Artist Blog

David Berger’s Answers to Common Jazz Arranging Questions

The following blog is an excerpt from the beginning of my book, Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging (available at Please excuse the obvious self-promotion but if you are interested in an arranging book that specifically deals with the art and tools of jazz arranging and composing, this is the book for you. I wrote it to answer all the arranging questions that I had when I was a young man. Included here are the most common and superficial questions. The rest of the book delves into the deep issues in-depth.

We Get Letters

Newspapers have featured advice columns for nearly 200 years, most famously Dear Abby and Ann Landers (actually twin sisters writing under pseudonyms).  In that spirit I’m going to answer the most asked questions that deal with general issues before we get to the details of arranging and composing.

1. Q: Should I become a musician?

A: No.  It will make your parents very unhappy.  Besides, if you had to ask, then you have already considered that you could get through life doing something else.  Music, like all the arts and the priesthood, is a calling.  When I was 12, I knew.  A few years later, an older musician I was working with said to me, “Being a musician is a curse, but not being a musician is a worse curse.

2. Q: Should I study classical music?

A:Yes.  You may never perform any Beethoven or Mozart professionally, but the experience of playing it as a student is invaluable.  As jazz performers, we need to play our instruments on the highest level.  The discipline of playing classical music gives us much of the technique you need to play jazz.  In order to write jazz, it is most helpful to draw on our experience playing jazz and other music.  Although I have not picked up the trumpet in over 10 years, my writing is informed by what I learned playing in bands and orchestras.

The best classical music will teach us strong musical aesthetics.  The principles are sound.  I have studied harmony and counterpoint from 16th century to the present.  I can’t say that I have consciously used anything I learned from the early music, but the harmony and counterpoint of Baroque music formed the foundation of what I do.  If you can take classes, start as soon as possible.  If not, then buy a few books on the subject and teach yourself.

3. Q: If I transcribe and study jazz soloists, arrangers and composers, will I wind up just copying them?

A: You’ll only sound like them if you really want to.  Do you sound like your parents when you speak?  You learned how to talk from them, but you went on to learn from many other people and eventually you found your own voice.  Sometimes I am hired to write arrangements in someone else’s style.  When I was young, I used to ghostwrite for a few of my heroes.  It was fun to try to emulate their style.  If you have more than one composer or arranger that you like, you will sound like a combination of all the things you like in their music, and ultimately discover your own musical personality that will grow out of that.

4. Q: Who are the most important jazz composers and arrangers to listen to and study, and where can I get their scores?

A:Of course everyone has personal preferences, but here are somearrangers/composers that I enjoy and have learned the most from (in no particular order) Horace Silver (2-horn writing), Benny Golson (3-horn writing), Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Jelly Roll Morton, Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Sy Oliver, Quincy Jones, J.J. Johnson, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Wynton Marsalis.  I also love Benny Carter, Al Cohn, Neal Hefti, Johnny Mandel, Gerald Wilson, Ernie Wilkins, Billy Byers, Manny Albam and many others, all of whose work is excellent but not as groundbreaking or influential as the first group.  If I need to recommend just one. it is Duke Ellington, hands down, for the greatest depth and breadth.  Jazz at Lincoln Center has published many scores by Ellington and several of the others.  If you are looking for something, and can’t find it, email me at

5. Q: Should I write at the piano or away from it?

A: I write at the piano.  So did Ellington and Stravinsky.  Strayhorn wrote away from the piano, and played the arrangement on the piano when it was completed.  Maurice Ravel said that if you write away from the piano, you will only write what you know, but if you use the piano, you will find new things.  I find this to be true for me.  When I write away from the piano, I tend to write more conservatively and more from my conscious mind rather than my subconscious (which is where the best art lives).  Then again, some pianists have told me the opposite.

6. Q: Do I need to write every day?

A: This is personal.  I tend to write when I am inspired or when I have a deadline.  I have gone months without even writing a note.  And then there are periods where I churn out a chart a day for weeks on end.  Billy Byers said that he wrote from 9-5 Monday to Friday.  I usually write during the day, but it is not uncommon for me to write late at night or very early in the morning, as my understanding neighbors will attest.  Find what works best for you.

7. Q: Should I use Finale or Sibelius?

A:Personally, I still use pencil and paper.  I grew up that way, and I am quick and effective.  I don’t need to change, so I don’t.  I see nothing wrong with writing at the computer as long as you are making the decisions and not letting the program make them for you.  Don’t believe the sounds you hear in playbacks.  These programs take no account for the registers and balances of the instruments.  The overtones are wrong.  There are sampling programs that are better, but even these can fool you.  Even when I play an orchestration on the piano, I have to imagine what the real instruments will sound like.  This comes from the experience of hearing music played live, playing lots of music in a variety of settings and hearing my own music played live and on recordings.

8. Q: What is the biggest mistake that arrangers make?

A:Overwriting.  Most charts have too many notes.  They are cluttered, so that the jewels get hidden.  So often when I conduct the work of other arrangers, I have the horns tacet certain figures and lines.  All of a sudden the chart becomes more focused and effective.  Similarly, many charts are too long.  They overstay their welcome and the audience becomes bored.  It’s as if the arranger was driving along the highway and missed the exit sign.  For me the arrangement should have ended, but the arranger was having too much fun writing and forgot the big picture.

One other consideration is that the more new material in the chart, the harder it is to get a good performance from the band.  This is especially crucial in situations with little or no rehearsal time.  Sy Oliver once asked me if I wanted to know the secret to being a great arranger.  He held up his forefinger (just like Curly in City Slickers) and said, “Just focus on one thing.  Keep it simple so your audience can understand what the band is doing”.

9. Q: What other arranging books should I read?

A:I started with Russell Garcia’s The Professional Arranger Composer, which was probably the best text available 50 years ago.  I haven’t looked at it since, but I would imagine that the advice is still sound.  It’s aimed at beginners and covers the basic issues.  Rayburn Wright’s Inside The Score analyzes scores by Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer.  Ray was my teacher.  This book is fairly advanced, and is invaluable.  Bill Dobbins’ Jazz Composing and Arranging, A Linear Approach is the text for small group arranging.   The concepts are somewhat advanced.  Lastly Chuck Israels’ Exploring Jazz Arranging covers basic essential material and proceeds to a smattering of advanced concepts and techniques.

I studied classical composition for 2 years with Ludmila Ulehla.  Her encyclopedic text, Contemporary Harmony: Romantic Music Through the Twelve-Tone Row, is the seminal book on classical harmony.  The concepts presented apply to jazz as well as other Western music.

10. Q: What do I have to do to become a great arranger?

A: It sure helps to be born with talent, musicality and an artistic sense—these things cannot be taught, but if you have them, they can be nurtured.  Beyond this, a great arranger needs 5 things: an inquisitive mind, the need to put everything in order, a good ear, boundless love of great music, and the passion, patience and fortitude to write hundreds of arrangements.

About the Author:


Jazz composer, arranger, and conductor, David Berger, is recognized internationally as a leading authority on the music of Duke Ellington and the Swing Era. Conductor and arranger for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra from its inception in 1988 through 1994, Berger has transcribed over 750 full scores of classic recordings, including more than 500 works by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in addition to hundreds of other classic jazz recordings. Several of these transcriptions in addition to a number of original arrangements are featured in the recent Broadway hit, After Midnight.

In 1996 Berger collaborated with choreographer Donald Byrd to create and tour the Harlem Nutcracker, a full-length two-hour dance piece that expands the Tchaikovsky/ Ellington/Strayhorn score into an American classic. The 15-piece band assembled to play this show has stayed together as the David Berger Jazz Orchestra. The DBJO actively performs Berger’s music on tours throughout the United States and Europe.

Berger has written music for symphony orchestras, television, Broadway shows and films and has composed and arranged for Duke Ellington, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Quincy Jones and the WDR Big Band. He has also arranged for dozens of singers including

Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Freda Payne, Natalie Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Madeleine Peyroux, Milt Grayson, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Susan Graham, Denzal Sinclaire and Champian Fulton.

Berger has taught jazz arranging and composition for 30 years in the New York City area at the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, The New School, William Paterson University among others.

Read more about David Berger at

For David Berger jazz arrangements, books and blog, visit

Keep your eye out for Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging: Volume II to be released in the coming months.