a short story I read in my teens. I have no idea the name of it at this point. It was probably written sometime between the 20’s and 40’s and as backgroud to a murder mystery described a number of performances of a small jazz band, probably a a dixieland group from the instrumentation.

    Performances were described as discussions. “Joe started the topic with his sax and then Mr. T and his trombone player talked about it for awhile.” That sort of thing. What really got me was the imagery. “here is where we came over from Africa in chains. Hear the despairing wails. Then we were free. And now we’re shouting while we walk down the street with the white mans women on our arms.” I wondered how in the world someone could describe something so literally in music and it wasn’t till much later that I realized that he was just describing moods with concrete examples. The story unfortunately worked hard to perpetuate the idea that only Black people could understand jazz, which is part of what dated it so much.

    It’s still a game a couple of my friends and I play now and then, to listen to a piece and say what is happening. A great example is Channel One suite. I remember a female friend describing the beginning of the sax solo as a woman getting dressed, while I though it was someone wandering down the street on a quiet summer afternoon. And the climax of the sax solo where the band comes in as either someone having an important realization, or a woman coming home to discover a dead child on the kitchen floor.


  2. Jim Martin

    Curt: that’s some good stuff. It does make writing a chart more of a challenge when you think the big picture. Its definitely a balance of big picture and then details (i.e. voicings, balance of instruments, etc.)

    I think one of the biggest challenges would be to write film music. Those guys have a big responsibility because no one really “listens” to the music during a movie, but if it is incredibly important to have the music reflect what is going on in the story. So not only do your arranging/composing chops have to be top notch, but you have to have a sense of how the music fits into the story of the film. I have the utmost respect for those guys in LA. Maybe one of these days I could get an interview with one of them and post it on this site. I’ll check into that.

  3. Hernan Biancardi

    Hello again Jim. It seems that this video is not longer available. Is there any issue or it has to be this way?
    Thank you for your great job on teaching us too much !

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