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4 July 2015

Playing Traditional Jazz: Sam Morgan and His Band

I wrote about Armand Piron's Orchestra. It flourished in New Orleans during the 1920s.

Now it's time to consider a similar band that achieved fame in New Orleans at the same time - the Sam Morgan Band.
That's Sam seated behind the cymbal; with big Jim Robinson and his trombone.
Sam Morgan, born in 1895, was the trumpeter/leader; and his brothers Isaiah (also on trumpet) and Andrew (tenor sax and clarinet) played in his band. On trombone he had the great Jim Robinson, whose fame spread further when he played in bands well after Sam Morgan had died at the age of only 41 (poor Sam suffered a stroke in 1925 and another in 1932). Earle Fouché played clarinet and alto sax. Robinson's cousin Sidney Brown was on bass. Tinke Baptiste and Walter Decou were at various times on piano. Johnny Dave was on banjo. The drummers over the years were Roy Evans and Nolan Williams.

Morgan's Band played not only in New Orleans, but also in other towns, such as Galveston, along the Gulf Coast.

While Piron's Orchestra played sophisticated, genteel jazz, Morgan's style was also very melodic but just a little more gutzy, pulsating and robust. The band took great care with establishing and maintaining the right tempos - notably for dancing.

Today Sam Morgan is best remembered for the eight tunes his band recorded in New Orleans over two sessions in 1927. Three of these were spirituals (Over in the Gloryland, Down By The Riverside and Sing On); but five were composed by Sam himself:
Bogalusa Strut
Everybody's Talking About Sammy
Mobile Stomp
Short Dress Gal
Steppin' On The Gas

Have a listen to Morgan's band playing Mobile Stomp:
And now hear it played by one of today's best jazz bands:
Most traditional jazz bands in the 21st Century not only show influences of the Sam Morgan Band in their playing and musical arrangements but also still have at least a couple of these tunes in their repertoire. And the fact that the Morgan Band recorded the three spirituals seems to have set the precedent that traditional jazz bands must now include spirituals in their programmes. (It is believed the band would never have played spirituals for dances but recorded some only at the request of the recording engineer.) Similarly, the band demonstrated (as in Mobile Stomp) - I think for one of the first times on record - the excitement generated when you play stop-time choruses.

So we all owe a great deal to Sam Morgan.
Sam Morgan's House in New Orleans

3 July 2015

Armand J. Piron, Peter Bocage and Piron's Orchestra

Armand John Piron made an immense contribution to the history of traditional jazz.
Armand Piron (far right) with his famous colleague Peter Bocage (far left)
Piron was born in in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans in 1888. His father was a music teacher and Armand became a fine child violinist. A childhood injury to his hip meant that Armand could not walk easily. Unable to participate in sports, he devoted himself to music. In his teenage years, he established himself as a major musician in several of the early orchestras in the New Orleans area. These included The Silver Leaf Band, The Peerless Orchestra and The Olympia Orchestra. So he played alongside most of the famous names of those early days.

At the age of only 26, he became a partner in a music publishing business with the pianist Clarence Williams. They also performed as a duo.

By the age of 30, Piron had a band (he called it an 'Orchestra') of his own and it flourished in New Orleans between 1918 and 1928. Coming from a Creole background, Piron established a style for his Orchestra that was softer, and more melodic, sophisticated, 'classical' and genteel than that of some other local bands. He used musicians who were good readers. All this was typical of the Creole musicians: they learned to play well and accurately from printed music before turning to jazz.

The Piron Orchestra also played in New York in 1923 and again in 1924, making some of their famous recordings in that city.

Piron died in 1943. But his close colleague and collaborator Peter Bocage (who may be considered his lieutenant in the Orchestra) lived on to play in the early days at Preservation Hall (which was set up as a music venue in 1961). In fact, after Piron gave up leading his orchestra, Bocage had kept it going in re-shaped form for a long time as The Creole Serenaders. Peter lived until 1967. Born in 1887, Peter Bocage, from a well-to-do Creole background (he came from the suburb of Algiers, on the south side of the Mississippi), had mastered the violin and trumpet before he joined Piron, and he had played in various early New Orleans jazz bands alongside such figures as Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Frankie Dusen, Bunk Johnson, Fate Marable and Freddie Keppard. What a pedigree!

You can hear examples of the fine, elegant playing of Piron's  orchestra on YouTube. Try, for example, New Orleans Wiggle, one of the tunes he composed, together with Peter Bocage: CLICK HERE.
But Armand Piron (usually in collaboration with one or two members of his band) also gave us several other interesting pieces of music that have become part of the traditional jazz heritage. Think of:
Bouncing Around
I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate
Mamma's Gone, Goodbye
Kiss Me Sweet
Bright Star Blues
Louisiana Swing
Red Man Blues
Sud Bustin' Blues

Among the musicians who are known to have played in the Piron orchestra over the years were:

Armand J. Piron (violin, leader)
Peter Bocage (cornet, trumpet, violin and other instruments)
Willie Edwards (cornet, trumpet)
John Lindsay (trombone, string bass, tuba)
Lorenzo Tio Jr. (clarinet, tenor saxophone. His family were emigrants from Mexico; and Lorenzo is thought to have been a tutor to many of the great later reed-players, such as Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, Albert Nicholas and Omer Simeon)
Louis Warnecke (clarinet, alto saxophone)
Charles Bocage  (banjo, guitar. Brother of Peter Bocage)
John Marrero (banjo, guitar)
Johnny St. Cyr (banjo, guitar)
Steve Lewis (piano. Very versatile, he was considered one of the finest New Orleans pianists of the time)
Arthur  Campbell (piano)
Bob Ysaguirre (string bass, tuba)
Henry Bocage (string bass, tuba. Cousin of Peter Bocage)
Louis Cottrell Sr. (drums - a percussionist who was a skilful reader of music)
Paul Barbarin (drums)
Cie Frazier (drums)
Bill Matthews (drums)

2 July 2015

How To Play In A Traditional Jazz Band

(Article written in 2013. Updated July 2015.)

You want to play in a traditional jazz band? How do you go about it?

You must start by reaching a reasonable level of technical proficiency on your chosen instrument. If you are a complete beginner, you will need lessons to get you started, mainly to set you up with good habits. I would recommend finding a qualified professional music teacher rather than someone who happens to play traditional jazz. (Players do not often make good teachers.) Make sure you learn about scales, keys, chords and arpeggios and it will help if you learn to read music, at least at a basic level. After that, practice will be your main pursuit.
If you are already a competent musician, it does not follow that you will move easily into traditional jazz. Good piano soloists sometimes find it hard to adapt to their rôle in a band. Teamwork is the key to success in traditional jazz and players of the piano, guitar and banjo have to accept that for most of the time their job is simply to lay down the correct chords, firmly and clearly, rather than display virtuoso skills.

Becoming good enough to perform traditional jazz in public doesn't mean passing lots of exams. But be warned: it can take hundreds of hours of hard work in the woodshed.

You should start early on learning some tunes from the traditional jazz repertoire - easy ones to begin with such as Ice Man (8 bars and only two chords). Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler is a particularly good and easy one as it is fun but uses very few notes and virtually only two alternating chords.

Soon you could try Algiers StrutTin Roof BluesWhen The Saints Go Marching InCareless LoveDown By The Riverside, and Lily of the Valley.

There are plenty of sources of printed music, such as busker's books. But an excellent site you should consult is Lasse Collin's, where there's enough to keep you going for many months:
Develop an understanding of and fluency in different keys. Those most commonly (but by no means exclusively) used in traditional jazz are Bb, Eb and F.

Listen to lots of traditional jazz - especially noting the part played by your chosen instrument - to get a feel for what is required. Use the wonderful resource of YouTube. When you are ready, try playing some tunes with bands on YouTube. That's almost as good as 'sitting in'.

A similar idea is to play along with backing tracks. Some of these are also freely available on YouTube. This will give you a great chance to assess your progress because, if you are confident and not discordant with a backing track, the chances are you will fit in with a jazz band.

Link up with other musicians. Maybe you can form a band in your town, starting with a nucleus as a trio or quartet. Meet regularly in one of your houses to rehearse and expand your repertoire.

How do you find these musicians? Put the word around among all your friends and acquaintances. Chat in the local music shop. Advertise in the local newspaper. See whether anybody in a social group is interested (e.g. in England, the U3A). There may be a regional website on which you can seek (free of charge) other musicians. Here's an example of this sort of thing:


Listen to live traditional jazz bands in the pubs and clubs and talk to the musicians: they are very good sources of information about both learners and established players in the area and may be able to put you in touch with people who could join your group.

For information on which bands are playing where, there is probably a regular publication you can consult. For example, here in England we have the monthly Jazz Guide - available in clubs and from bands and also by post if you pay the very reasonable subscription (payments by PayPal are accepted). You should be able to see a sample page and full information by clicking:

And specifically for the North-West of England, a gentleman called Fred Burnett altruistically runs a website giving full bulletins concerning jazz in his region: click

Begin to practise more challenging and more complex tunes: there are hundreds in the repertoire.

Unless you are a born genius, you will need to learn the standard chords and also practise improvising your way though common chord progressions. In particular, work on the Circle of Fifths and The Sunshine Sequence and the basic 12-bar Blues Sequence as these will be useful in hundreds of jazz tunes. If you don't know what I mean, look at the blog posts in which I have written about them.

Watch Charlie Porter's excellent videos on how to improvise. For an example  CLICK HERE.

When your group is good enough at fifteen or so tunes, start playing gigs! You can give your band a name and offer yourselves for free to a local pub or residential home and get your band officially launched.

Also, when you have built up confidence by playing along with YouTube, ask whether you may sit in for a couple of tunes with an existing band. Many bands are so keen to keep the music alive that they readily give opportunities to anyone who shares that mission.

Make sure you give your telephone number and email address to everyone who may be able to help you in the future - especially bandleaders. It may be worth having some business cards printed.

Bandleaders and agents keep lists of musicians within a radius of seventy miles. You never know when you may receive a call to deputise for a musician who is ill or on holiday.

Eventually you may succeed in obtaining a place in a reputable well-established band. There is a steady turn-over of personnel and a need for new players, especially these days when many elderly musicians are hanging up their trumpets and clarinets.

Most of today's traditional jazz musicians have gone through the stages I have described above, except that in their day they did not have the enormous benefit of YouTube and such sites as Lasse Collin's to help with learning and training. In years gone by, players had to listen to records and later cassettes in order to pick up tunes by ear and learn from the masters. Click on this video to find out how some young Dutch players sounded when they were getting started in 1958. Some of them are still playing today:

New Band for 2015: The Stamford Stompers

(Photo courtesy of Maureen Alexander)
You can hear the recently-formed band The Stamford Stompers playing I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles by clicking here. The band is based in Stamford, Lincolnshire, England. The manager is my friend Derek - the tall clarinet player.
The Stamford Stompers provide street entertainment from time to time in Stamford and nearby towns. Their experience proves that this is a good way of attracting gigs. They receive invitations to play at parties, weddings and local events. Here is the band at a recent gig in Stamford:
Derek has set up a website for the band: Enter it by clicking here.
To hear the band in action during one of its first appearances on the street, click here.
You can watch the band rehearsing by clicking here.