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19 April 2014

'Elephant Stomp': The Mystery Composer

Who composed Elephant Stomp? This has long been one of those intriguing mysteries in the history of traditional jazz.
The composer's name is sometimes given as St. Gery Alferay. More often it appears as St. Gery and Alferay. These names have always been assumed to be pseudonyms.

The tune (two themes of 16 bars each) became popular after Humphrey Lyttelton began featuring it in 1954. At one time, some suspected that Lyttelton himself had composed it.

Adding to the confusion, there seems to have been been at least one other Elephant Stomp (in three themes, and from the 1930s) but this was not the tune Lyttelton played.

Very recently, Dick Baker (I have written before about his great website), with the help of his colleague Erwin Elvers, has published a solution to the mystery. Elvers says that 'Alferay' was a French tenor sax player called Albert Ferreri and that 'St. Gery' was his French colleague, a pianist called Yannick Singery. Apparently, Singery was on piano when Albert Nicholas recorded the tune in Paris in 1953. Maybe that's how Lyttelton picked it up.

Well, all that makes sense; and it's good enough for me.

I think it's a useful tune in the repertoire because it's bouncy, simple to learn and easy to improvise on. My ear tells me it goes like this. There are two sets of 16 bars, both repetitively made up of 8 + 8. And the chord progressions are simple. A band can play it through a couple of times and then stick on either A or B (or both) for solos.

Traditional Jazz Tunes With Identical Chord Progressions

Jazz Cat
Listening to Tuba Skinny performing Vine Street Drag (also known as Lonesome Drag), in
this video (click on to watch),
I noticed that the chord progression sounds remarkably similar (possibly identical) to that of I'm Looking for the Bully of the Town recorded in 1927 by The Memphis Jug Band. You can hear The Memphis Jug Band performance
by clicking here.
Similarly, if you listen to Tuba Skinny performing the eight-bar tune Big Boat, you may agree with me that it has the same chord structure as the first eight bars of Lonesome Road:
I wonder how many hundreds of cases there are (in addition to the obvious examples of 12-bar blues) where this occurs.

There are dozens of 32-bar tunes based on the same chord progression as Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home. Similarly, there are several using the same chords as When the Saints Go Marching In.

A less known example of a parallel is the 32-bar Please Don't Talk About Me, for which you can use exactly the same chord progression as for Has Anybody Seen My Girl? (also known as Five Foot Two).

And I'm fairly sure you can play Livin' in a Great Big Way and Christopher Columbus to the very same chord structure as I Got Rhythm.

Bei Mir Bist Du Schön seems to me to use the same chord progression as When I Get Low I Get High.

And my friend Ralph Hunt, the banjo player, tells me that Pennies from Heaven has exactly the same chord structure as I Can't Give You Anything But Love, apart from just one chord, which is a 7th in one tune and a minor in the other - hardly a significant difference.

My Josephine (first recorded by Papa Oscar Celestin's Tuxedo Band in 1926) is virtually identical to Some of These Days (composed by Shelton Brooks in 1910) - not only in chord structure but even in its melody. My theory is that someone (Celestin himself, perhaps) wrote a lyric dedicated to Josephine - a fan of his band - and set it to the music of Some of These Days, with only the the most negligible of modifications to the tune and chord structure.

I also think that the two spirituals Precious Lord, Take my Hand and When I Move to the Sky, if played in the same key, would be found to have the same chord progression.

I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate seems to me to have the same chord sequence as Southern Shout and the Chorus of Heebie Jeebies and of Dallas Rag. But the alternating of dominant and tonic chords is a very familiar ploy in dozens of tunes.

The chord sequences for CoquetteYes, Sir, That's My Baby and I Want to Be Happy all seem pretty much the same to me.

Rip 'Em Up Joe is an example of a 16-bar tune that seems to have a familiar chord sequence: it is similar to that found in Crazy 'Bout You (recorded by The State Street Boys in 1935) and sundry other tunes.

The House of the Rising Sun sounds suspiciously similar to St. James Infirmary. My ear tells me they have the same chord progression and almost the same melody.

Improbably, the religious number Royal Telephone is remarkably similar to the rocking tune Puttin' On The Style.

And I think I have just detected another. Listening again on YouTube to the wonderful Tuba Skinny playing How Do They Do It That Way?, I thought the chord sequence sounded identical to that of the 1925 popular song Ice Cream (Ice Cream, You Scream, Everybody Loves Ice Cream). They are both very fine songs.

How Do They Do It That Way? is a song about which I know very little, though I believe it dates from 1929, when Victoria Spivey recorded it. It is probable that she also composed it.

I can't prove the chord progressions are identical as I do not have copies of the printed music. They are fairly different styles of song (Ice Cream is also usually played more quickly than the other) but it's interesting that to my ear at least the same chord pattern works very well for both. Listen to Tuba Skinny by double-clicking 

Try humming Ice Cream during the vocal and see whether you agree with me.

17 April 2014

Traditional Jazz Repertoire: 'There Ain't No Land Like Dixieland'

There Ain't No Land Like Dixieland: My friends and I decided to try this one. We recently practised it together.

I had not previously heard of this song. It was written (words and music) in 1927 by the great Walter Donaldson. I found several bright performances of it on YouTube.

We decided to try it in Ab. So for me on (Bb transposing) cornet it needed to be written in Bb. There are some surprises, notably the chord in bars 27 and 28 (a 7th on the flattened 6th). I offer my effort to you, in case it may be of use to somebody:-

15 April 2014

Traditional Jazz: Tuba Skinny - the best band in the world

For me, the most exciting musical experience of the last four years has been discovering the band called Tuba Skinny.

After evolving over 5 years, I think they have recently reached their most effective line-up, as seen in this video:

In 2010, a friend advised me to have a look at them on YouTube. The result: a revelation!

I learned from the Internet that Tuba Skinny is more or less half a dozen young musicians who have based themselves (though not born there) in New Orleans. They have been playing together for over five years and have made 5 CDs.
This super photo from the early days of
Tuba Skinny was taken in New Orleans by Greg Headley.
Although they have already appeared elsewhere in the USA, notably in New York, and also toured in several countries, including Mexico, Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain, they seem to spend half their year busking in the streets and playing in the clubs of New Orleans, their natural setting.

There, they appear content to live mainly on the income from busking. As far as I can tell, they seem to live cheaply, even using bicycles for all transport needs. Yes, Erika even gets around with her bass drum on her bicycle.

Tuba Skinny plays jazz in the style established in New Orleans and Chicago between 1900 and 1930. The musicians have built up a wide repertoire, mixing classics (especially blues) with more modern tunes, including original compositions. They have rescued from near-obscurity such 90-year-old gems as Muddy Water, Russian Rag, New Orleans BumpDeep Henderson, Variety StompIn Harlem's Araby and Minor Drag; and the Jabbo Smith forgotten classics from the 1920s - Michigander Blues and A Jazz Battle. They have shown, with their fresh and original interpretations, how exciting these tunes can be.

The songs are played against a rock-steady ‘walking’ rhythm, with tuba, washboard, guitar or banjo laying down the foundation while the cornet and trombone play the melody and frolic around it. For its first three years, the band had no reed player (except when a welcome guest sat in), so there was a distinctive brassy sound. In the streets, there is no use of the the electronic amplification that spoils so much music these days.

The performances are meticulously prepared. Although allowing plenty of room for improvisation, sophisticated head arrangements are used, with precision and admirable attention to detail. Great care is taken to get the tempo just right for the interpretation. There are mid-way key changes, and clear pre-planning of introductions and an understanding of when verses, bridges and codas will be played, around the repeating choruses. They support each other’s solo choruses with harmonising long notes and stop chords.

Tunes do not outstay their welcome: most are completed in about four minutes. Tuba Skinny avoids the dreary succession of uninspired solo choruses that we associate with many other bands. Usually, in a 32-bar chorus, two or more instruments take the lead for a few bars each.

The Band has a remarkable singer – Erika Lewis. Although slight of figure, she has an amazingly strong and soulful voice, ideal for the blues. Her control of pitch and command of rubato are perfect. She has been compared with Bessie Smith (who must have been her inspiration) and she possibly equals the great Bessie in vocal ability. In street performances she needs no microphone. Since 2012, Erika has also taken to playing the bass drum - further solidifying the band's rhythm section.

There is a vocal in about 75% of the tunes played by the band, and these are mostly performed by Erika, though other members also contribute.

Tuba Skinny is a model collective enterprise, without a star or prima donna. But I must admit a special admiration of Shaye Cohn, the young lady who plays the cornet and seems generally to direct the musical traffic.
As one who attempts to play the jazz cornet myself, I appreciate her technical virtuosity and amazing inventive skills. Using mutes with great skill, she produces a unique tone that perfectly encapsulates the blues feeling that is at the heart of so much of our music. She has a great instinct for bluesy notes in the right places. Her phrasing is impeccable. Shaye is not a showy player who produces lots of high and raucous notes, like so many trad band trumpeters. Her playing is busy, but in an unobtrusive way. Just listen to her extraordinarily inventive and subtle improvisations and don’t miss the way she provides brilliant delicate arabesques behind the solos of others (such as the trombone - which often takes the melody), and particularly behind the singer.

This amazing lady apparently is classically trained and, as YouTube demonstrates, also plays other instruments (especially the accordion, violin and piano - and even the spoons!) brilliantly. To judge from videos and recordings, Shaye is currently also one of the the best traditional jazz piano-players on the New Orleans scene. Some people are so talented! I guess that other musicians in the group also have academic musical qualifications, but I have no information on this.

The guitarist when the band was formed was Kiowa Wells and I believe he and the slim Todd Burdick (tuba - Mr. Tuba Skinny in person) were the founders of the band, building it up by importing other fine musicians they met busking in the streets of New Orleans. These two gentlemen are very skilful, sensitive and accurate players. You quickly notice from their first recordings how thoroughly they have learned their music, how meticulously they prepare and play. Kiowa occasionally sings; and he also contributes some fine guitar solo choruses. I have noticed that tuba-player Todd also plays banjo in some videos. How clever these young people are! Listen carefully to the tuba in Tuba Skinny performances and notice how solid and accurate is the foundation Todd lays and how important this is to the special sound of the band.

It seems that Ryan Baer on banjo and guitar replaced Kiowa after a year or so. Ryan is extremely good, whether providing rhythmic support or delicate melodic solo choruses. He too is a fine singer.

And in recent months, other guitar and banjo players have been frequently used. Among them, Bobby Browne (guitar and tenor banjo) has been superb, playing with great concentration, laying down a strong, energetic and accurate 4/4. And in 2014 we find such fine and well-known New Orleans street performers as Gregory Sherman and Jason Lawrence (and occasionally Stalebread Scottie) joining on banjo and guitar. No matter who plays, they all conform to the Tuba Skinny house style - laying down a very solid four-to-the-bar foundation.

The ever-present trombonist is the versatile Barnabus Jones, who possesses a big sound and has mastered the tricks of Kid Ory, John Thomas, Honoré Dutrey and Fred Robinson - the trombonists who played with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. Barnabus produces musical phrases that perfectly complement the melodic inventions of Shaye Cohn. The trombone and cornet blend magically.
Shaye and Barnabus
What is more, he too (from evidence I have seen) is also brilliant on a second contrasting instrument - the banjo; and on occasion he shows himself to be no mean singer!
Barnabus and Shaye again -
what a great musical partnership!
All the Tuba Skinny instruments are easily portable. This is particularly helpful if you are a street band. They have no drum kit, for example. But they have a washboard player – Robin Rapuzzi. Normally, I am not keen on the washboard as a musical instrument: I have known a badly-played washboard to wreck a jazzband, especially when the player fails to keep a steady tempo. But Mr. Rapuzzi is a great driving force for the rhythm of this band, and fully underpins the music’s structures. He has fixed a few additional small percussive items to his washboard, so he can produce tricky crowd-pleasing solo choruses, with sound varied very imaginatively. On a few occasions (including the tour to Mexico), the wonderful washboard player Defne Incirlioglu has deputised for him.
There are other part-time members of this band – too numerous for me to track or mention. In their videos you may spot an occasional double bass, or violin, or clarinet, or a second trumpet. This is bound to happen with a street busking band. But I must tell you that a young lady called Alynda Lee (who now mostly works with her own band) used to play banjo and sing (very well).

Ewan Bleach from the U.K. on clarinet and saxophone fitted in brilliantly during the last couple of years; and John Doyle on sax and clarinet is another fine player (reminiscent of Jimmy Noone) who settled well into the band during 2013 when they were playing some of their greatest music. These two are outstandingly good musicians. Just listen closely to their work in any of the videos and you will class them among the very best traditional jazz reedmen you have ever encountered.

In the Autumn of 2013, the clarinet and sax seat was occupied by (among others) James Evans who is from North Wales. James had spent the previous few years proving he is one of the very best clarinet players in the U.K. You can see him with Tuba Skinny in an absolutely cracking performance of Weary Blues:

Early in 2014, the principal reed player was Craig Flory, from Seattle, but it seems that John Doyle has recently returned.

The Band dresses and presents itself in a laid-back, casual manner. The gents wear baseball caps and – on hot days – play in singlets and shorts, without shirts. The ladies have a penchant for short socks and flat shoes or trainers. So they have perfect looks for a New Orleans street band; and they tend to dress in just the same way for indoor gigs – bringing a breath of fresh air into what might otherwise be stuffy or formal venues. They seem to be modest, unassuming young people, having fun playing the music they love and scarcely aware of their own enormous talent.

But please let me beg you to try this band for yourself! There are well over a hundred examples of their work on YouTube.

Their line-up as at April 2014 was:
Shaye Cohn   Cornet
Barnabus Jones  Trombone
Erika Lewis   Bass Drum & Vocals
Greg Sherman   Guitar & Vocals
Todd Burdick  Tuba
John Doyle   Clarinet
Jason Lawrence  Banjo & Vocals
Robin Rapuzzi  Washboard
A really exciting recent video - with a full band - is this:

Or you might care to go back in time and start with this:

Here you can meet the band in a relaxed, undemanding, gentle-tempo 12-bar blues in the Key of C. The tune (made famous by Ma Rainey) is Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya. Unfortunately the camera does not catch much of Robin (washboard) but you have good examples of everything else, including brief solos from tuba and guitar.

Try the band here in its original formation in a quicker number. This song – Six Feet Down - was written by Erika Lewis, who is seen singing it:
The video illustrates much of what I have been saying (including – note – the skilful washboard playing) and you can identify all six of the original core members of Tuba Skinny

And Garbage Man is a terrific, infectious, fun number. You can watch it (with Ewan and John on reeds) here:
To hear an example of Shaye Cohn's brilliance, listen to her solo that comes one minute and fifteen seconds into this next video. Quite apart from its technical virtuosity and fireworks, note its almost surreal inventiveness, especially in the first few bars:

The next one is a good video for admiring the thoroughness of preparation by Todd and Kiowa - not to mention the more obvious members of the band:
To me it is so thrilling that YOUNG people are keeping alive the traditional jazz of New Orleans. I was last there seventeen years ago, and many of the great musicians of those pre-Katrina days have since passed on. But – thanks to groups like Tuba Skinny – their music has not disappeared with them.

Finally, listen to their wonderful and energetic performance of Minor Drag:
By the way, you can help support these wonderful young musicians by obtaining one or more of their CDs. You can buy or download the CDs online. You can pay with PayPal. It works even from other countries, as I have found. Start by going to their website and that tells you how to go about it:


(1) My sitemeter told me that over 6000 people read this article in its original form when I posted it early in 2013. I am so pleased that people all over the world are sharing my enthusiasm for Tuba Skinny.

(2) I have received this message from British clarinet-player Derek:
Thanks Ivan
I think the main reason they are so good is that all the musicians have absolute faith in the musicianship of Shaye.  So they are all happy to obey her instructions and her direction.  She must face difficult decisions when she has to turn away musicians who want to join them when busking;  and decisions on how to tackle new pieces and new arrangements.  She is a born leader and yet she is not interested in hogging the limelight.  Wonderful.
Best wishes

Traditional Jazz: 'Skid-Dat-De-Dat'

Skid-Dat-De-Dat (sometimes spelled Skit-Dat-De-Dat) is a real curiosity within the traditional jazz repertoire. I suppose some would describe it as a 'stop-start' tune because on six or more occasions the band stops playing and leaves one instrument alone to improvise a two-bar 'break'.

Certainly this tune does not fit into any conventional pattern of composition: there's no 32-bar a-a-b-a or 12-bar blues structure to be spotted here.

Lil Hardin composed it in 1926 for her husband Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five to develop. Basically what she gave Louis was a 4-bar phrase, plus the idea of attaching two-bar breaks.

Putting my examples in the key of D, I can say the four-bar phrase goes like this. Let's call this Segment A:

The two-bar 'break' seems to be normally played on the basis of the chord of D, or D minor. This is an example of the shape it might take. Let's call this Segment B:
The main 4-bar theme is mostly played with all the band harmonising through the long notes. But occasionally - for variety - the players may cut loose and improvise over those four chords, as in this example (Segment C):
Finally, there is a slightly different 4-bar chord sequence [G7  -  G7  -  D7  -  D7] which is also used for variety a couple of times, as in this example. Let's call this Segment D:
Regard these four little units of music as your building blocks. Put them together and there you have it - Skid Dat De Dat! But it may help to think of building a 22-bar block, made up of the segments like this:
B (solo break) + A + B (solo break) + A + D + B (solo break) + C

How does the tune turn out in performance? Well, unfortunately, because most bands find it impossible to memorise a 'knitting pattern' for this tune, they tend to play (usually a shade too slowly) from a printed arrangement on music stands in front of them. The result can be laboured and stodgy.

But it can sound really good, as in the original Louis Armstrong performance, which runs for 3 minutes and 14 seconds. Here and there, Louis uses his voice for a few notes at a time ('scatting') as an alternative to his cornet.

A concise but exemplary performance is given on their latest CD ('Pyramid Strut') by Tuba Skinny. You can hear it by going to


and clicking on the title of the tune. This version comprises just 46 bars in total and the recording lasts for only 96 seconds. But all you need is there.

They play Segment A (the long-note theme) four times; and the 'break' is taken 7 times - by cornet, cornet, clarinet, trombone, tuba, banjo and cornet respectively. The piece is beautifully book-ended by the first and last cornet breaks. The whole band joins in on the final chord.

As far as I know, there is only one YouTube video of Tuba Skinny playing this piece. It runs for about 140 seconds - longer than on the CD because extra breaks are given near the end of the piece to the clarinet and trombone.
This is well worth watching if you fancy studying Skid-Dat-De-Dat; or even if you just want to get the feel of the 'stop-start' nature of this curious tune. It was generously filmed by the video-maker codenamed stolpe31 at Rapperswil in 2013:


Finally, I must point out I do not possess original sheet music or definitive information about Skid Dat De Dat. All I have told you is simply what I have observed. So if you have any more accurate information, I would be grateful to hear from you.

14 April 2014

Horrible Vocals in Traditional Jazz Performances

I spend a lot of time watching and listening to traditional jazz bands.

One thing I find disappointing is that some of the 'vocals' are - frankly - horrible.

In particular, there are so many elderly male performers who are determined to sing the words of whatever tune they are playing, regardless of their lack of ability.  They croak and strain and are out of tune. Such 'expression' as they attempt is inept. If that's the best they can do, why bother?

Perhaps some of them used to have reasonably good singing voices twenty or thirty years ago. They haven't noticed (and friends have been too kind to tell them) that they have 'lost it' with the passage of time.

Some seem to think that, in order to be qualified to sing, all you need is to be a bit musical on the clarinet or trumpet and also have the words of the song on a music stand in front of you. But there is far more of an art to it than that. It requires a good singing voice, intelligence and serious practice.
Here's the great Erika Lewis. What would most of us give to have a singer of her quality working with our band? But if we don't have a good singer, then may I suggest that we let the music speak for itself and cut out those horrible 'vocals'?

Terrific Busking Band in New Orleans - 'Yes Ma'am'

I must tell you about a New Orleans busking band that has been giving me great pleasure in the form of its videos on YouTube. The band is called Yes Ma'am.

For a very fine video of them with their late-2013 line-up playing a medley,

They make some amazingly brilliant and addictive music.

There have been changes of personnel over the years but the band is flourishing.

My favourite performance is of the 2011 line-up in this video. Click on to watch it:
Whatever you think, please watch right to the end: there are surprises along the way. And admire all the little details.

Yes Ma'am in 2011 was led (and still is in 2014, I think) by Matt, a powerful and soulful singer-guitarist. The other young man in the group ably supported him and added variety with the banjo.
All three of the original other members were young ladies - very talented on their instruments, not to mention funky and beautiful. The violinist Elena Dorn adds great richness to the tone of the band (did you notice her remarkable contributions in the video above?); and the two young women on washboard and washtub bass play them so skilfully and musically that you have to accept them as authentic, challenging musical instruments.

Here's the band on great form in its recent 6-piece manifestation:

13 April 2014

Traditional Jazz: 'Fidgety Feet' in 21 Square Inches

Yes, it seems crazy, but I carry the whole of Fidgety Feet around on just 21 square inches of paper.
I keep it, together with hundreds of other tunes written out in this way, in a set of easily portable mini-filofaxes. I am very keen on filofaxes both as little works of art and as effective methods of storage and record-keeping.
Fidgety Feet (with its alternative title War Cloud) was recorded at a romping speed by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1918. Composer credits were given to the band's members Nick LaRocca and Larry Shields.

Of course, I would attempt to play music from these little sheets of paper only in an emergency. But I find it useful to have them as aide-mémoires. I like to take a filofax full of tunes with me on bus and train journeys, so that I can browse through them and brush away some of the rust that develops in the brain if you go several months without playing a particular number.

11 April 2014

Diminished Chords

You can sail through most traditional jazz tunes without ever coming across a diminished chord. Some tunes are even playable using only the three-chord trick.

However, I am fond of hearing diminished chords because they almost always inject a spot of drama, contrast and excitement. At the very least they add colour.

For example, in Have You Met Miss Jones?, I love that diminished that accompanies the word Jones, and therefore appears in the first, second and final eights. Another dramatic one occurs five bars from the end of The Very Thought Of You, where the melody leaps to its final high note, accompanied of course by the diminished.

And that good old jazz band favourite The World is Waiting for the Sunrise has a striking diminished throughout bars 3 and 4, and again through bars 19 and 20.

But the most dramatic and noticeable uses of the diminished occur in cascading arpeggio form. Sometimes this can be left to an improviser in a 'break' (such as bars 13 and 14 of the first theme of Fidgety Feet) but more obviously it is part of the written tune, such as the beginning of the second theme of Blame It On The Blues (climbing up the arpeggio ladder):
The first theme of Memphis Shake depends for its effect on its two opening bars being based on the diminshed chord of the tonic.

There is another thrilling example in the third and fourth bars from the end of the second theme in Ostrich Walk. After three bars of breaks, the melody glisses down through the diminshed version of the tonic chord, leading into a bar of Dominant 7th and then the Tonic.

And most famous of all is the terrific Louis Armstrong Introduction to Dippermouth Blues, which cascades down through the diminished: