Part 1: The Groove

We begin every song by learning the first Building Block: The Groove. The Groove is the heartbeat of the song. Its pulse and rhythm is the framework into which everything else fits. It’s helpful to think of it as a feeling, as well as a sound.

Before we even focus on notes and rhythms, accents and syncopations, let’s zoom out. The way the Groove is heard and felt in Jazz Band is different than it is in Concert Band or Orchestra. In Concert Band or Orchestra, the baton (or hand) is the marker for everything – tempo, feel, volume, and articulations, are all controlled by the conductor. The percussion section may explicitly play the groove from time to time (often on a snare or other drum), but an explicit Groove is not a foundational aspect of the sound and feel of the music. 

In Jazz – which developed out of the West African and March Traditions – we almost always hear the groove explicitly represented in the rhythm section. The drum set and bass are the train and track that lead the band. Once that train starts, there is little you (or anyone else besides your drummer and bass player) can do to change its course. Ensuring that our students understand this shift in listening and feeling is essential to keeping every part of the train on the tracks.

Listening exercise: Compare the sound and function of the Percussion Section in the Concert Band to the Rhythm Section in the Big Band. Take it a step further – How can we listen to a March and hear the inflection point between the two different ensembles.

The single best thing you can do for your band is make sure that the groove is solidified – first, in the drum set; next, in the rhythm section; third, within the entire band. A band with a solid groove, but shaky horns still sounds funky. A band with solid horns, but a shaky groove struggles to find its footing. 


  • Every Groove has a pulse. The pulse can be broken down into two parts. The tempo – or how quickly the beat moves – and the subdivision. Highlighting the subdivision is key for two reasons. One, the subdivision is instrumental in helping to maintain an established tempo. Two, the subdivision is vital when introducing your students to swung 8th notes. If you can establish a pulse with your students that grooves, everything else will follow nicely.
  • Every Groove is built around Accented Beats. Once a pulse is established, what makes one groove different from another? What makes us want to clap on 2 and 4 vs. 1 and 3? What distinguishes the Charleston from a Two Beat or a Son Clave from a Rumba Clave? It’s all about what beats we choose to emphasize. Jazz is often syncopated. Understanding how that syncopation sits within the pulse will give us our Groove.
  • Everyone should be physically engaged in feeling the Groove. Traditionally, Jazz was created to make people dance! What makes people dance? A funky Groove! A funky groove is as much about feeling as it is about sound. Everyone should know how to recreate the Groove with their bodies, ensuring that by the time they’re back on their instruments, that feeling is inside of them. Every time they play, they should be moving – tapping their feet, swaying, clapping or snapping if appropriate – anything that connects their body to the Heartbeat of the song.


Get everyone up and moving (this can’t be emphasized enough!). Getting students up out of their chairs is not only a refreshing change of pace for them, but also automatically physically engages them.

Set the pulse. Establish the tempo by asking students to step from side to side or sway. We also encourage vocalizing the subdivision. Now we’ve got a groovy pulse going – we have the foundation on which to add our accented beats. 

Add the Bass Drum rhythm (first in the hands). We’ll eventually transfer this rhythm to our feet, but clapping is a bit more familiar to start out with. It can be helpful to divide the band in half – one group continues to express the pulse by vocalising the subdivisions while the other half claps the Bass Drum rhythm. Make sure to switch these groups up so that every student has an opportunity to clap each part!

Move the bass drum rhythm to the feet and add the snare drum rhythm in the hands. This is more sonically accurate to what is actually happening in the drum set. Just like before, having a group of students who maintain the pulse can be very helpful in solidifying this groove.Add the rhythm in the cymbal or high hat. You will often find this matches the subdivisions the band is already familiar with! 

At this point, everyone in the band has built the Groove for the song. Every building block we add after this one – Melody, Bass Line, Harmony – will rhythmically line up with this Groove in some way. You can add, but this will always be there as a foundation!

To see this in action, check out There Will Be Peace and Syncopation Blues in our “Intro to Jazz” big band series. 

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