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26 July 2015


Which has the hardest rôle in a traditional jazz band - the clarinet, the trumpet or the trombone? I ask because a clarinet-playing correspondent wrote to say he thinks the clarinet's part is easier than the trumpet's. Here's what he wrote:

Clarinet is easier than trumpet in that we generally don't have to learn many melodies. If you're flexible and have a good ear and instinct, you can listen to the trumpet for specific types of melody lines that tell you a) what the next chord might be, and b) if we do a double-ending or change pitch, etc. But clarinet has its own mostly technical issues - the danger of squeaking, running out of muscle strength, having the weight of the horn on your right thumb and arm all the time. The clarinet basically has three registers, and the bottom two are 12 tones away from each other, not an octave like on the saxophone. That means you have more notes to pick from when playing, but the highest register is again completely different from the other two. And embouchure is always tricky. But it's worth it - if played well, you can really sing with the clarinet. It's an emotional instrument if played right, and that's perfect for little emotional me.

To play the way I do, clarinet is easier, because I can play whatever I want and don't need to know the song one bit. You can't do that on trumpet. That's the main thing I find easier on clarinet.

This insight is supported by another correspondent (a trumpet player), who told me he often asks whether - for a change - one of the other players would like to play the melody line in the first chorus or two of a tune. He has been surprised to find that very fine players are often reluctant to do this, claiming that they are not sure of the melody - even though they can create wonderful decorations around it! He says:

Unless they have learnt the tune as a feature, they invariably recoil in horror at the thought of having to play what might be a simple tune! It doesn’t matter how good they are at accompanying – they don’t like to play the melody.

My own view is that in a full-size, busily-working jazz band, the clarinet's job is more important than the trumpet's. I have written on this topic before. As I implied then, a really good clarinet-player can turn an ordinary band into a great band.

It's true that trumpet playing can be very tiring on the muscles around the mouth. And it's also true that the trumpet player needs to have plenty of tunes accurately stored in his memory (though this is easier than some may believe).

But a good clarinet player has to know the chord changes of every tune - either by rote or intuitively - and he has to be a master of rapid arpeggios. His fingering must be confident and fast. He must also be skilful at throwing occasional long bluesy notes into his playing - usually flattened thirds and sevenths.

I guess that good clarinet players have spent hundreds of hours practising arpeggios, perhaps backed by recordings that give them a clear melody around which to weave their magic.

The best clarinet players avoid playing right on the beat - especially on the first note of every bar. Coming in after the first quaver or on the second beat contributes better to the syncopation. They also avoid playing too many bars comprising nothing but quavers and crotchets. Triplets, semiquaver runs, dotted notes and trills - as well as those 'hanging' long bluesy notes mentioned above - add so much to the excitement.

Above all, in ensemble work, where the trumpet is stating the melody, you won't catch good clarinet players playing exactly the same notes as the trumpet.

But what about the rôle of the trombone in all this? I consider his job extremely difficult too. He needs to know the harmonic progression of every tune the band plays (either as a result of hard graft in learning the chord sequences or by developing an amazing ear for the bass-line of the successive chords). He has to push the band along through the chord changes. This frequently involves (starting on the fourth note of a bar and moving on to the first of the next) taking the harmony from the root of one chord to the root of the next by means of a glissando or direct punching out of the notes.
But he must also have a huge repertoire of tricks and phrases. He should be able to take on the melody for an occasional chorus - to give variety to the presentation. And he should be a skilful user of mutes: a good range of trombone effects is possible to embellish the music.

So I come to no conclusion. To play any of these instruments really well in a traditional jazz band is very hard work and requires a great deal of practice and experience.
After reading the above, Barrie Marshall - a well-known reed player in the north of England - sent me these observations:

The piece  about trumpet, clarinet and trombone, I found very interesting, in particular about playing melody. I am a clarinet player and I play with a cornet player in three bands, his, mine and somebody else's. I find learning the melody extremely useful. Neither of us can read music. He is a fine melody player and we do stuff by Morton, Williams, Oliver, early Armstrong etc. I have a good knowledge of chords so, with that and being able to play the melody, harmonies are very soon worked out, usually on the gig, just head arrangements that work very well. I do go busking with a trio, clarinet, tuba and banjo and I also play in a quartet where I am the melody instrument (alto and clarinet) so I can pick up tunes fairly quickly.Of course all is not perfection. Cock ups and mistakes happen. That's traditional jazz. As the cornet player often says, it has to be risky to make it exciting!
Often the cornet player and I swap rôles in a tune. He gets me to play the melody if I know it and he accompanies me.
So you reed players and trombone players:  learn melodies!
Another reader in his own blog (http://www.wilktone.com/?p=4545   - well worth reading; let me recommend it) has made the point that clarinet and trombone players SHOULD always learn to play the melody line accurately. The reasons he gives are:
(1) this will help the player to avoid clashing with the melody notes; and
(2) there may be occasions when a clarinet or trombone needs to play the melody, either as a pleasant variation on usual practice or because the trumpet-player could be absent ill.
These are very good points.