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18 April 2015

Traditional Jazz: Recommended Video: Chloe Feoranzo and Conrad Cayman

I must tell you about a wonderful coincidence.

Nearly a year ago one of my readers - Phil in America - recommended that I should look at a particular video made by two people of whom I had never heard. Though it was not strictly 'traditional jazz', I was completely charmed and bowled over by it and I have since watched it many times. I recommended it in a blog post.

It was Chloe Feoranzo and Conrad Cayman playing (and singing) What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? - a Frank Loesser song from 1947. Have a look. You won't regret it.
Well, here's the coincidence: on Wednesday 8th April 2015, I happened to be visiting New Orleans for the first time in very many years. That night, at The Spotted Cat, I thought I recognised the guitarist guesting with The Shotgun Jazz Band. It was none other than Conrad Cayman. I had admired his work on YouTube and he had enjoyed my blog. Although we had never met, we were instantly so happy at this chance encounter. As Conrad said, isn't this indeed a wonderful world - in which technology can bring together as instant great friends two people from opposite sides of the globe?

Conrad told me he is now a full-time professional musician, working mainly in traditional jazz in the Los Angeles area (for example with The Big Butter Jazz Band), though he has various other musical projects, including still more with Chloe. You can find a good range of the work of both of them on YouTube.

We also discovered an interesting example of how ideas spread in the world of traditional jazz. I had commented in one of my posts about the way Tuba Skinny - in a particular tune - had reversed the usual situation by having the 'front line' play stop chords as support to a solo chorus from a banjo. Conrad decided to try this with his own band, and he said it worked really well.

Like me, Conrad was having a holiday in New Orleans and getting involved in the jazz scene as much as possible.
I meet Conrad Cayman
We have this photo souvenir of our meeting; and I'm pleased to say Conrad immediately emailed it to Chloe, who was touring in Australasia.

Best wishes to you too, Chloe, if you read this!

17 April 2015

Smoking And Playing Traditional Jazz

When my father was a soldier during the Second World War, one of the kindest and most generous things wives or relatives thought they could do was to send packets of cigarettes to 'our boys'. Smoking was considered fashionable and normal.
How times have changed!

I'm lucky. I am a non-smoker. Several times, in my youth, I wished I could give up non-smoking, but I lacked the will to do it.

When I was 60 years old and trying to play traditional jazz, I was kindly allowed to sit in with a band playing regularly in a Norfolk pub here in England. It was a great learning experience for me. I joined the band and stayed with it for several years. But breathing inside the pub was unpleasant: there was a fug of tobacco smoke. Many in the audience (not to mention three members of the band - one of them a doctor!) were serious smokers. At the end of every gig, my eyes were sore, my hair and skin were stinking and my clothes needed to go straight in the wash.

On top of all this, goodness knows what damage was being done to the health of everyone in the pub. (Those three smoker musicians, by the way, have all since died.)

After a few years, at the start of 2004, the pub landlord was enlightened enough to put up a notice banning smoking from the bar in which the band played (though not in the rest of the pub). This made a huge difference. I enjoyed the gigs so much more.

As you may know, a ban on smoking in public places was eventually introduced by law in the UK in July 2007. Since then, playing in jazz bands in indoor venues has become much more pleasurable.

Why am I picking on this subject today? Because a blog reader has told me how sad it is to see musicians having to endure such a smoky atmosphere when they play at some jazz venues in America. This blog reader (O.K. - it's Wally, from Canada) admits that he himself is a smoker. And yet he is understanding enough to appreciate that singers and trumpet players, for example, have to gulp air in through the mouth rapidly and frequently while performing. They need to fill the lungs with good air - not something choking and lethal.
Sadly, some of the musicians themselves are smokers - even among those young stars in New Orleans whose generation ought to know better. I am saddened. We have come to love these brilliant young people and their music brings us so much pleasure. It is a pity they do something that not only makes their work harder but will probably shorten their lives.

But there is some good news. I visited New Orleans in April 2015, and was pleased to note that smoking was by then banned in some of the venues in which the bands play. And I noticed very little smoking during my several visits to The Spotted Cat. I was also told by locals that a law-enforceable ban (as in England) is due to come into operation soon.

16 April 2015

Playing Traditional Jazz: Setting The Right Tempo

Listening to bands in pubs and clubs, and watching videos of performances on YouTube, I have noticed that so many bands have difficulty with setting and keeping to a suitable tempo.

The worst problem (very common) is that bands start an up-tempo tune quickly and then, as the performance develops, gradually slow down. The result is that the music begins to drag and sound weary. I think the reason for this may partly be that so many musicians are growing old and have lost the vigour they once had. But I wish they would be aware of this and take more care.

The reverse sometimes happens: a tune speeds up as it is played. This can put one or two of the players into difficulties.

However, speeding up is by no means as bad as slowing down and can even be deliberate and exciting, especially if building to a special 'out' chorus. The Ken Colyer Band used to be noted for this and they themselves described it as 'controlled acceleration'.

With slower tunes, such as many ballads, there is less of a problem, though I sometimes find bands take a tune too slowly and it begins to drag.

When there is a singer, it is important that the tempo should be one the singer is comfortable with, so it helps to ask the singer to give an indication of the tempo desired or even to count the song in.

As in so many aspects of traditional jazz performance, that great young band Tuba Skinny are setting an example to us all. Notice how much trouble they take to get the tempo right. This is often done with much foot-tapping before the tune begins, while they (especially Shaye the cornet player) test the tune inside their heads just before starting; and they always keep the tempo under control throughout the performance, with rigid discipline from the rhythm section.

This aspect of their playing rewards study.  For a typical example (and a good tune - Deep Henderson),

15 April 2015

Ma Rainey's 'Dream Blues'

It was in 2013 that I was introduced to Ma Rainey's lovely tune Dream Blues. Ma Rainey recorded it (accompanied by the Pruitt Twins) in Chicago in 1924. I believe Ma Rainey herself wrote it that year. You can hear it on YouTube:
Click here.
Ma Rainey sings it in Bb but I have transposed the blues to Eb for my (slightly simplified) version.
It is a conventional 12-bar blues, except for the way it uses the mediant where we might expect the tonic. Note, for example, how the melody ends on G, and not on Eb, as we might expect.

Ma Rainey - sometimes known as The Mother of the Blues - was one of the first great blues recording artists. She came from Georgia in the USA and she died in 1959.

13 April 2015

'If You Don't, I Know Who Will': Playing Traditional Jazz; Bessie Smith

In 1923, Bessie Smith recorded If You Don't, I Know Who Will, with Fletcher Henderson at the piano. It is a minor classic.

Tuba Skinny recorded it on their first CD in 2009; but as far as I know there is no YouTube version of them performing it.

This is how I play it on my keyboard. The first twelve bars are the Verse. Then comes the 26-bar Chorus (including a two-bar tag).