Ensemble performance opportunities for jazz guitarists in most college settings have traditionally been insufficient. The average school jazz program (assuming the school has a jazz program) will feature some sort of "big band", maybe two if there are enough horn players, and a combo or two. If each group has one guitar chair, there's ensemble work for a maximum of four guitar players!
The jazz guitar ensemble is a relatively recent development which is catching on at many colleges. At my school, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, I started a jazz guitar ensemble in 1997; it has been well-received by students and concertgoers alike. Forming a jazz guitar ensemble offers several advantages for a music program:
1) It provides experience in ensemble playing for a greater number of guitarists in the program. I have found six to eight guitars to be a good workable size, but I have had satisfactory results with as few as three. (I haven't had more than eight yet!)
2) Guitar ensembles challenge students' reading and playing skills, usually to a greater degree than other types of groups. Consider the typical big band guitar part: mostly chord symbols, maybe an occasional written line that doubles a horn part. In a guitar ensemble, the guitars are the "horns"; there's much more emphasis on reading and interpreting lines. In my charts, there's usually one dedicated rhythm part; we rotate those among players so that everyone gets a chance to comp. (We call the rhythm player "Guitar George" in tribute to Mark Knopfler.)
In a guitar ensemble, the guitars are the "horns"; there's much more emphasis on reading and interpreting lines
3) The guitar ensemble format is not as widely heard as are big bands, etc. Therefore, it can be an attention-getter for the music program; a little pre-concert promotion can arouse public curiosity. "Gee, six guitars... I wonder what that'll sound like?" And, as we all know, the guitar is a very popular instrument across musical genres; people who normally wouldn't attend a big band event might still be drawn to a guitar ensemble concert.
4) The guitar ensemble brings guitar students together; it gives them a chance to hear each other, to compare progress and to share information. This results in more well-rounded and motivated students and, I believe, promotes better morale in the guitar department.
5) Administrators should be receptive, especially since startup costs are minimal; basically, you need music stands, a few tunes and rehearsal space!
If you'd like to add a jazz guitar ensemble to your program, I offer these tips:
1) In typical four-year schools, guitarists usually enter a music program with reading skills that are not comparable to horn players at the same level. Your task will be to find music that provides a challenge for their skills without posing an insurmountable challenge! To that end, I find myself doing a lot of my own arranging, especially since I'm generally leading a group containing a mixture of good readers, so-so readers and entry-level readers.
2) If you're pressed for time, there are a few sources for guitar ensemble charts out there. For example, I have used several of Chris Buzzelli's arrangements and have found them to be of excellent quality. Another potential source: the arranging class. Modern arrangers should know how to write for guitar - here's their chance to learn! (Maybe together, we can break the cycle: reading sketchy guitar parts makes for poor readers, which makes arrangers want to write sketchy guitar parts, and so on...)
3) Draw from different musical styles and textures in your programming. Not every chart has to be a five-part harmonized bop head. My groups play that sort of thing, but we also play Latin, funk, fusion, Metheny tunes, etc. (Every so often, a spontaneous polka breaks out in rehearsal. Yikes!) The guitar's versatility can be used to excellent advantage in ensemble; a guitar ensemble can be much more than just a "big band for guitars".
With a little forethought and management (and a lot of patience), a jazz guitar ensemble can be a definite asset in any music program. It produces students who are better equipped for participation in other school ensembles and for the demands of professional life.