13 June 2013


You are a player of the clarinet, or trumpet, or trombone. Your band is playing 'Oriental Strut'. It's your turn to improvise a 32-bar chorus on the final theme. You are in the key of F. Off you go.

Now: imagine that I stop you suddenly in the middle of the 13th of the 32 bars and ask you to tell me which chord you are on. Would you be able to give the correct answer?

The reason why I ask is this. When I was in New Orleans in April 2015, I was interested to find out just how the great musicians currently working there go about their business. I managed to have conversations with several of them - people such as Tommy Sancton, Ben Polcer, Charlie Halloran, Aurora Nealand, Todd Burdick and John Dixon. What astonished me was how seriously they take their work and how thoroughly they have prepared and trained.
Two great musicians I had the pleasure of meeting -
Tommy Sancton (clarinet; left) and John Dixon (banjo; right)
I tried several of them with the kind of question I have asked above. To my surprise, the answer from all of them may be summarised as 'Of course. You have to know the chord structure as well as the melody.'

They would usually go on to say that, after playing a tune many times, they had the chords 'in their fingers' and no longer needed to think of them consciously. But, if challenged with my '13th bar of Oriental Strut' question, they would certainly be able to name the chord.

One of the great clarinet players told me he had studied very closely the recordings of his idol, George Lewis, who is generally believed to have been a rare genius who could play instinctively, by ear.  He discovered that even if George was not a good reader of music, he was always right on the arpeggio of the correct chord. However, there was one exception: George was not too good on playing around with chords on the 6th (for example, the A7 chord when in the key of C). What an amazing observation! And doesn't it tell us a lot about how seriously the current generation of New Orleans musicians take their musical studies?
Footnote: The answer to my original question is E7th. Did you get it?