Imagine a conductor who drops the baton and plays alongside the band, and you’ve begun to understand what a bandleader does. Bandleaders are talented performers who bring together musicians for a band or ensemble, select or create material for them, shape the music’s dynamics, phrasing, and expression in rehearsals, and lead the group in performance while playing alongside them.
This position has evolved greatly since the time of early "big band" bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. While some contemporary bandleaders—like Kamasi Washington or Brian Blade—keep the old tradition alive, composing and arranging pieces for groups of musicians they've chosen, other bandleaders work in an entirely different way. Some work for famous recording artists, selecting musicians to form their touring band and ensuring that they're ready to perform the arrangements. Others are selected from within large, established bands for this leadership position, or inherit an ensemble that's lost its direction. Still others work in the television industry, leading house bands on late-night talk shows.
While bandleading is mostly about selecting players and leading them musically, bandleaders sometimes take on additional logistical responsibilities for their groups, including booking live or studio gigs, scheduling studio time, preparing music, hiring and paying advisors like business managers or entertainment attorneys, and corresponding with a record label or management team. Bandleaders also frequently handle the emotional and interpersonal dynamics of their players—smoothing over conflicts and ensuring that the music comes first.
Bandleader at a Glance
There are no strict educational requirements for bandleaders, who almost universally start out as instrumental performers, honing their chops as touring musicians, session musicians, freelance musicians, orchestra members, pit band players, cruise ship musicians, or even recording artists. This is a pivotal part of most bandleaders' careers, as it's when they make musical connections with their peers and frequent collaborators and learn to communicate with and organize other musicians.
Bandleaders frequently go on to become music directors, who fulfill a very similar role with bands and orchestras, but are less likely to play alongside them and more likely to provide arrangements and in-house production. Musicians who are picked to play as members of a talk show band on television may go on to become television bandleaders, a variety of music director. Other bandleaders—like Wynton Marsalis—might become the music director for a big band or orchestra, or even the creative director of a larger music performance organization.
Like many performing musicians, bandleaders find work by proving themselves during performances, crafting a solid reputation for organizing and leading other musicians, and using social media, newsletters, and a website to self-promote. The ability to network is important for career advancement. Bandleaders who put together their own musical ensembles don't usually have employers in the traditional sense, but can use grants as a means to generate funding.
- High-level instrumental proficiency
- Depth of playing
- Organizing an ensemble: scheduling rehearsals, booking gigs, etc.
- Music preparation
- Sound systems/amplification
- Superior ears for musical detail and nuance
- Verbal communication
Bandleaders are leaders—it's right there in the name. They have to be comfortable with auditioning and hiring other musicians, organizing and leading them in rehearsal and performance, and taking credit for the band's successes and failures when it comes time to perform. Deep musical skill and creativity are of course a must, but equally important is the ability to identify exactly what the music and the players need to be at their best. Shaping the music requires careful attention to detail, but performing—and dealing with last-minute changes and mishaps—requires flexibility and spontaneity. Perhaps most of all, bandleaders need to be excellent communicators. Although it's unlikely to show up in any job description, a little emotional intelligence and tact can go a long way towards keeping a group together.
The life of a bandleader is full of opportunities and difficult to define. Touring, recording in the studio, working a steady gig on a TV show, or playing a different local venue each night are all options on the table. The only guarantee for bandleaders is that wherever they go, they won't be alone—a priceless blessing, if the bandleader chooses his or her musicians well.