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6 March 2013


I don't know who started the fashion way back in the mid-20th Century for having a 'front line' of clarinet, trumpet and trombone and a 'back line' rhythm section with such instruments as percussion, banjo and bass. Maybe it was the George Lewis band.
The set-up thrusts the front line into the limelight and prevents the audience from seeing and appreciating the other musicians. The players at the back often complain that they can't clearly hear those at the front. Also, this formation makes it difficult for signals to be passed between the musicians (for example - who is going to 'take the solo' in the next chorus). A front-line player who is the band-leader frequently has to turn round in the middle of a tune to signal or speak to colleagues.

I know there are some cramped venues where such a set-up is hard to avoid. But I have often thought it would be better for both the band and the audience if the musicians arranged themselves in an arc or semi-circular formation, in the same way as string quartets and quintets do in the classical music world. The players would all be able to see and hear each other and the audiences would see all the players.

The wonderful young band Tuba Skinny, based in New Orleans, is setting us an example in this respect, as in so many others. Whenever there is sufficient space, they spread themselves out in front of their audience. Shaye Cohn, who gives the directions, sits where she can be seen by all her colleagues. The clarinet and the trombone occupy positions shoulder to shoulder with her because it is with them that she has to work closely to produce the band's wonderful polyphony. The tuba and banjo or guitar are in line so the audience has an unimpeded view of them. Every individual in the band can be seen and appreciated by the audience:
Get it?

Don't you agree that's a better way to present our music?

Since I originally wrote the above article (in 2013), I have noticed a few more bands playing in the 'arc' formation. I'm very pleased about this. Let's get rid of the concept of a 'front line'!

My book Playing Traditional Jazz is available from Amazon.