26 October 2016

Minor Verse; Major Chorus

With thousands of tunes available in the traditional jazz repertoire, there are bound to be many that musicians never learn or get to play. However, I am sure we all keep striving to learn new ones - especially those we have been intending to pick up for months.

That's why I set about learning I'm Coming, Virginia today. It was a tune composed in 1927 by Donald Heywood and Will Marion Cook. I first enjoyed it on a Jack Teagarden recording decades ago. And of course the Bix Beiderbecke version is a classic.

I wanted the full song - Verse included. So I found the 'dots' on Lasse Collin's wonderful site (many thanks, Lasse!) and I entered them into my mini filofax system.
But what was this? The verse was in a minor key but the Chorus was in the major.

This made me wonder how often this switch from minor to major occurs in the popular old songs.

I guess there must be many whose verses in minor keys have been long forgotten and only the Chorus is now played.

I think I'm right in saying that At The Jazz Band Ball, That Da Da Strain, She's Crying For Me and Willie The Weeper all start with a minor theme and then have a second theme in the related major key.

Cole Porter worked wonders with the minor-major effect in I Love Paris, where the first sixteen bars offer a lovely melody in a minor key and the second sixteen - like a flower suddenly blossoming - use virtually the same melody an octave higher but now in the major key.

Cole Porter plays a similar trick in My Heart Belongs to Daddy, which is essentially in a minor key, though there is a 'blossoming out' into the major in the second half of the Chorus, before the tune settles back on the minor in its final bar.

There are tunes such as I'm The King of the Swingers, where we begin in the minor (I'm the King of the Swingers, the Jungle VIP.....) and then switch to the related major key (Oh oobee do, I wanna be like you.....) for the second half of the Chorus.

But I am stumped in trying to think of other interesting examples, especially of tunes with a Minor Verse leading into a Major Chorus.

Maybe you can help me? If so, please kindly email details. I'm:
ivantrad (@) outlook (dot) com

23 October 2016

The Extra Crispy Brass Band

I discovered The Extra Crispy Brass Band during explorations on YouTube recently. I had not previously come across this group.
I enjoyed what I heard. And a good thing about this band is that its members are relatively young.

I have since found out - easily enough from the internet - that the band was formed in 2011 and is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That's more than 1000 miles north of New Orleans; or, to put it another way, it's on the west shore of Lake Michigan, about 90 miles north of Chicago.

The Extra Crispy Brass Band aims to play in the tradition of such New Orleans brass bands as The Dirty Dozen and The Olympia. Indeed, the band was founded and is led by trombonist Gregory Cramer, who used to live in New Orleans.

As is common practice with brass bands, there are no chord players (banjo or guitar) but they double up with two trumpets, two trombones and have at least one saxophone. The percussion (two players) is the essential department. Such bands of course usually have as their basis great rhythms laid down by the drummers and sousaphone, generating pulsating riffy excitement. This band certainly works that way.

For a well-made video to give you some idea of their appearance and sound, CLICK HERE - where they are playing Royal Garden Blues.

Or CLICK HERE for sounds even more typical of the street parade bands.

20 October 2016

Sit or Stand?

Should musicians be seated while playing traditional jazz? My answer is YES.

Obviously there are circumstances where musicians have no choice. If you play in a street parade, for example, you have to be on your feet. And some string bass players and sousaphone players claim to be more comfortable standing up. That's fair enough; though even some of them can and do sometimes benefit from using a chair or perching on a stool.

I have heard it said that trombonists need to play standing up to give 'freedom to their lungs'. I do not accept this argument. Classical orchestral trombonists - who are almost invariably seated - have no difficulty in producing a triple forte when required. And our best young trombonists today (such as Barnabus Jones) happily play sitting down.

As a general principle, I believe our musicians should be seated whenever possible. Why? Because you need to be comfortable and relaxed to contribute well in a traditional jazz ensemble. You are less likely to over-blow and more likely to listen carefully to your colleagues. The teamwork will be better.

I have written before about the layout of bands and recommended that the formation should be a semi-circle or arc rather than a 'front line' with other musicians behind it. Combine this with having everyone seated and you have the perfect formula for good teamwork and communication.

Perfect for relaxed playing
and good communication within the band.

But when we see a trumpet and trombone at the front of a stage, the instruments pointing directly over the heads of the audience, there is something inherently exhibitionist and aloof in the very posture. Unless the musicians are specially careful, it encourages playing that is too loud and it diverts their attention from where it should be - on how the band as a whole is sounding.
That's the way to do it!

Look at photos of the great bands from the early days of our music. Clearly, they enjoyed being well supplied with chairs.

The evolution of the standing, pretentious 'front line' seems to have occurred later.

I am pleased to note that in recent years, even though the fashion for standing up still persists in many (mostly long-established) bands, the younger generation of fine traditional jazz musicians generally adopts a comfortable and relaxed seated posture and a formation that enables them to put teamwork first.
When you are eighty years old, I can tell you playing a two-hour gig standing up is very tiring. That's another overwhelming reason for being seated!

17 October 2016

Playing 'Requests'

It often happens - especially at less formal gigs - that bands receive requests from the audience to play particular tunes.

Should the band play requests or not?

I have come across bands who have a fixed playlist to which they adhere rigidly, refusing to take any requests. On the whole, I think this is a pity. However, I can appreciate that the musicians in such cases want to sound as competent as possible and want to be heard at their best, especially if they have a well-prepared, well-rehearsed programme.

Sometimes a band receives a request that seems crazy in the circumstances. For example, a trio comprising clarinet, guitar and string bass is asked to play South Rampart Street Parade - a number that requires a big band and, ideally, at least one powerful trombonist. Or you have a request to play Stranger on the Shore (a clarinet feature) at a time when there is no clarinetist in the line-up. The person making the request is thinking of the pleasure he derived from recordings and is unable to grasp the limitations of the instruments in front of him.

Surprisingly, I have seen some musicians attempt to oblige even when 'asked for the impossible' in this way; but the result is more often than not disappointing. So it is better to deflect such requests and explain why they are impractical.

An irritating experience that I'm sure many musicians will recognize is this: someone comes up to you and requests a tune; you agree and start playing it for him. Then you notice that he has wandered off into the distance and is in animated conversation with somebody, neither of them bothering to listen. What is the point of such requests? I have no idea. Maybe such people simply wish to show off to their friends that they actually know the name of at least one tune!

I have been present on occasions when a band has been requested to play a tune that is obviously not in its repertoire. Two or three of the musicians say they vaguely know it and the band agrees to 'give it a go'. The result has usually been messy and it would have been better if the band had simply declined the request. I accept that audiences seem to admire these brave attempts but on the whole I do not think it is good for a band in public performance to be seen struggling.

The tunes most often requested (in my experience) are When The Saints Go Marching In, Sweet Georgia Brown, Stranger on the Shore, Twelfth Street Rag and Tiger Rag. All bands can play these very readily - they have had to do so hundreds of times. Some musicians groan when they are asked to play When The Saints yet again; but it is their job to please the public, so their best tactic is to blot out memories of all previous performances and do their best to play the tune in a fresh and appealing manner.

On the whole, I think bands have to put the customer first and should welcome requests. But they should also be prepared to say a polite 'No' rather than risk making fools of themselves.