21 June 2017

Post 519: 'GRAVIER STREET BLUES'

The year was 1954 and I had discovered the wonderful early New Orleans-style jazz music coming to us in London on recordings from America. One of the first - what a great introduction to the heady effects of raw New Orleans jazz! - was Gravier Street Blues, composed by Clarence Williams in 1924 and played by Johnny Dodds and His Orchestra. The recording was made in 1940. I have recently learned Johnny recorded it, in fact, just two months before he died.
Johnny Dodds
This tune - catchily melodic, even though largely made up of simple riffs played in a 'bluesy' manner - galvanized my interest in this branch of music. I loved the combination of Johnny's clarinet with Natty Dominique's cornet. 

On the recording, there are, incidentally, good solo choruses from Johnny himself and from Lonnie Johnson on guitar.

As was often the case in the days of 78rpm recordings, the whole piece is completed in about two and a half minutes - a lesson to us all in the impact value of brevity.

A Johnny Dodds enthusiast has generously put this recording on YouTube for us all to enjoy. So please see whether you can share my enthusiasm:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIRKIP_k1Tw
Gravier Street, by the way, is very central in New Orleans. It runs parallel to - and between - Tulane Avenue and Perdido Street. This was where Louis Armstrong was born.

I struggled to work the tune out for my mini filofax system and came up with a version typical of my amateurish approach. But then I found the great Lasse Collin had put up a leadsheet on his site: http://cjam.lassecollin.se
So here is Lasse's, followed - for what it's worth - by mine.
Many thanks, Lasse:
Mine:



18 June 2017

Post 518: IS TRADITIONAL JAZZ 'ERUDITE'?

I was at a traditional jazz concert recently when a lady in the audience said she was enjoying it very much but that she didn't 'normally listen to such erudite music'.

I was struck by the word 'erudite', partly because it's not a word you often hear these days, but even more because it was a word I had never myself applied to traditional jazz.

However, when I reflected on it afterwards, I came to see that it really was a clever choice of word and very appropriate to our music.

If we think of traditional jazz only as a pleasant noise that makes us tap our feet and want to dance, we are missing the enormous amount of learning that lies behind it. And the greatest musicians make it look so easy that we may not recognise how 'erudite' it is. 
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines 'erudite' as 'having or showing knowledge that is gained by studying'. The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us that 'erudite' means 'remarkably learned'. It comes from the Latin erudire, meaning to instruct.

When you think about it, you find a huge amount of erudition behind every performance of traditional jazz.

The musicians have had to:

master the techniques of playing their instrument(s) [many hundreds of hours of practice];

study the history of traditional jazz and learn from the work and recordings of past masters;

learn to play in various keys and become fluent in the appropriate chords and arpeggios - major, minor, diminished and so on - and be able to improvise freely around them;

study and learn to use syncopation, riffs, jazzy devices and a variety of tempos and rhythms; 

understand the structures of the tunes;

learn and hold in their heads the melodies and harmonic progressions of many tunes [often hundreds];

study the role of their own instrument and use this knowledge effectively in contributing to the playing as a team-member;

master the conventions and the methods of communication within a performance.
Compared with most conventional kinds of musicians who play instruments directly from printed music and without any requirement to improvise or deviate from what is written, jazz musicians may be considered exceptionally erudite.

Imagine you would like to speak a foreign language but you are starting from scratch. Think how much study it will take for you to reach a point when you will be able to hold a fluent natural conversation with native speakers of that language.

Learning to play an instrument in a traditional jazz band is very similar to that.

Yes, well said that lady: traditional jazz is erudite all right.

15 June 2017

Post 517: BEGINNERS' FAKE BOOK

I have written before about the value of fake books (sometimes called 'busker's books') to traditional jazz musicians, especially in the early stages of mastering your craft.

But beware. Some fake books - though crammed with tunes - are not as helpful as you may expect. They contain very few tunes the traditional jazz musician is likely to play.

But you can find less pretentious books that provide the leadsheets (words, notes and chords) of quite a few essential tunes. Such is 101 Pub Favourites for Buskers. Pub favourites tend to be in most cases traditional jazz favourites too; and they are often among the simplest tunes you need to master.
So from this book, for example, you can learn such tunes as After the Ball, You Always Hurt the One You Love,  Ain't She Sweet, Bill Bailey, On a Slow Boat to China, Nobody's Sweetheart Now, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, I Can't Give You Anything But Love, and so on. Here, for example, is On The Sunny Side of the Street - as you can see, very clear and easy to learn from. AND it even includes the Verse (which many musicians don't know).
I bought this book way back in 1986, would you believe, when I was at the stage of getting started and trying to play a few simple tunes in a group formed by three friends. It was produced by Wise Publications. There were several others in the '101' series.

I doubted whether these books were still on sale three decades later. But a quick internet search showed me that you can easily still order a new copy for about £18 (i.e., U.K. price) or you may obtain a used copy much more cheaply.
==========
By the way, if you may be interested in reading my e-Book called 'Playing Traditional Jazz', which is for jazz players and would-be jazzers, click here:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MS38JVI
This will let you sample-read a few pages.

12 June 2017

Post 516: MANAGING A BAND

It's tough being a band manager. That's why I think it's the duty of all members of a band to support their manager in every way they can and to appreciate his efforts on their behalf.

What do you think is the most important skill a band manager needs? Playing an instrument outstandingly well? Wrong. If you want to run a band that attracts plenty of worthwhile gigs, your business skills are likely to be more important than your musical skills.

In my view, here's what a band manager needs.

1. Man management
Recruit the right musicians and keep all members of your band content and well-behaved - and happy to be part of the team.
2. Customer-relation skills
Courteous and meticulous attention to customers' comments and correspondence.
3. Common sense
For example, don't waste time quoting a fee the client obviously can't afford. Don't play music inappropriate to the occasion.
4. Musical expertise
Obviously essential, but less important than business skills.
5. Optimism
Don't be disheartened by knocks and setbacks. Always smile and look cheerful on stage.
6. Policy
Costume, style, repertoire, etc. Read my blog post about this by clicking here.
7. Willingness to devolve
Let other members of the band be the Musical Director and the Announcer if they are better qualified for these duties.
8. Business and marketing skills
Publicise your band in the most effective ways. And always have business cards available. 
9. A sense of humour
An obvious help - especially in the jazz world.


Here's another bit of advice. Communicate with your audience!

I remember a classical music concert at the Wigmore Hall in London. At the start, amidst applause, the musicians walked on to the stage, and without a word took their seats, played their two pieces, bowed and went off. After the Interval, exactly the same procedure occurred.

The musicians were some of the best in the world. Their playing was sublime. But throughout the two hours of the concert, nobody spoke one word to the audience. This is a convention with some classical music performers, but I think it is a pity. 

I have attended some classical concerts where the musicians have told the audience something about the music and have given a few other bits of information about themselves and where else they will be playing. On one occasion The Wihan String Quartet pleased the audience with a question-and-answer session.

In traditional jazz, too, when you have been booked to give a formal concert and your audience is politely seated, listening attentively to all you play, I think it is important for the band leader - or someone acting as spokesperson/announcer - to have a few words with the audience between tunes.
Speaking to the Audience:
Kenny Ball was a jazz musician who
set a good example.
This is good for achieving a rapport and is also helpful in letting the audience know something about the tunes, the history of our music and about the band.

It is inexcusable to take no notice of the audience between the end of one tune and the start of another, as I have occasionally seen bands do. Why do some bands not even tell the audience the titles of tunes with which they may be unfamiliar?

Remarks to audiences don't have to be profound or scholarly. They can be relatively trivial. For example, you could say which towns the musicians come from. You could say where you have been performing recently. You could tell them it's the banjo player's birthday. Little scraps like this help to establish a good relationship.

And don't feel compelled to tell jokes. There's no need to do so unless your timing and delivery are good and the jokes are of a kind that will not give offence.

Speaking to an audience is not easy. So regard this as another skill you need to develop. It may even be worth practising things you will say.

Something else to avoid is the poor discipline we often witness. Between tunes, members of the band on stage talk among themselves and guffaw at each other's comments - while the audience is left with no idea what is going on.

And there's no excuse for the band members to argue among themselves about what to play next, while the audience sits waiting. From the audience's point of view, this kind of behaviour is irritating. But some bands are guilty. Cut it out!