This article is copyright 2003 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the International Trombone Association Journal, Vol. 31, No. 4, October 2003. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Preparing ITA Jazz Competition Entries

by Antonio J. García

Associate Jazz Editor, ITA Journal


            As a past coordinator of the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble Competition and an occasional adjudicator for the Frank Rosolino Jazz Trombone Scholarship Competition, I have had the opportunity to observe how the jurors react to the various application recordings. Though no one person’s opinion matters more than another, I share the following for future applicants to consider. And since we’re talking here about the elements that contribute to fine jazz soloing, I hope that readers who are not applying to the Competitions will also find this discussion equally worthwhile.

            Applications in both Competitions are reviewed with a number of similar criteria in mind. Is the soloist or ensemble in tune? How swinging is the groove? What is the difficulty of the repertoire when compared to the other applicants’ entries? Does the quality of the recording at least allow the jurors to make a confident judgment about the musical level of the entry? Is the signal distorted? If the applying performer(s) cannot display a reasonable quality of mic technique, the jurors will not be confident in awarding that entry a live, ITA Festival performance before an international audience. Though ITA still accepts cassette recordings, CDs are preferable. Make sure you have attempted to play your burned CD on several players so as to ensure its function and accuracy.


Solo Competition

            Below are suggestions related to each of the ten judging considerations currently provided jurors of the Frank Rosolino Jazz Trombone Scholarship Competition.

Sound & Intonation

            It’s no accident that this is the first category on the adjudication form. As if sound quality wasn’t essential enough in classical performance, in jazz a player’s sound represents perhaps the most important identifier of a person’s individual expression: we can often recognize a legendary jazz musician after hearing just a few notes of a recording.

            Make sure you’re in tune: listen, use tuners, seek others’ opinions, and adjust. Applicants who are out of tune usually seem sharp, not flat, often subconsciously adjusting their embouchures and airflow so as to bring the pitch more in line. Such adjustments keep wind players from playing through the center of their sound, displaying instead a more pinched timbre that is inferior to that of the other entrants.

Improvisational Skills

            It’s fairly easy for jurors to tell if an entrant is improvising more “in the moment” or simply plugging pre-learned “licks” into the appropriate chord changes. Entrants to this Competition should be far enough along in their experience that they can demonstrate a degree of freedom from pre-calculated soloing. Slow down a recording of your AABA tune to half-speed: is your solo interesting or too predictable? Does it groove at the half-speed tempo, or does it fall in the “cracks” of the time? Usually the required blues tune reveals a lot about the entrant: do you have something to say when there aren’t a lot of distracting, fast-moving chord progressions?

            Many soloists overlook the pacing of their solos when creating a demo tape, yet a satisfying pace to a solo is a critical improvisational skill. Do you sound as though you play every phrase until you run out of breath, or are you pausing to think about your next direction? Does your solo on a given tune simply stop in its tracks when you’re done, or is there a shape to your overall solo?

Jazz Vocabulary/Inflection

            In addition to the above considerations, a successful soloist can demonstrate a command of rests: the most interesting jazz musicians use rests in interesting places, not just when they run out of breath. Do you use more than one articulation on the recording, or do all attacks sound the same? Is there an element of blues vocabulary as well as the more diatonic scales? And, depending on your level of experience, can you demonstrate occasional harmonic variations from the typical chord progressions?

            We all have our signature licks, whether we like them or not. Listen to your recording to see if you present yours too often within the few minutes allowed.

            The occasional mute can add inspiration to your inflection, but be sure you also include examples of your open tone.


            I view this category as a summary of all the other categories: you can be creative in each of your choices leading to your overall soloing. Let the “real you” come out in your entry!

Time Feel

            An entrant who can lock in the time will go further in the Competition than one who cannot. Listen to your own recordings, and critique yourself honestly. Do you consistently push ahead of the beat—or lag behind it? Work seriously on your ability to groove within the time feel.

            Beyond basic groove, a fluent improviser knows many ways to divide the beat. A short list over a given 4/4 swing tune might include half notes or longer, plus quarters, quarter triplets, eighths (swung or even), eighth triplets, and sixteenths (swung or even), on or off the beat. There’s no need to throw everything into each tune, but a little variety can demonstrate that you have an above-average command of your time.

            Cross-rhythms are a fundamental element of expression within jazz time. They provide tension and release that contribute to the drama of your solo. Again, overuse is tiresome; but a mature soloist can incorporate the influence of cross-rhythms into a solo.

Style & Expression

            Your style can be as individual as your sound, starting with the tune itself. Play the melody before and/or after your required, improvised solo choruses. How you deliver a melody tells the listener a lot about your lyrical quality. Have you checked out the lyrics to the tune, if any? At least know where the title of the tune might fall within the lyrics: that will affect your overall delivery.

            There and in your solo, do you offer the listener any sense of your emotions about the tune? It’s okay to get excited now and then! Expressiveness means getting beyond just playing the “right” notes. Again, a mute might be an occasional option for stylistic inspiration.


            While it’s true that any note can be used over any chord change, the beauty is in how the tension and release is achieved. It takes some doing to convince the listener that you meant to play that major seventh over that dominant seventh chord or that major third over that minor chord. “Making the changes” is an important part of this Competition, though you can also show your ability to stretch them in other directions.

Group Interaction

            The ITA wants to encourage all potential applicants of quality, regardless of whether or not such a talented trombonist might have local access to a rhythm section of comparable quality. Thus it is acceptable for a soloist to submit a recording made with a play-along CD.

            However, jazz is not performed in a vacuum: one of the essential qualities of jazz is rooted in how the soloist and other musicians create music together in real time. Group interaction is important; and any applicant using a play-along for an entire entry recording cannot, in the judgment of many jurors, merit a high score in this category. I encourage you to use live musicians. But if your rhythm section can’t handle Cherokee while you can, consider using the play-along for only your most difficult tune(s).

Technique, Fluency, Flexibility

            Range and intervallic leaps are what usually come to mind when speaking of these elements. But rhythmic technique, fluency, and flexibility are also important—some believe more so. Players who can get all around the horn but sound rhythmically stiff should explore their rhythmic development further. It can be very boring to listen to a technically agile player perform a solo of constant eighth notes. Remember that the characteristics of the bebop masters—arguably among the most technically proficient of all players—include the ability to begin and end lines anywhere in the measure, punctuating with rests in interesting places within a given bar. Do you almost always breathe near the bar line?

            Fluency in the jazz language also includes finding a balance between shorter and longer phrases. All one or the other is less satisfying to the listener.

            How you cut off your notes affects your expression. Many players focus so much on their attacks that they virtually ignore their releases. Make your melody and solo lines sound vocal!

            Finally, being flexible enough to go “with the moment” while improvising will contribute to your spontaneity, interaction, creativity, and expression. As trombonist Steve Davis told the July/August issue of JazzTimes magazine after adjudicating the 2003 Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Competition for trombone, “Yes, technique is important; and it can be impressive. But in jazz, you’ve got to have the feeling and sound and swing. Those are the crucial elements. This is about the music—not a display of trombone playing.”

Difficulty of Material

            Choosing the most appropriate level of difficulty for your repertoire can be a challenge. You want to show how advanced your current work is yet don’t want to sound as though you’re not soloing your best. Consult with your teachers and peers to gain others’ perspective.


Ensemble Competition

            All of the preceding considerations for a soloist are relevant for an applying jazz trombone ensemble, but the jurors for the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble Competition evaluate even more details.

            Matt Niess is the ITA Eastern Trombone Workshop Jazz Coordinator, Lead Trombonist of the U.S. Army Blues Jazz Ensemble, Leader of The Capitol Bones, and a past juror for ITA Jazz Competitions. He offers the following advice for ensemble entries:

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            If your group wins the Competition, you will be performing live at ITA Festival. So make your entry tape a real-time event. Please use a live rhythm section; and if you’re making a studio recording rather than a concert recording, avoid layering the rhythm section in separate tracks. The judges are going to have less confidence in your entry if they believe that you couldn’t handle a live ITA Festival performance.

            Even though it is an Ensemble Competition, I also listen for jazz improvisation that complements the level of the ensemble. The ITA is seeking a jazz ensemble, and as a juror I have chosen lesser ensembles with solid jazz players because the group delivers a better overall performance. Not every solo has to be by a trombonist: a rhythm-section quartet can add greatly to a trombone ensemble.

            Find, write, or commission charts that make your group sound its best. Playing music of different eras and styles adds variety to your performance: avoid submitting an entire program of only one genre. That doesn’t rule out your having a theme. In my opinion, it would be fine to program the music of John Coltrane in a variety of styles.

            Feature the strengths of your group: there is no shortage of charts these days. If you can’t find appropriate ‘bone ensemble charts, e-mail me at <>.

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            I’ll add to the above that while showcasing one soloist throughout the demo recording is certainly allowable, the jurors are even more impressed by hearing multiple soloists of quality. The sonic balance of the ensemble should be preserved on your recording: aim for hearing all parts at all times. Finally, with more players come more releases; and one of the marks of truly fine ensemble playing is the releasing together of the written phrases.


            The ITA encourages its jurors to provide the entrants any suggestions for future improvement. This alone is a great reason to apply. One of the greatest benefits of any competition or audition is the opportunity to receive focused, constructive advice from persons who have auditioned hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants with similar interests. If you receive such input, take the time to review it carefully. Such input can lead to your submitting a yet stronger entry for the Rosolino or Winding Competitions.

            Perhaps even more importantly, the experience of preparing, creating, and submitting your demo recording will be invaluable towards your growth as a musician. Many of the past applicants who have not won a Competition have also gone on to fulfilling careers. So look over the requirements, fill out the form, create your recording, and apply this year!


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Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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