Time in a Big Band

Dan Lane

Alright, so I'm in rehersal with a conglomerate Big Band, (basicaly all the high school kids in Regina who actually like jazz and like playing it... So there's about 20 of us, haha. Its organized by the Regina jazz society.) And we're playing "Fly Me to the Moon," a simple Basie chart.

We were given recordings of all of our tunes months ago, and I had long since memorized the tempo of the recording. Its marked on the chart at 120, the recording chugs along at about 121, 122 in some spots, (for example the shout chorus is a tad rushed, the drummer rushes a backbeat and everything settles in that much faster.)

What really messes with my head is this: My high school band drags, and drags hard. Most of these people never practice, our band teacher never puts any pressure on us, its basically a country club. This band does the opposite, except for a few people, the horns rush, and rush hard sometimes. You end up feeling like an elastic band, and after a while you lose the confidence that you're right.... You just hope you're right. I was under the impression that all horn sections always dragged, but I now think that (excluding the Basie band, etc, and you know.... good horn sections.) all horn section rush below 120 and drag above 180.

So anyways, like I said I memorized the tempo on the recording. So today we had a guest director, who got this idea in his head that 100 bpm was the new 120 bpm. He was getting pretty toasted that we were constantly rushing the time, (on top of this, the drummer on the recording pushes the time and the horns lay back... I'd been playing along to that... Dumb move.) and I was completely messed in the head, I thought either my metronome was wrong or my entire sense of time had been an illusion. After a while I thought: this can't be 120. So I pull out my 'nome while the guest director is schooling the horn section, pop in the headphones, and sure enough, 120 is where I'm feeling it... and its waay fast compared to his tempo. I pull it back to 100 or 105, find that that is where he's at. I play a few bars of that on the 'nome, and then I have it.

After that I'm good, I can feel his tempo. It just made me think about how having a tempo in your head can really mess with you, like, ah. It was the craziest mind trip. I was fluffing simple fills and shots that I'd learned inside and out looong ago, just because I would be thinking about not rushing them rather than just feeling the time. I mean, having pre-conceptions about the time in a big band is probably the worst thing a drummer can have. I guess thats my point. Like, once I stopped saying, "don't rush," and stopped saying "don't drag," and just FELT it and said to myself "play ON it," I was fine.

On the whole though, any swing below 120 is brutal to play. Takes loads of concentration.

Discuss. Anyone had similar experiences?


Silver Member
This is an interesting topic.

I guess for me, wherever the director starts the song, that's where it should sit. While you may have practiced it at 120, if the director calls it slower or faster that's where you've got to play, and that's where it has to feel good. Which is a very hard thing to do.

Interesting exercise was when our band director made the entire band play along with a metronome blaring through a PA system. I was blamed for the fact we lost time in about 8 bars. What I'm trying to say is: everyone is accountable for their own time in the band.


Silver Member
Hi Dan
Show the new director that you can swing at 100BPM....I recommend that you practice your swing beat very slow.... 40 BPM and examine and study your motion....Denis


Platinum Member
Just because the tempo marking on the piece is 120, doesn't mean that it will be rehearsed there. Often the director will rehearse things under tempo to make sure that the rhythms are clean.

If you look at the Basie band's One O'clock jump, you will find an extreme tempo range from year to year, CD to CD. If I practiced with one recording, and the director was used to a much faster or slower version, I have to go with the director (if I want to keep my job.)


Dan Lane

I completely agree. It was weird because he said at one point: "Feels slow, doesn't it. THIS is 120." On the whole though, the important lesson I learned was to be able to play the chart at a variety of tempos above and below the marked tempo, like jeff said.

Steve Fidyk

Junior Member
Re: Time in a Big Band from STEVE FIDYK

Hello Dan. Steve Fidyk here... Your posted comments on Drummerworld were forwarded to me and I thought I would share some tempo related advice that might help the next time your working with a large ensemble...

TIME in a big band, and how each member of the ensemble feels it, can influence a drummers confidence level to some degree. Having a solid relationship with your bass player can certainly help. The ensemble is listening very closely to the bass player because he or she provides the quarter note pulse and the harmonic movement for the composition. Try getting together with your bass player and work on tempos... Take a standard tune very slow (60 BPM or slower), and work it up until you have CONTROL of the subdivisions between each quarter note at a medium tempo as well as a fast rate of speed. If you and the bass player are LOCKING UP, your UNITY will attract the other band members creating a groove force field. RECORD your practice sessions with the bass player as well as with the entire band. LEARN what your tempo tendencies are as well as your band mates tendencies.. Your SOUND, how it PROJECTS across the band, and the clarity of your rhythmic ideas will influence how your pulse or groove is felt. Remember, the more members you have to hold together in a band, the clearer you need to be in order for your ideas to be felt...

With that said, TIME in a band is the responsibility of everyone. The IMPACT a big band has can be very powerful when performed with integrity. When you have an ensemble of horns subdividing like a drummer, and a drummer that is articulating and phrasing like a horn player, the outcome is swinging big band music that dances!! Be patient with the members of the band. Time, especially in this setting, is anything but ABSOULUTE like you would hear on a contemporary rock recording done with a click track...

The time is MUSICAL in an ensemble that is improvisational. It has an ebb and flow to it. At times it coasts, while at other moments in an arrangement it has great urgency and forwarded momentum. Road bands that play many of the same arrangements night in and night out VARY the tempos depending on how the band feels that night. Don't be too locked into playing an arrangement at only ONE tempo. When it's counted in though, swing as LONG and HARD as you can(!)

I hope this helps~