21M.342 | Fall 2008 | Undergraduate

Composing for Jazz Orchestra


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session
Plus required outside events

Course Overview

This course explores composing and arranging for large jazz ensembles from the 1920s to current postmodern approaches. A wide variety of styles and techniques will be considered as well as the interaction of improvisation with composition. Illustrative examples will be drawn from the repertories of Anthony Braxton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Woody Herman, Thad Jones, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan, Oliver Nelson, George Russell, Mary Lou Williams and others.

Skills to be developed will include listening, score analysis, and original compositional work.

Three special features of this course are:

  1. Observation and learning based upon attendance at open rehearsals and performances by our two resident large jazz ensembles, the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra
  2. Performance of Mid Term and Final Projects by these ensembles
  3. Guest lecturers, including Dr. Fred Harris, director of the Festival Jazz Ensemble, experts on the blending of Afro-Cuban and Ethiopian music with jazz, and the Gil Evans / Miles Davis collaborations, as well as the internationally renowned composer Walter Thompson.

Mark Harvey bio page


Boras, Tom. Jazz Composition and Arranging. New York, NY: Schirmer, 2004. ISBN: 9780534252618.


  1. Class attendance and participation (please bring music paper to each class)
  2. Weekly listening, analysis, and composition assignments
  3. Attendance at and reports on open rehearsals and performances by the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble [FJE] and the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra [AJO] as scheduled throughout the term
  4. A mid-term project to be performed by members of the AJO
  5. A final project to be performed by the AJO or the FJE as concluding class sessions


Referring to the above listed requirements, grading will be based approximately on the following proportions:

  • Assignments and participation (1 & 2) = 25%
  • Rehearsal and performance reports (3) = 25%
  • Midterm and final projects (4 & 5) = 50%

As with any course, individual effort and other factors will be factored into the determination of the final grade for the subject.


Session Key:

  • L = Lecture
  • E = Required event outside of class: rehearsal, workshop or performance

FJE: MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble
AJO: Aardvark Jazz Orchestra

L1 Introduction
Tonal concepts and theory
L2 Overview of the jazz orchestra

Melody and harmony

Blues form

L4 Composing and arranging
E1 FJE open rehearsal
L5 Sectional form
L6 Harmony and voicing

Saxophone writing

Mid-term assignment

E2 AJO open rehearsal
L8 Review of concepts
E3 AJO concert at Regattabar
L9 Putting it all together: score and parts
E4 FJE open rehearsal
L10 Sketches: individual review sessions
E5 AJO performs mid-term projects
Expansions and innovations
L11 Preview of FJE concert, with analysis of some repetoire (Guest lecturer: Fred Harris, Musical Director of MIT FJE)
E6 FJE open rehearsal
L12 Thad Jones / Bob Brookmeyer / Oliver Nelson
E7 FJE concert at MIT Kresge Auditorium
L13 Ethiopian jazz and the Either/Orchestra (Guest lecturers: Mulatu Astatke and Russ Gershon)
L14 Charles Mingus
E8 AJO open rehearsal followed by concert
L15 Duke Ellington I
L16 Gil Evans / Miles Davis collaborations (Guest lecturer: Steve Lajoie)
L17 George Russell and modal jazz
L18 Afro-Cuban music and bebop (Guest lecturer: Bill Lowe)
Toward the final project
L19 Duke Ellington II
E9 FJE concert at Kresge Auditorium
L20 Postmodern approaches
L21 Soundpainting (Guest lecturer: Walter Thompson)
E10 Soundpaining workshop with FJE and Walter Thompson
L22 Sketches for final project
L23 Final sketches: individual review sessions
E11 FJE performs final projects
E12 FJE performs final projects (cont.)

During the subsequent Spring 2009 term, Walter Thompson returned to MIT for a Soundpainting performance with the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.  See the Video and Audio Classes page for a recording of this concert.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2008
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Projects with Examples
Activity Assignments