19 October 2017


When many bands decide to add a new tune to their repertoire, somebody beats it in, and off they go.

The results are often slapdash, with spur-of-the-moment arrangements, and everyone hoping for the best.

Of course it sometimes happens, where the musicians are very talented and listen well to each other, that the result is quite good.

But that great young band in New Orleans - Tuba Skinny - has shown us in the last few years how you need to approach the music more seriously if you are to achieve results that are truly outstanding.

There is nothing slapdash in their approach. When they tackle a new tune, they begin with a clear vision of what they want to achieve. They have a unity of purpose. Every individual is focused on the agreed arrangements. There is no room for compromise. Only the best will do.
A good illustration of this is their 2014 performance in Italy of Jelly Roll Morton's Grandpa's Spells. You can find it at https://vimeo.com/101422951. On the face of it, this is just a merry busking session in a public square.

Yet note the meticulous care that has been taken to present the tune. It is never muddled, despite its complexity. Everybody knows who is to do what, and when. There is no need for printed music on stands in front of the musicians, as we find with many bands playing such a tricky piece. Everybody has taken the trouble to learn what he must do.

Obviously, the band must have studied the original recording by Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers in detail, because they follow it closely.

The structure goes like this:

Both bands start in the key of C.

Four bars 'running up the ladder'

Featuring guitar breaks and then the cornet

but with the break in bars 7 and 8 taken by the piano (Red Hot Peppers) and by the banjo (Tuba Skinny - not having a piano at the time)

THEME B second time
Clarinet leads throughout, including the break (Red Hot Peppers)
Clarinet leads but washboard takes the break (Tuba Skinny)

THEME B third time 
Trombone and string bass alternate the lead (Red Hot Peppers)
Trombone and Tuba alternate the lead (Tuba Skinny)

Without any need for a signal, there is then a seamless transition into the key of F (occurring at 1 minute 41 seconds into the Tuba Skinny video).

Melody (a firm statement stabbing out the notes of the chords) played by the cornet

THEME C second time
Ensemble, featuring the clarinet on the flowing runs

THEME C third time
Taken as a piano solo (Red Hot Peppers) but as a Trombone solo (Tuba Skinny)

THEME C fourth time
Ensemble out-chorus (Red Hot Peppers)
Chorus led by Tuba (Tuba Skinny)

(The Red Hot Peppers version - under 3 minutes in total - ends at this point, but with a neat two-bar coda)

THEME C fifth time
Ensemble (Tuba Skinny - everyone swinging joyously)

THEME C sixth time
Ensemble (Tuba Skinny - again everyone swinging joyously). Simple end. No coda.

Note how nobody puts a foot wrong with the various two-bar breaks. Notice too how even Erika (whose main rôle is as vocalist) gets the bass drum beats exactly right - stopping at those moments when 'silent beats' are required. Notice how there is no need for signals from Shaye, though she gives the slightest indication (hardly required) at 2 minutes 35 seconds that Todd is leading the next chorus.

By the time when I videoed them playing the tune in Royal Street, New Orleans, three years later, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUICxSTjzPc), they had very slightly tweaked the arrangement, with minor alterations to the structures and playing of the breaks, for example. Have fun spotting the differences. They had added a Coda too.

Obviously, to get all that right, from memory, the members of the band have to put in plenty of hard work in the woodshed. Their dedication is an example to us all.

16 October 2017


Milton Ager, who lived from 1893 until 1979, was an important composer in the history of our music. He wrote dozens of well-known songs. Our bands still play Ain't She Sweet, I'm Nobody's Baby, Hard-Hearted Hannah, I Wonder What's Become of Sally, Big Bad Bill, and Happy Days are Here Again, to give just a few examples.

However, today I would like to highlight another of his tunes - Glad Rag Doll.
In its Chorus, Glad Rag Doll has a conventional Middle Eight, which offers a really good demonstration of the effectiveness of the 'Circle of Fifths'.

To begin with, the Middle Eight's first chord is III7 (for example E7th in the key of C). This happens in the Middle Eight of dozens of our tunes.

And over the eight bars, we find two bars on each of the 'Circle of Fifth' chords as we head towards the usual V7th.

To make clear what I am trying to explain, the result (in the key of C) is:

E7 | E7 | A7 | A7 | D7 | D7 | G7 | G7

How does it sound? Surprisingly effective, in this and a huge number of other tunes our bands play.

If you listen to this early Ted Lewis recording (CLICK ON HERE), you can sample the Middle Eight between 39 seconds and 52 seconds (where it is led by the trombone) and between 1 minute 40 seconds and 1 minute 51 seconds (with vocalist) and finally between 2 minutes 29 seconds and 2 minutes 41 seconds (led by the clarinet).

13 October 2017


I watched and listened to two well-filmed YouTube performances by traditional jazz bands. While doing so, I jotted down my thoughts. They were:

Band A
Opaque sound, bottom-heavy; bland interpretation; succession of tedious 32-bar solo choruses; lethargic; tempo dragging; textures blurred; musicians looking bored; two players chatting to each other during another's solo chorus; not much sense of teamwork; lack of variety in the dynamics; clichés; signs of strain in the playing.

Band B
Plenty of drive; bustling energy, even in supporting teamwork; clear textures; well-judged tempo; meticulous attention to detail; delicacy of shading; superb ensembles and attack; varied dynamics.

There is such a wide range in the quality of traditional jazz to be seen on YouTube!

Which two bands were these? It would be invidious to name them. But I can tell you the first was a well-known elderly English band filmed at an English jazz club. The other was a band directed by a young lady on cornet, filmed in a New Orleans street.

10 October 2017


It struck me recently that a very good tune to play is Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis. Why?

First, it is a good melody but is rarely heard these days. With or without a vocal, it is a great tune to include in a programme.

Next, if you examine its structure - particularly the chord progression - you will find it is very simple, and therefore a good one for learners to master. And it trains you in so much that will be the basis for more difficult tunes as you progress in your studies.

For example, it is a 32-bar tune, with an AABA structure. You will discover that about 80% of all the traditional jazz tunes we play are based on such a structure.

The Middle Eight uses the chord progression:
III7  -  III7 - VI7  - VI7 - II7  - II7  - V7  - V7.

It is essential to become fluent in improvising over this progression because dozens of our tunes use it for the Middle Eight (sometimes with very slight variations).

The 'A' sections also use essential, basic chord progressions, all beginning with three bars on the tonic chord (I).

So beginners would do very well to practise improvising over this tune. It is an archetype for so much of the music you will have to learn to play in a traditional jazz band. If you can succeed with this tune, you are launched on your career as a jazzman.

I was surprised to discover that this song is well over 100 years old. It was composed in 1904. The music is by Kerry Mills, who also contributed such tunes as At a Georgia Camp Meeting, Whistling Rufus and Redwing to the repertoire that our bands still play. The words are by Andrew Sterling, who collaborated with several well-known composers over a number of years. (He also wrote the words for Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie, for example.)

In original performance, it had seven narrative verses (interesting in the context of their time), each followed by the Chorus. But generally it's best these days to forget the verses and work with the very fine Chorus. Here's my attempt to write it out. I hope this helps someone. By the way, it was originally composed - like several of the tunes we play - in waltz time (3/4) but it works very well as a typical jazz number in 4/4.

Finally, here, as a matter of interest, is how the beginning of the first verse looks in the original sheet music: