19 February 2018


'What chord were you playing in Bar 3?' the pianist asks the banjo player.

'C minor.'

'That's odd. It's Eb7 in my book.'

Conversations of this kind can be heard constantly at rehearsals - and even at performances. The trouble is that so many thousands of chord books have emerged over the decades. Some of them have been commercially published. But most have been painstakingly built up for their personal use by individual musicians over many years, during which their repertoire has constantly increased. Here is the hand-written chord book belonging to a banjo-playing friend of mine. As you can see, it's alphabetical and loose-leaf, so he can easily add new tunes to it from time to time.
So every musician has his or her ever-developing chord book and they all like to think their chords are 'right'.

One of the problems is, of course, that there can be alternative chords in so many places in most tunes. Such alternative chords can sound correct if the entire band agrees to use them. And the truth is that there is much similarity between certain chords. For example, Bb major has much in common with G minor 7th, so it's no surprise when those chords are used by different players at the same point in the tune.

Another problem is that - over the years - the chord sequences of many of the good old tunes from a hundred years ago have been simplified for traditional jazz purposes. For example, in some of those tunes, the composer may have used four different chords over the four beats of a bar. But the chord-book writers have substituted just two chords - for two beats each. Or they may even find it possible to get away with just one chord for the entire bar.

Maybe one day a definitive 'correct' chord book for the hundreds of tunes we play will be produced. But I doubt it. While we wait, there is always something of interest to be found by those of us who enjoy investigating these matters.

I am largely self-taught and have always regretted not having had some music education that would have introduced me to more of the theoretical stuff. But even I find alternative chord structures fascinating.

Love Songs of the Nile is one of the tunes that throws up a particularly interesting conflict of opinions. It is a beautiful tune I first came across when I heard that very fine English trumpeter Cuff Billett playing it with his band in the 1990s. I also enjoyed hearing the late Lionel Ferbos singing and playing it at The Palm Court in New Orleans very shortly afterwards. I still have a treasured CD of his band and I'm pleased to say it includes that song.

Love Songs of the Nile was written for a 1933 film called 'The Barbarian'; and it was sung in the film by Ramon Navarro. The composers were Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. (Nacio Herb Brown also wrote You Stepped out of a Dream and You Were Meant for Me.)

The chord problem arises in the Chorus. Assuming the tune is played in the key of C, some chord books have Bar 9 on the chord of F and Bar 10 also on F, while others prefer Ab and Ab7 respectively. There's a similar problem with Bars 13 and 14.

To my ear, the versions using Ab and Ab7 sound better. In fact, John Dodgshon of California wrote to me about this very matter and he is convinced that this is the correct version, meeting the intentions of the composer. Here is the lead-sheet John has kindly sent me. It includes the Verse.

16 February 2018


In most of the popular songs from the early days, composers wrote a Verse as well as a Chorus. But today, in the case of hundreds of these tunes, our jazz bands normally leave out the Verse and play only the Chorus. In fact, if anyone suggests playing the Verse, it usually turns out that only one or two members of the band actually know it.

Of course there are exceptions. For example, the Verse of Alexander's Ragtime Band is so much an integral part of the song that it is practically always played through, at least once. Chloe has a highly unusual spooky Verse in a minor key - well worth playing. The Verse of Everybody Loves My Baby is a good one, too, and leads perfectly into the Chorus. Exactly the same is true of I'm Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now, where the Verse is an important part of the narrative. And the Verse of Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet is so good and substantial that it's a fine song, quite independent of the neat and merry Chorus. And - in case you don't know - I can tell you the Verse of Ice Cream, though rarely played, is very attractive.

I used to think we ought to make an effort to revive discarded Verses. So I started to seek them out, though it's often difficult these days even to get hold of the original music. Here is what I discovered: the Verses were often really dull compared with the popular and familiar Choruses! So perhaps it's no bad thing after all that so many Verses have been abandoned. Yes, it is astonishing but true that some great songs with good melodies that everybody loves actually had, in their original form, dull and forgettable Verses.

The reason why I am thinking about this matter of long-forgotten Verses is that my attention was drawn to When You're Smiling. That wonderful researcher and vintage music collector Audrey VanDyke shared the original sheet music of this song.

When You're Smiling (composed in 1928 by Mark Fisher, Joe Goodwin and Larry Shaye) is such a good song. Bands love it. Audiences love it (and often sing along); and the tune is easy to improvise upon.

Yet - be honest - do you have the faintest idea of its VERSE?

Well, thanks to Audrey, I can now tell you the Verse consists of 16 bars and the words are:
I saw a blind man.
He was a kind man
Helping a fellow along.
One could not see.
One could not walk.
But they both were humming this song:...
When you're smiling, etc.
The Verse is a kind of 'recitation' - the melody uses only five different notes. And whoever would have thought that When You're Smiling - as originally composed - is about two severely disabled people?
John Dixon of The Shotgun Jazz Band sent me these further comments:
Your post on missing verses, dead on. the Verses were often really dull compared with the popular and familiar Choruses! - too true. It’s the general reason we don’t play EVERY verse to every tune. Many times we’ll learn the verse and just realize it’s not very good. Same with lyrics. 'Poor Butterfly' is an outtake from the latest record and at first I wanted to do it with the lyrics but they are SO cheesy and hamfisted. Same with many verses. It’s an ongoing joke, actually… We’ll call a tune and someone will say “Know the verse?” and Tyler and I will break out in a super schmaltzy verse that’s always the same.
I received the following comments from James Buck - a friend and regular reader who lives in the South of England:
I was told by an old dance band musician, some dozen years ago, that in the 'dance hall days', when he was playing regularly. "The bands missed out the verses because they were often in different keys and tempos, from the choruses.  This was too much for most dancers to cope with, so they stopped dancing.  So the bands just dropped the verses!"    
I can not check with him, as he has long since died.  He being in his late 80's when he told me this.

This, as well as your comments, is another reason for the verses no longer being played.   In my mind the verse often gives another meaning to a chorus, as in "Pennies from Heaven".

13 February 2018


Just in case you are one of those people who have not come across the life-affirming, heart-warming 'I Charleston' videos, I must tell you that you have missed a treat. Do something about it and take a look at them.

What happens is that a group of enthusiasts (mostly young) make a video in which they energetically dance the Charleston in settings that highlight the sights and architecture and tourist attractions of their city.

It is great fun and mildly competitive. You can decide for yourself which city has made the best video. For traditional jazz fans, there's the added attraction that many of the videos use good recordings of our bands as the accompaniment to the dancers.

There are plenty of these videos on YouTube. You might care to start with New York City: CLICK HERE;
or London: CLICK HERE;
or with one of the less-known cities. I particularly enjoyed this one from Brest, France: CLICK HERE.

Parma has plenty of creative ideas: CLICK HERE. And Warsaw has even used music by our beloved Tuba Skinny to provide the accompaniment: CLICK HERE!

10 February 2018


The band-leader announced that we would play I Get The Blues When It Rains.

The clarinet-player leaned across to me and quietly said, 'Just remind me how the Middle Eight goes.'

I hummed the tune and soon had to stop. 'Hey, wait a minute!' I said. 'I Get The Blues When It Rains doesn't have a Middle Eight. It's a 16 plus 16.'

'Ah yes. Got it!' he replied. And away we went, with no problems playing the tune.

But the incident reminded me that Middle Eights can cause problems and anxiety.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about, let me tell you most of our standard tunes are written in a 32-bar form. Sometimes (as in I Get The Blues When It Rains) the structure could be described as A1 (16 bars) + A2 (16 bars), in which A1 and A2 are very similar, beginning in identical ways for the first few bars.

But a huge number of the 32-bar tunes are structured in 8-bar segments, of which the first (A1), second (A2) and fourth (A3) are almost identical, while the third (B1) is something quite different. This 'B' section is called the Middle Eight (even though it does not come in the very middle); and it is sometimes called the Bridge or the Release.

(Incidentally I'm reminded of a very old joke. Two jazz musicians walked past a newspaper hoarding on which were the words Indiana Bridge Disaster. 'That's funny,' said one of them. 'I didn't think there was a bridge in Indiana.')

Although there are some stock patterns for Middle Eights (making it easy to improvise), there are also a few tunes that defy conventions. In these cases, you have to learn the Middle Eight the hard way and keep it in your head with regular practice.

All musicians have trouble with Middle Eights occasionally. I have even heard some of the 'big names' being flummoxed at this part of their improvisation.

Examples of tunes needing practice and care with the Middle Eight are I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, RosettaBlue Moon, You Took Advantage of Me, Have You Met Miss Jones?, Yearning, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?, and C'est Si Bon. Although very few bands play them, Body and Soul and When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes need care, too.
In more complex multi-part tunes, you may find several themes, each of which has a challenging Middle Eight. Think of Deep Henderson, which contains three themes with Middle Eights that have to be thoroughly mastered. The Middle Eight of the final theme is a real thriller (arpeggios descending over unlikely chords). But Shaye Cohn, Barnabus Jones and Jonathan Doyle make it sound easy at 1 minute 53 seconds in this video:

The book Playing Traditional Jazz by Pops Coffee is available from Amazon: