Counting off a tempo to a jazz band is one of the most important things a director needs to do. The whole tone and style of the music is dictated by the way the director kicks off the chart, yet it’s something that easily gets neglected. Here are some pointers to help even non-jazzers figure out how to get a good count off.
First, insist that your band take your tempo. It’s common for younger (and even more experienced) groups to immediately settle into a different tempo almost right from the get go. Obviously you can’t stop during a performance and restart (or rather, you probably shouldn’t unless the band crashes and burns), but you do have this option in rehearsals. Get your band to understand from the beginning that your tempo is the only tempo they’re allowed to use.
When I kick off a chart, the time starts before I even begin counting by snapping my fingers or clapping my hands to establish the tempo. Get your students to focus in whenever the tempo starts. Once I’m snapping my fingers I tend to wait until I have everyone’s attention before I start the count off to ensure that they are already keyed into the groove.
How you snap or clap depends on the style of the groove you’re kicking off. With a swing feeling you should always snap or clap on beats two and four, assuming a 4/4 time. If you’re in 3/4 you can snap on beats 2 and 3. With a latin flavored groove you will want to clap on all four beats, or beats 1 and 3 if the tempo is bright enough. Rock grooves are probably similar to latin styles, but there may be a feeling of a heavy backbeat on a rock groove that will make it feel better to clap on 2 and 4. Never count off a latin flavored chart accenting beats 2 and 4, as this strongly implies a swing feeling. Never count off a swing groove by accenting beats 1 and 3, as this implies a straight 8th note feeling.
Speaking of the 8th note feel, your count off will much stronger if you also do a little subdivision of the beat to make the 8th note feel unambiguous. For example, call out, “One, two, uh one, uh two, three, four!” Your subdivision of the beat will let the band understand whether your groove has swung 8ths or straight 8ths. If the tempo is really slow, such as in a ballad, it’s almost essential to subdivide the beat anyway to keep the tempo steady, so help your students get used to subdividing in their head by subdividing with your count off.
The same basic suggestions also apply for kicking off a chart with a pickup, but you just need to change your count to reflect where the band starts. If, for example, the chart has a one beat pickup I’ll let the band know I’m going to give them a 7 beat count off, start snapping the groove, and then call out, “One and, two and, three, and four, and one, two, three!”
One final point I should make is making sure you get the right tempo for the chart in your count off. I have a habit of getting excited or nervous during a performance and sometimes letting that affect my tempo. In order to counteract this, I will pick a passage later in the chart that will absolutely dictate the tempo to me and sing it to myself to make sure it feels right. It’s often the shout chorus, but sometimes it’s just the most challenging measure or three that I don’t want to go too fast for. In rehearsals it’s helpful to check your tempos with a metronome, but I think in performances that it looks more professional to go without one if you feel you can.
These suggestions are subtle from the band’s point of view, but they can have a very profound effect on how they start a chart, particularly with less experienced players. The most important thing you can probably do is be consistent in the way you count off the same chart and consistently count off similar styles in a similar way. Just as you want your lead players to play their parts consistently the same way so their section mates can pick up on how to play the articulations and where to breathe in a phrase, you want to count off the chart the same way every time so they won’t get caught by surprise at the start of the tune.