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3 March 2015

Traditional Jazz Song Lyrics: Taste and 'Political Correctness'

If you are reading this, the chances are that you enjoy the jazz band music from the 1920s and 1930s, and you are happy when you hear a band of today playing it just as it might have sounded then.

But the words of the songs are a different matter. Not only have tastes changed; we also have to be careful these days about 'political correctness'.

A century ago, it was commonplace for certain words which are now considered racist to appear in the lyrics and even in the titles of popular songs that were adopted by jazz bands. But in the Twenty-First Century, singers have to beware before using such words. Almost invariably, if they want to sing the song, they have to edit the lyrics and tone things down.

Then there were dozens of songs that entertained and amused by including sexual innuendoes. My guess is that about a quarter of the blues recorded by such singers as Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Lucille Bogan, Barrel House Annie, Victoria Spivey, Ma Rainey, and Hattie Hart contain double entendres - sexually symbolic metaphors - so that a song ostensibly about an everyday event can be interpreted by the audience as a commentary on sexual activities. Perhaps the most famous of them is Kitchen Man; but there are dozens like it.

I think tastes in humour have become a little more sophisticated since then. Yes, audiences do still listen to and enjoy such songs, and they may smile or laugh; but they no longer think this kind of humour is really all that funny. It's a sniggering schoolboy kind of humour. In a few cases, some of the lines are fairly crude; and I have noticed that today's singers often omit these or replace them with some that are relatively innocuous.

In addition to the 'sexual innuendo' songs, there's another group of songs that raise the question 'Should they be censored?'. Songs about drugs - marijuana in particular - were commonplace at one time. They have such good tunes that we still want to play them. So what can we do? We adapt them. Marijuana - with its words toned down - became Lotus Blossom. Viper Mad - again with slightly different words - became Pleasure Mad. Willie the Weeper and When I Get Low I Get High are such romping numbers that nobody minds the words.

There are also songs that tell about life as it really was for the downtrodden and impoverished, especially during the Great Depression.
What about a song in which a prostitute tells you how she has fallen on hard times: in a whole day of searching, she can't find any customers and so can't make any money. Would you want to censor such a song today? Would it be 'politically correct' to sing it?

I think the answer is that if it's a good song and well performed, we still want to hear it. I'm thinking, of course, of Tricks Ain't Walkin' No More - a song many of us have met for the first time in the last few years - performed by one of our favourite singers with one of our favourite bands.

For a look at the music of  Tricks Ain't Walkin' No MoreCLICK HERE.

Roots of Traditional Jazz: Frank Stokes

FRANK STOKES (1888 - 1955) from Tennessee started out as a part-time blacksmith, part-time Memphis busker. He was a fine guitarist, one of the founders of the Memphis style.
Frank Stokes
He formed a musical partnership with guitarist Dan Sane and they did much busking and gigging around Memphis, just like several of the young groups in New Orleans today. They were also in various little bands - mainly The Beale Street Sheiks. Between 1927 and 1929, they were recorded by both Paramount and Victor.

Stokes left a legacy of almost 40 recorded songs. Some of them were probably composed by himself, in collaboration with Dan Sane. They included 'Taint Nobody's Business If I DoMr. Crump Don't Like ItWhat's The Matter Blues, How Long, Mistreatin' Blues and Chicken You Can Roost Behind The Moon. This last number has been delightfully revived by The Hokum High Rollers:
CLICK HERE TO VIEW.
Plenty of recordings by Frank Stokes and The Beale Street Sheiks are available on YouTube. For example, you can hear Stokes and Sane performing How Long
by clicking here.

2 March 2015

Appreciating 'Good' Traditional Jazz



I received this message from a reader.

Hi Ivan,

You have strong opinions about what is good traditional jazz and what is bad. I know nothing about music. I can't read music. I never learnt to play an instrument. Can you please explain to me what makes some jazz performances better than others?

Wow! That's a tough question.

So let me say right from the start that appreciating any kind of art is a very personal matter. What pleases me may not please you. And that is just how it should be. So I will try to answer the question but I shall not mind at all if you tell me I am writing rubbish!

Knowing about music

First, I don't think it's essential to know a lot about music in order to be stirred by traditional jazz or to feel the excitement that it generates. But it does add a little to the intellectual side of appreciation. For example, if you are listening to a piece made up of several different sections (e.g. Buddy's Habit or Climax Rag), it is satisfying to understand which point in the music the band has reached and to be aware when it modulates into a different key. It also makes it a little more interesting if you know something about the chord progression, no matter what tune the band is playing. In other words, you may appreciate it just a little more if you know about the 'grammar' of the music.



But with or without such knowledge, I think it's possible to distinguish between really well played traditional jazz and the not so good.

Preparing and Rehearsing

I think some bands over-rehearse. Things become too arranged and formalized. Much of the freedom and looseness that are features of the best traditional jazz is lost if the players have to concentrate too hard on their 'part' in the 'arrangement'. There is stiffness in the playing of some bands using this approach, especially if they become over-reliant on printed music on stands in front of them.

At the opposite extreme, it is common enough for good traditional jazz to be played without any rehearsal or preparation. Bring together the right mix of experienced players and a fine concert can occur.

But in general I think the best traditional jazz is produced by bands who rehearse at least occasionally, mainly to discuss their music and clarify their approaches to their repertoire. They should tidy up the trickier moments, ensure they are all using the same tune structure and chord progression and they should agree on any special tune endings. The little bit of extra work put in like that can be appreciated and pays off in a better public performance.

Amplification

In general, I think traditional jazz is likely to sound better if played without amplification. (So much 'music' in the last fifty years has been made hard to bear - for me, anyway - by the use of electronic devices and massive amplification.) It is so pleasant to hear musicians in a room with good acoustics and no amplification. You appreciate the sounds of all the instruments in their natural glory. Performances in Preservation Hall (or in London's Wigmore Hall) testify to the truth of this.

But I accept that bands - in special circumstances - sometimes need amplification. In these cases, it is best if it can be kept to a minimum, for example one microphone for use by the vocalist.

Melody and Soul

Most tunes in our repertoire have stood the test of a very long time. So a good band performance must respect a good melody. There is soul in these old tunes and a good performance finds and expresses that soul. We should hear the melody clearly - maybe decorated and caressed; but it should always be there at the heart of the music. As the late great Chris Blount (clarinet) once said to me, 'If there's no soul, it's just a load of notes.'

Tempo

A good traditional jazz band sets a tempo which is appropriate to the tune and its chosen interpretation; and keeps to that tempo - other than for special effects.

It's bad traditional jazz when a tune drags. (I have noticed this quite a lot in YouTube videos.) It can happen either because the tune is started too slowly or because the band slows down during the performance or because of labouring from the rhythm section - especially the drummer. (I don't know why, but On The Sunny Side of the Street is an example of a tune that is particularly prone to labouring!)

Collective Improvisation

When - in ensemble choruses - one instrument (usually the trumpet) is stating the melody, there should be wonderful creative support from the other 'front line' instruments (normally the clarinet and trombone). Teamwork is the key to great traditional jazz. If teamwork is good, the performance is more likely to impress. The support will use syncopation and counterpoint. It will be decorative and yet also - by finding the best phrases and harmonies - will push the tune along. You will feel that all three front-line players are listening and responding to each other's ideas and statements. Among today's top players, Barnabus Jones and Haruka Kickuchi (trombones) and James Evans and Jonathan Doyle (reeds) are examples of musicians to watch if you want to see this done supremely well.

Jazzy Devices

This is really an aspect of improvising. But it is important enough to deserve separate mention. A good performance (certainly an exciting one) usually requires a generous dose of those devices that make jazz - especially traditional jazz - so distinctive. Notes bluesily bent or flattened (in the right places), glissandi, breaks, syncopation, the use of 6ths and 9ths where they take us by surprise - all these elements enrich the performance. Without this 'jazziness' you may be left with some very pretty music for dancing but it will lack the spirit of early New Orleans jazz.

Rhythm Section

First, as my friend Barrie said to me, the expression 'rhythm section' is relatively modern and misleading. The whole band should think of itself as the rhythm section. But these days when leaders refer to their rhythm section, they mean the part of the band likely to consist of two or three or four players selected from percussion, banjo, guitar, piano, bass [string or brass]. In a good performance, these players will, as the saying goes, 'sound like one man'. They too must listen carefully to each other and to the front line. At least for the brighter and quicker tunes, most of the time they are playing in unison a pulsating but not too loud four-to-the-bar poom-poom-poom-poom (not um-CHUCK-um-CHUCK). This pumps the front line along and sets the audience's feet tapping. A good drummer drives the band without being loud or exhibitionist and a good pianist subjects his skills (in ensembles) to the need for a steady rhythmic and chordal underpinning of the music.

Solo Choruses

In performance, most bands include a sequence of 'solo' choruses (normally 32 bars, or even 64 bars) by several of the players in every tune. Often these solos have nothing much of interest to say (they are what Chris Blount would have called 'just a load of notes'), though, if the band has a very good pianist, they give him a rare opportunity to show what he can do. Often solo-takers try to play something stretching to the full their technical skills - showing how clever they are. I suppose this is fair enough if they are technically brilliant. Festival audiences can be counted on to applaud this sort of thing. But my view is that flashy and often raucous solo choruses are not an essential part of good traditional jazz.

Fortunately, in solo choruses a few players are technically brilliant and highly creative at the same time (James Evans again is a good example).

On the whole, though, I don't enjoy a performance padded out with numerous dull solo choruses in which the players have nothing but a string of clichés to offer. I prefer the more creative, unpredictable kind of playing (as best exemplified in the performances of Tuba Skinny) where one player takes the lead for a short time (perhaps 16 bars) but usually other players provide decorative accompaniment to this kind of 'soloing' (another example of good teamwork). Such playing gives the audiences constant delightful surprises.

Sometimes a rather special chorus contributes to a pleasing performance. For example, a band may try a 'front-line-only' chorus and even better a full-band quiet chorus (just tickling the notes) before turning up the volume for the end of the tune.

Ending the Tune

I like a tune to end well, either crisply or with a neat rehearsed coda. I think messy endings are bad.

Band Demeanour

I like all members of the band to take the music seriously. I do not like it when there is much talk between players during the performance of a tune. (Guffaws at each other's private 'jokes' are even worse.) Discreet hand signals for directing the music should be enough.

Listening Test

I will end by giving this tip to my enquirer - and to anybody else like him. When you next listen to a traditional jazz recording, try focussing your ear on just the bass player. If it's a good band, you will be amazed at the precision and importance of his or her contribution.

Now try focussing on just the clarinet. Listen carefully to the notes he or she is playing. How well and how cleverly do they blend into the overall sound?

Try listening intently to the drummer or indeed any of the instruments and you may be surprised at how much your appreciation of what the individuals do (or fail to do) helps you to sort out performances that are really 'good'.
-----------------------
............and now you're free to disagree with everything I've said!

1 March 2015

Traditional Jazz: Easy Tunes for Beginners

I recommend Ice Man as the first tune you master. It's only eight bars long and uses just two chords - the tonic and dominant 7th. You can pick it up from the YouTube performance by Tuba Skinny.

Very similar is Old-Time Religion. It's essentially just eight bars - six of them on the tonic and the other two on the dominant 7th.

For your first experience of a tune in a minor key, may I recommend Crumpled Papers? It's a very simple 12-bar (though not a blues). It is best played in D minor and you will probably get away with just two chords - D minor and A7th. You could pick it up by clicking on  THIS VIDEO.

I recommend Eh La Bas and Mama Inez for playing even by a novice jazz band. Eh La Bas has a simple melody and is also entirely based on the two most familiar chords (tonic and dominant 7th). Mama Inez  has a very simple chord pattern (using only three chords) and is fun to play. Let me also offer you Creole Song, Gatemouth, Jambalaya (On the Bayou) and Rum and Coca-Cola. That gives you quite a few easy tunes to learn and try out.

Creole Song consists of just 16 bars, divided into two 8s. The two little melodies are simple, catchy and repetitive. Play it in the key F and all you will need are two chords: F and C7th. Don't confuse this with Creole Love Call or Creole Love Song. I am talking about the tune you can find on YouTube played by Kid Ory and his Creole Jazz Band. The song Salee Dame is almost identical: perhaps they were originally the same tune.

Basically, the chord pattern is simply:-
  F  |  C7 | C7 |  F, repeated over and over.

Gatemouth was I think written by Louis Armstrong’s wife, Lil Hardin, and made famous by the clarinetist Johnny Dodds. It also has just two simple, repetitive sections, in this case 16 bars each. You can pick it up by watching the performance on YouTube of Gatemouth by the Peruna Jazzmen of 1988. The main theme (used for the improvisations) requires little more than the chords of Bb7 and Eb, though with the final four-bar sequence:
 Ab :Abm / Bb : C7 / F7: Bb7 / Eb. This is a sequence you must learn, as it comes at the end of dozens of tunes, so it is worth the trouble.

Jambalaya is great fun to play and SO simple. Play it in Bb and all you need is to keep repeating the sequence:  Bb  /  Bb  /  F7  /  F7  /  F7  /  F7  /  Bb  /  Bb.

If you need reminding of the tune, try the YouTube performances by the Carpenters and by the Tierra Buena Jazz Band.

Rum and Coca-Cola is just as simple. Play it in the key of C and all you need is to keep repeating:

 C  /  C  /  C  / G7  /  G7  /  G7  /  G7 /  C  .

This calypso-style tune was composed about 70 years ago by the Trinidadian Lionel Belasco. In the last few decades, trad jazz bands have adopted it with much success.

28 February 2015

Playing Traditional Jazz: Jenavieve Cook


A remarkable phenomenon to emerge on the New Orleans scene since mid-2014 has been Jenavieve Cook and The Royal Street Windin' Boys. This is yet another formidable young busking band - and like Tuba Skinny and The Shotgun Jazz Band it is led by a lady trumpet-player.

I have to thank the generous video-maker RaoulDuke504 (YouTube codename) for bringing this band to my attention. He has put up several videos of their performances. May I recommend these?

That's a PlentyCLICK HERE.

and

Struttin' With Some BarbecueCLICK HERE.

In the latter, Jenavieve is joined by that fine trumpeter Jack Pritchett and also by the dancer Chance Bushman.

Jenavieve is no mean singer either. Try this version of When I Get Low, I Get High:

At present, I know almost nothing about this band. I look forward to learning more if information becomes available. Meanwhile all I have discovered from the internet is that Jenavieve's full name appears to be Jenavieve Cook Kachmarik. And I have been told by correspondents that The Windin' Boys seem to be a 'constantly changing cast' and that the soprano sax player in That's a Plenty is Jimbino Vegan, and that Joseph Faison is the banjo/guitar player in the videos featuring Jack Pritchett. Another correspondent has told me one of the bass players is Dizzy Zomzom and that Chris Johnson sometimes plays clarinet.

Also, you can hear some decently-recorded Soundcloud tracks of Jenavieve and her colleagues if you go to:  https://soundcloud.com/jenavieve-1

'Jackson Stomp': A Tune of ELEVEN Bars

Here's something surprising - a tune comprising ELEVEN bars (measures).

I am acquainted with perhaps a thousand tunes played by traditional jazz bands, but virtually all the tunes contain multiples of four bars. Most common are the 12-bar blues and 32-bar standards.

In all those hundreds of tunes, the only one made up of eleven bars is Jackson Stomp
Yes. Jackson Stomp really has eleven bars. When I first noticed this, I could not believe my ears. Had I miscounted? I checked and re-checked.

It felt like a 12-bar blues but sure enough it really was complete after 11 bars.

I found out that it originated with Cow Cow Blues, written and recorded in 1928 by Cow Cow Davenport. You can hear this on You Tube. In this form, it was a standard 12-bar, played in boogie woogie style.

But the tune was taken up by Charles McCoy ('Papa Charlie'), who lived from 1909 to 1950. He slightly adapted it into Jackson Stomp and recorded it with his colleague Bo Carter in The Mississippi Mud Steppers. It was at this point that it became the tune of eleven bars.
They also recorded it again (this time eleven bars with lyrics) as  The Lonesome Train That Carried My Girl Away.

Now how is it possible for an 11-bar tune to sound right? What is the trick?

I'm not sure that I have the answer, but let me try.

Taking the chords of a 12-bar as (at their most basic):

I   I   I   I   IV   IV   I   I   V   V   I   I

we find that Jackson Stomp IS essentially a 12-bar, but with the clever twist of omitting Bar 9. 

I   I   I   I   IV   IV   I   I   V   I   I

To hear Jackson Stomp pleasantly played by a modern Jug Band, try this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76OP2FVRvt0

or watch the great Tuba Skinny play it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGuLZfMqIoc

Tuba Skinny play it in Bb. (That means C for the Bb trumpet.) I worked it out for inclusion in my mini-filofax for my trumpet and now I have a go at playing it from time to time.