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2 August 2015

Playing Traditional Jazz: 'In The Upper Garden'

(Written 2014. Updated July 2015)
It's confusing but there are two lovely gospel numbers entitled In the Garden and In the Upper Garden and they are both played by traditional jazz bands. As far as I can tell - and by a strange coincidence - they were both composed in about 1912 by Charles Austin Miles.

My friends and I decided to add one of them to our repertoire. It is the one known as In The Upper Garden. Charles Austin Miles was born New Jersey in 1868; he died in 1946. After a short career as a pharmacist, Charles became a full-time composer and music-publisher, specialising in 'gospel' songs, of which he wrote several dozens.

The Verse begins with the words Just beyond the River Jordan and the Chorus with We shall meet them some bright morning.

Having listened to it on YouTube, I decided it went like this. I put it in F:
For Bb instruments such as mine, it transposes into G:
And (better still) I'm very grateful to Ron Flack in Australia who, since reading the above, has sent me his transcription (for Bb instrument, but with concert chords) of the George Lewis version:
And more recently still, Brian Hutchinson - also in Australia - kindly sent me photocopies of the sheet music.
In The Upper Garden has to be played at a slow tempo, with much caressing of the simple harmonies.

As for the other In The Garden hymn, it is beautiful too and is written in 3/4 time. This is indeed the time signature in which even jazz bands usually play it. But that may be a subject for another day. It begins with the words:
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

31 July 2015

Traditional Jazz: Meeting The Shotgun Jazz Band

The Shotgun Jazz Band

Ever since I was overwhelmed by the YouTube video of them playing at The Abita Springs Opry, The Shotgun Jazz Band has been one of my favourite groups of musicians. You can watch that video BY CLICKING HERE. They play a thrilling, raw, no-frills type of traditional jazz. Under the influence of their dynamic leader - Marla Dixon - they are a direct descendant from the bands of Kid Thomas, De De Pierce, Kid Sheik and Kid Howard. Marla learned her jazz by listening to the records of those great trumpet players.

Marla comes from Toronto, where she was also heavily influenced by 'Kid' Cliff Bastien (she met him shortly before he died) and by Patrick Tevlin (who kept The Happy Pals band going after Bastien's death and was instrumental in including a lot of younger talented players and introducing them to traditional jazz).

During my visit to New Orleans in April 2015, I managed to attend three concerts by The Shotgun Jazz Band and I enjoyed the great privilege of spending some time chatting with them, especially Marla and John Dixon. They were so friendly, generous, kind and willing to talk about their music. 
The day I got to meet John Dixon
- one of the great musicians working in New Orleans.
Marla started her working life as a graphic designer. Her husband John (originally from Florida) lived and worked with Marla in Toronto in 2008 before they decided to re-locate to New Orleans.

John had started his musical life by having piano lessons at the age of ten. But in his teenage years he took up the alto saxophone and joined various reading bands - both symphonic and jazz. The music of Duke Ellington was the kind of thing they played. John went on to learning Charlie Parker transcriptions. But his progress was brought to an abrupt end (the kind all musicians dread) by a serious accident and massive dental damage. 

It was not until many years later that he was able to try playing the sax again - but he modestly says he's nowhere near good enough to play it in a traditional jazz band.

So at the time of going to college, he abandoned the saxophone and switched to guitar (mainly electric) and he was soon playing bass guitar in a rock band. After college he formed a country band. John told me he didn't touch a banjo until he met Marla, who bought him his first one while he was staying with her in Toronto. He played it on a gig at Grossman's Tavern with Marla's dixieland band - The Don Valley Stompers - and has been hooked ever since. John specialises in a distinctive rock-steady pulsating rhythm, striking all four beats evenly. It's my favourite type of New Orleans rhythm-section playing and it possibly owes something to George Guesnon (1907 - 1968) whose recordings were an inspiration to John.

Over breakfast in my hotel, a gentleman said that in her trumpet playing Marla lacks the technique of the virtuoso trumpet players he had heard showing off in the nearby streets, where they produced torrents of high-pitched notes. I told him that such a comment completely misunderstands what Marla sets out to do. Having observed her closely, I can assure you Marla's technique is very good indeed. In fact it is perfect for the kind of jazz The Shotgun Jazz Band plays. Not only does she find just the right notes (often using sixths, ninths and flattened thirds to add to the excitement); she is a model in timing, phrasing, attack and sheer driving energy. She is also an expert in getting the most thrilling effects from a mute - especially her aluminium derby mute. I asked whether she inherited that mute from Kid Bastien; but in fact she did not. The Dixons think Bastien's similar mute is now being used by Patrick Tevlin back in Toronto.

As if that isn't enough, Marla knows by heart the words of dozens of songs, without any need to refer to sheets of paper. And she sings with a raw passion and heart-on-sleeve intensity that exactly matches her trumpet playing. And she can play the sousaphone - as she often did in the past.

It is interesting to trace the evolution of the great Shotgun Jazz Band. It seems the seeds were not sown until after John and Marla decided to leave Toronto and try their luck in New Orleans. There, they played as a duet for tips in the streets (mainly at The French Market). They were occasionally joined by a like-minded musician or two. The Dixons happened to arrive in New Orleans at just the right time. There was an amazing resurgence of interest in traditional jazz, with many fine young musicians migrating to that City. John thinks it was significant that dancers arrived too - especially such brilliant dancers as Amy Johnson and Chance Bushman. John told me: 'What followed were more dancers, and with more dancers, more musicians. It was coincidental that Marla and I happened to move here at the same time as this resurgence of interest in traditional jazz. We really had no idea what was going on until we were in it.'

Incidentally, the great reed player Aurora Nealand also told me about the importance for jazz musicians in New Orleans of playing for dancing. She thought this did much to explain the special free and relaxed quality of the New Orleans brand of traditional jazz.

By 2011, Marla and John Dixon decided to make a CD, so they hired a couple more players for this purpose and called the resulting band The Shotgun Jazz Band because they were living in a shotgun house. What a great choice of name that was, by the way. It's immediately striking and memorable. Suddenly they were a proper band, attracting gigs. That first CD (called Algiers Strut), with Ben Polcer on piano, happened to include Love Songs of the Nile, I Can't Escape and Oriental Man - all of which are still among the most popular numbers in their repertoire. The second CD (One Drink Minimum) did not appear until March 2013 and was recorded during several performances at The Spotted Cat. By then, the Dixons had a regular booking there. The CD involved twelve different musicians.

Marla and John's band had no settled personnel at the time. Among the musicians who occasionally played in The Shotgun Jazz Band were Christopher Johnson, Michael Magro, Peter Loggins, Orange Kellin, Todd Yannacone, Robert Snow, Benji Bohannon, Tommy Sancton, Aurora Nealand, Jon Gross, Robin Rapuzzi, Barnabus Jones, Craig Flory and several others.

Two more CDs appeared in 2013. And a fifth came out in September 2014. This was Yearning, well recorded at Luthjen's Dance Hall and demonstrating the high quality of playing they had by then achieved. I think it is the CD of which they are the most proud. (You can read my review of it BY CLICKING HERE).

But by then the Band had a reasonably settled line-up and had honed its distinctive sound into the form so many enthusiasts love today.

John pointed out that at Shotgun gigs Marla runs a fairly 'tight ship' and he is proud that their repertoire has become so varied. Of course they play the standards, but, as John says, they also do a lot of 'pop and R&B tunes as well as a few arranged tunes'.

The young Tyler Thomson - one of the world's most exciting players - followed the Dixons to New Orleans from Toronto and joined them on string bass. Tyler's hero was Alcide Pavageau (1888 - 1969); and it shows. It's no surprise that he forms such a great rhythmic engine-room partnership with John Dixon. Justin Peake from Alabama was recruited on drums. His light-touch 4/4 style of playing perfectly complements the strong rhythmic base of the music that Tyler and John provide. Even though Justin has now gone off to college, the Dixons still ask him to play with them whenever he is in town.

The versatile and ubiquitous trombone-player Charlie Halloran from St. Louis played with them a great deal - and still occasionally does. And Haruka Kikuchi - the super young trombonist - moved to New Orleans from Japan at the end of 2013 and has settled perfectly into the band - as if it fulfilled her dreams. That superb musician Ben Polcer (originally from New York), long-time friend of the Dixons and an original member of The Loose Marbles, is very busy on the New Orleans scene; but he still helps out from time to time with The Shotgun Jazz Band, either on piano or - if Marla is unavailable - on trumpet.

Welshman James Evans (reeds) also joined the band at about the same time as Haruka. James told me that when he used to play in the U.K. he would often arrive home from gigs by train in the middle of the night; and that most of his fee would be eaten up by the train fare. He decided to try his luck in New Orleans and his family quickly settled, with his twin children now in school there. He seems to have been snapped up by Marla and John! 'Now,' he said, 'to go to work I have only to walk eight blocks.' As one of the best reed players in the jazz world, James is much in demand and also plays in other New Orleans bands. I could tell that he was a very happy man and really enjoying the fun in working with Marla and John. Just look at him at 3 minutes 26 seconds in this video:-  CLICK HERE.

With such a virtuoso as James on clarinet and sax, and Haruka Kikuchi or Charlie Halloran on trombone, and Tyler Thomson well established on string bass, the Dixons have arrived at a line-up that plays gutsy traditional jazz of the most exciting kind. They have rapidly risen to be very special and one of the most entertaining traditional jazz bands in the world.
What a souvenir of my April 2015 visit!
It was a great thrill for me to meet
the dynamic Marla Dixon.
While in town, I spent an evening at The Maison, because The Shotgun Jazz Band was playing there. Someone in the audience asked Marla to play Lady Be Good. I hoped Marla would refuse. I had always thought that tune repetitive and not offering a band much to work on. However, Marla obliged and The Shotgun Jazz Band launched into Lady Be Good. To my amazement, the excitement built up chorus by chorus until it became one of the most sensational performances of a tune that I heard during my entire stay in New Orleans. (It taught me a lesson: I shall no longer have preconceived dislikes of tunes!) After the applause ended, an English band-leader of my acquaintance, who was sitting at a nearby table, came over to me and said, 'If I died right now, I would die a very happy man!' I know exactly what he meant.

'Smoky Mokes'

In my ongoing quest to keep alive some of the good old jazz numbers that are so rarely heard and so hard to obtain, I have worked on Smoky Mokes - a raggy tune with three 16-bar themes and including a key change. It dates from 1898 and was written by Abe Holzmann, though I don't know of any shop where I could buy the sheet music (below) today.
Australian correspondent Brian Hutchinson, who is also interested in the wonderful old tunes, has informed me that - with some internet research - you  can find such help as a YouTube video of a piano player version with a 'bouncing ball' play-along visual cue. And on Classic Banjo UK he found a downloadable arrangement for two banjos and piano. Perhaps best of all in the Duke University Digital Collection he discovered 'for educational purposes' the full original piano sheet music.

So, especially if you are a pianist and you want to learn the tune accurately, I would recommend you check out those sources.

I believe traditional jazz bands 'edited' the original composition - as so often happened with such piano originals. The essence and spirit of the piece were captured; but some of the trickier runs - easy enough on the piano - were simplified for the cornet player.

So it ended up with a lead-sheet something like this, which I have tried on both my keyboard and my cornet. It sounds fine.

Why are Hymns and Spirituals in the Repertoire of Traditional Jazz?

We take it for granted that hymns and spirituals have a place in our repertoires. But they still occasionally take people by surprise. For example, some weeks ago, friends and I were playing in Oakham, a market town in Central England. One of our tunes was The Old Rugged Cross. An elderly gentleman came up afterwards to tell us how much he had enjoyed it. He said he had never realised that a hymn could work well when played by a jazz band.
Marla Dixon, with all-star support, singing 'Over in the Gloryland'

You hardly ever hear a traditional jazz concert in which there is not at least one hymn or spiritual. Also, audiences no longer feel uncomfortable (as English people would have done a hundred years ago) about dancing to such religious music.

Among the most popular titles are:

Down By the Riverside
Does Jesus Care?
Sing On
Does Jesus Care?
On Higher Ground
Over in the Gloryland

Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

Royal Telephone

His Eye is on the  Sparrow
In the Sweet By and By
The Old Rugged Cross
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Take My Hand, Precious Lord
We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City
It is No Secret
The Lily of the Valley
When The Saints Go Marching In

I began to wonder how it came about that such tunes have a place alongside the old pop songs, blues and rags in our repertoire.

It's easy to believe the myth that spirituals were sung in the cotton fields by toiling slaves in the mid-Nineteenth Century and that - when jazz bands came into being - they would have played them and from about 1910 would have 'jazzed them up'.

But I'm not sure it's that simple. I have found no evidence that this happened. For example, can somebody please let me know of any recordings of spirituals or hymns by jazz bands before 1927? I think there's nothing in the early recordings of the ODJB, King Oliver, Kid Ory and so on.

Until somebody does, I prefer the following explanation.

In 1927, Columbia Records twice recorded the great Sam Morgan Band in New Orleans. The recordings were made in the Godchaux Building, 527, Canal Street. Four tunes were recorded on each occasion. The resulting eight recordings are still considered a hugely important part of the history of traditional jazz and have influenced hundreds of bands over the decades.

The legend is that - like other jazz bands - the Sam Morgan Band played mostly for dancing and did not include religious music in its dance hall repertoire. However, one of the recording engineers was very keen on such tunes as Down By The Riverside and suggested that Sam's band should record them.

So the Band included three 'spirituals' in the eight recordings - and the rest is history: if Sam could do it, why not the rest of us?

Apparently trumpet-player Isaiah Morgan (Sam's brother) in a later interview made the point that jazz bands such as theirs might have played hymns and spirituals at funerals but would not have used religious music for dancing.

By 1940, it became commonplace for the most influential traditional jazz musicians to record spirituals. Think of George Lewis, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong.

Quite a few spirituals we play - including some in my list above - were composed not in the days of slavery but in the days when jazz bands were already well established.

Here's a stirring modern example of a spiritual in a jazz band performance. In this video, we see two of the best bands in the world joining together to perform Over in the Gloryland - one of those spirituals made famous in 1927 by Sam Morgan: CLICK HERE.