12 April 2015


King Richard III and His Jazz Band
Recent painting by my friend Peter Bunney

My 'Kenny Ball' post about repertoires and playlists attracted several interesting responses. I had wondered what policy a band should adopt. Here are the two extremes.

Policy 1
Master a small number of tunes (let's say 40) really well. Aim at smooth, accurate, polished performances. Even some of the 'improvised solos' could be virtually repeated from performance to performance. You will be playing on automatic pilot. Always stick to a playlist selected from these 40, obviously while trying to match the tunes to the occasion and to provide variety of tempos, keys, etc.

Policy 2
Aim to have a repertoire that runs to, say, 200 tunes, with some dropping out and new ones coming in all the time. Seek constantly to add new tunes to your repertoire. Be bold and experimental.  In performance, live dangerously. Have a fresh playlist for every gig - not allowing any tunes to become 'stale'.

Those are, as I say, two EXTREMES. I doubt whether any of us would adopt either of those policies exactly as I have stated them. However, in my experience most bands are closer to Policy 1 than Policy 2.

With their permission, I offer you below a selection from the comments I have received. I think these gentlemen offer us a thoughtful, interesting and common-sense approach.
Hi Ivan,

For my band, the Uptown Rhythm Makers (www.facebook.com/URMjazz) I always tailor the playlist to the event we're playing. And, I introduce 2 or 3 new tunes every month so we don't get into the trad jazz band rut of playing the same tunes over and over. Some turn out to be keepers, some not. And, that way, there's more to choose from when making a playlist for a performance. Makes it easier to spread the vocals around, change tempos/moods from tune to tune, and not play in the same key over and over.

Bob Andersen


In my bands there are 2 schools of thought: one is that it is better to have a couple of dozen tunes that we can pitch up with and play on auto pilot – reasonably well; the other is that we should always tailor the playlist to the venue and introduce new tunes as deemed appropriate.

I tend to hold with the former as I would always prefer to turn in a passable performance – after all, we are all just part-time players, not professionals.

Having said that, I don’t follow the strict edict that the trumpet player must always lead with the melody. When I dep with other bands, they often have tunes that I don’t know or may have learnt in a different key (a couple of examples – I play Bourbon Street in F, some play it in Ab; I like Muskrat Ramble in Bb, others play that also in Ab). So I say to the rest of the band: 'Does anyone know the melody? If so take the lead and I will harmonise.' – It doesn’t always have to be the trumpet; it's often nice to have someone else at the front.

It is also the case that in my band I will sometimes throw in a new tune at a rehearsal and the guys are quite happy to play along if the melody is clear and the chords follow a reasonably standard pattern. But like you, if it seems difficult we drop it quickly but also if it seems just plain boring! Have you found that sometimes you hear a tune on the radio, CD or YouTube and think it would be great to play – but then when you try it, it just doesn’t seem to work? That is quite common for us. I think in most cases it is because they need a good vocalist. Some tunes just don’t work as instrumental numbers.We’ve got a repertoire of about 85 numbers but still end up playing the same hard core of a dozen or so.

The other thought is that I used to love going to see Kenny Ball in concert. What an inspiration. Great trumpet player, fun band, always a good performance. But I noticed that the band would have a concert repertoire that they would repeat at each gig that year, in much the same order, with pretty much the same solos. Perhaps it was because he had famous recordings that people expected to hear – but some (not me) would argue that perhaps this wasn’t “proper” jazz because it wasn’t on-the-spot improvisation. Then again, once you’ve learnt the tune, is it ever spontaneous again?


First of all, thanks for this blog!
I'm a Jazz musician who has played one version of Traditional Jazz or another for over 20 years, but until recently nowhere near a level you could call professional, so the information you collect here is very informative and useful to me!
About your latest post:
To me, there's a place for both kinds of playing, pre-arranged and improvised.
In the beginnings of Jazz recordings, most bands would rehearse songs in a very specific way and have the arrangements and solos pre-determined with only very little variation (recording time and material was expensive, I guess, and you wanted the record buyers to get you at your best).
So technically, you could call this "Traditional" - except that back then (as far as I know), it was only used for recording.
Another good place for pre-arranged music is in Jazz Orchestras where you have multiple brass and reed instruments that play harmonic lines, e.g. some of King Oliver's later orchestras or Duke Ellington. This style is something I love hearing because of the wonderful sounds of multiple reeds harmonizing together.Howwever, what I personally consider Traditional Jazz is MOSTLY improvised and NEVER exactly the same - even the melody undergoes slight variations every time it is played. True, there are certain things you do always play the same - like a clarinet playing harmony over parts of the melody. There's things that simply work best this way. But as a musician, I'd say you can still be open to changing it if you realize that you just came up with something even better.
I have to say that I write this from a somewhat unusual situation. I play clarinet and have the Traditional style down well enough that people have commented on it. However, I lack repertoire. When sitting in with good bands, I may know only 10-20% of the songs they are playing, and I have to learn the harmonies of the song on the fly. So no, you will not likely hear me play the same thing ever again in such situations :-)When I was in a teenage Dixieland band, our saxophone player would play nearly the exact same solo (or at least the beginning of it) every time to a particular song. Granted, it was a great melody he had come up with, and we liked to have fun with him about him using that line again to the point where we'd all sing it along with him :-)
I know a professional musician in New Orleans who plays 6-7 hours every night in the same location. I have noticed that when he plays by himself with two or three guys in the rhythm section, he has to play a certain style and include some more modern show tunes to keep the audience interested. However, add a few more horns, and he livens up and will start playing the good stuff! And once the energy of the entire band gets going that way, he can play all sorts of other things that he couldn't play just by himself.
So, in summary, there's a place for pre-arranged music in Jazz no doubt. However, I am not quite certain about your description of Kenny Ball's band. If I were to play in a band that a year later was playing everything exactly as before, note by note, I'd be missing a lot and would probably not be happy playing in that band any more.
In Jazz, I need the freedom to express myself as I am in the moment. As much as I like the Jazz orchestra sound, it does not give me that freedom, so the improvised Jazz style will always be my personal favorite and my passion.
Richard Lund
FROM JOHN (Banjo and Band-leader)
Hi Ivan,
We have a basic to do list of about 50 tunes, which we can play immediately, when constructing a program. We also introduce two new tunes at each practice. We also reserve  one chorus in each tune, in the practice, where everyone, apart from the chord player(s) has a go at improvising on the chords. Sometime chaotic, but more often very interesting, and sometimes leading to something we will keep and feature in a program.
In tunes like "Black and Blue" this can be extended into two or more choruses, as it is a lovely tune. Other choruses follow the more traditional pattern, with chords, background melody, and one person improvising over the top.
Best wishes,

Thanks for this.  It's very good stuff.  I particularly picked up on Richard Lund's implied observation that the recordings we avidly listen don't necessarily reflect the way the great traditional jazz bands from the early 20th century normally played.  It comes down to what we as amateurs want to play now.  Do I want to copy exactly a performance I particularly like, or am I inspired by great playing and want to play better myself but in my own way?  And how do I feel about how I want other musicians that I play with or listen to?  I tend to be "inspired but individual"  rather than "tribute", but do find myself judging a bass player on whether he can play "Big Noise from Winetka" as a duet with the drummer - simply because at the age of 15  I witnessed Vic Barton and Johnny Richardson perform this in Moorends for a tanner. I suspect all musicians have conflicting inner driving forces. Mine are dominated by my skill level, which is low, so for me to try and emulate, say, Johnny St Cyr, Cynthia Sayer, or Don Vappie, would be over-reaching myself and absolutely disastrous.  This is why I live dangerously by playing a wide variety of tunes rather than mastering a few. I really envy the numerous amateurs who are skilful enough to choose.