21 November 2015


Before a band plays a tune, it needs to have some idea of how to tackle it. In which key will it play? Who is going to state the melody in the first chorus? Who is likely to take solos, and when? Are we going to do anything unusual, such as playing a verse after a chorus?

A correspondent in the USA has asked me to say something about how musicians answer these questions.

There are three ways in which the questions can be answered. Most bands use METHOD ONE (On The Fly) for most tunes and METHOD TWO (Head Arrangements) for a few tunes. Very few bands use METHOD THREE (Orchestration).

There is no preparation. Someone picks a tune and a key; someone beats it in; and away they go. Musicians who often play together know well what everyone is expected to do. During the playing, the Leader may signal to individuals to take a chorus or half-chorus or middle eight, and may indicate whether some particular sort of backing to solos (e.g. stop chords or offbeats) is to be provided. The Leader can even signal a change in key: fingers representing the number of flats [down] and sharps [up] are a popular way of doing this. The Leader may signal a return to the first theme (usually by pointing upwards or by tapping his hand on the top of his head). The Leader will usually signal the out-chorus. If there is to be a tag, this is likely to arise spontaneously, with one player leading it and the others instantly joining in. This method is used and works very well for 90% of all tunes performed by traditional jazz bands. It often has great results. It is particularly suited to 32-bar standard tunes.

Before the performance, the band is likely to have rehearsed the tune or at least to have agreed who will do what and when. All the members of the band have to remember in their heads what has been agreed: hence the expression 'head arrangement'. Head arrangements are more likely to be used with complex tunes, rather than with straightforward 32-bar standards. A specimen head arrangement is as follows. I'm using the tune She's Crying For Me (Santa Pecora, 1925) and I'm showing you the head arrangement currently being followed by one of my local bands.

She's Crying for Me
1. Theme A : 16 Bars in F minor. Ensemble. Once.
2. Theme B : 16 bars in Ab. Ensemble. Twice - second time at Bar 15 merging into BRIDGE.
3. Bridge : Start on Bar 15 of Theme B; add 4 bars transition to F.
4. Theme C : 12 bars in F. Ensemble.
5. Theme C: Trumpet 12-bar solo with offbeats from rhythm section.
6. Theme C : Piano 12-bar solo, ending with transition to Ab.
7. Clarinet solo Ab on Theme B (16 bars).
8. Trombone solo on first 8 bars of Theme B.
9. Ensemble final 8 bars of Theme B.
10. 2- bar tag (trombone). All in on final note.

Most bands have in their repertoire a few tunes at least  that involve a head arrangement, though I know of one adequate and entertaining band that does not bother with any and sticks entirely with METHOD ONE.


Parts are printed or written out for the instruments and these will either have been learned by heart or will be on music stands in front of the players. This is particularly necessary with big bands where the effects can be terrific when, for example, the parts of the reed players are scored in close harmony.

I have seen this method used only occasionally by conventional traditional jazz bands: mostly it is used by beginners who have purchased some 'dixieland arrangements'. These published arrangements are good and will usually include provision for improvised solos: the orchestrator prints the chord sequence and leaves you to create your own solo. In traditional jazz, METHOD THREE has a place but it should be used sparingly. It can take some of the 'soul' and spontaneity out of the music.

Jazzers in the Seventeenth Century using METHOD THREE
The book Playing Traditional Jazz, by Pops Coffee, is available from Amazon.