13 August 2015


I received this e-mail:

Hi Ivan,

You have strong opinions about what is good traditional jazz and what is bad. I know nothing about music. I can't read music. I never learnt to play an instrument. Can you please explain to me what makes some jazz performances better than others?

Wow! That's a tough question.

So let me say right from the start that appreciating any kind of art is a very personal matter. What pleases me may not please you. And that is just how it should be. So I will answer the question in my own way but shall not be surprised if you hold a completely different opinion.

Knowing about music

First, I don't think it's essential to know a lot about music in order to be stirred by traditional jazz or to feel the excitement that it generates. But it does add a little to the intellectual side of appreciation. For example, if you are listening to a piece made up of several different sections (e.g. Buddy's Habit or Climax Rag), it is satisfying to understand which point in the music the band has reached and to be aware when it modulates into a different key. It also makes it a little more interesting if you know something about the chord progression, no matter what tune the band is playing. In other words, you may appreciate it just a little more if you know about the 'grammar' of the music.

But with or without such knowledge, I think it's possible to distinguish between really well played traditional jazz and the not so good.

Preparing and Rehearsing

I think some bands over-rehearse. Things become too arranged and formalized. Much of the freedom and looseness that are features of the best traditional jazz are lost if the players have to concentrate too hard on their 'part' in the 'arrangement'. There is stiffness in the playing of some bands using this approach, especially if they become over-reliant on printed music on stands in front of them.

At the opposite extreme, it is common enough for good traditional jazz to be played without any rehearsal or preparation. Bring together the right mix of experienced players and a fine concert can occur.

But in general I think the best traditional jazz is produced by bands who rehearse at least occasionally, mainly to discuss their music and clarify their approaches to their repertoire. They should tidy up the trickier moments, ensure they are all using the same tune structure and chord progression and they should agree on any special tune endings. The little bit of extra work put in like that can be appreciated and pays off in a better public performance.


In general, I think traditional jazz is likely to sound better if played without amplification. (So much 'music' in the last fifty years has been made hard to bear - for me, anyway - by the use of electronic devices and massive amplification.) It is so pleasant to hear musicians in a room with good acoustics and no amplification. You appreciate the sounds of all the instruments in their natural glory. There is no electrical 'humming' or blurring of tone. Performances in Preservation Hall (or in London's Wigmore Hall) testify to the truth of this.

But I accept that bands - in special circumstances - sometimes need amplification. In these cases, it is best if it can be kept to a minimum, for example one microphone for use by the vocalist.

Melody and Soul

Most tunes in our repertoire have stood the test of a very long time. So a good band performance must respect a good melody. There is soul in these old tunes and a good performance finds and expresses that soul. We should hear the melody clearly - maybe decorated and caressed; but it should always be there at the heart of the music. As the late great Chris Blount (clarinet) once said to me, 'If there's no soul, it's just a load of notes.'


A good traditional jazz band sets a tempo which is appropriate to the tune and its chosen interpretation; and keeps to that tempo - other than for special effects. It's bad traditional jazz when a tune drags. (I have noticed this quite a lot in YouTube videos.) It can happen either because the tune is started too slowly or because the band slows down during the performance or because of labouring from the rhythm section - especially the drummer. (I don't know why, but On The Sunny Side of the Street is an example of a tune that is particularly prone to labouring!)

Collective Improvisation

When - in ensemble choruses - one instrument (usually the trumpet) is stating the melody, there should be creative support from the other 'front line' instruments (normally the clarinet and trombone). Teamwork is the key to great traditional jazz. If teamwork is good, the performance is more likely to impress. The support will use syncopation and counterpoint. It will be decorative and yet also - by finding the best phrases and harmonies - will push the tune along. You will feel that all three front-line players are listening and responding to each other's ideas and statements. Among today's top players, Barnabus Jones, Haruka Kickuchi and Charlie Halloran (trombones) and Chloe Feoranzo, James Evans, Jonathan Doyle, Aurora Nealand and Ewan Bleach (reeds) are examples of musicians to study on YouTube if you want to see this done supremely well.

Jazzy Devices

This is really an aspect of improvising. But it is important enough to deserve separate mention. A good performance (certainly an exciting one) usually requires a generous dose of those devices that make jazz - especially traditional jazz - so distinctive. Notes bluesily bent or flattened (in the right places), glissandi, breaks, syncopation, the use of 6ths and 9ths where they take us by surprise - all these elements enrich the performance. Without this 'jazziness' you may be left with some very pretty music for dancing but it will lack the spirit of early New Orleans jazz.

Rhythm Section

First, as my friend Barrie said to me, the expression 'rhythm section' is relatively modern and misleading. The whole band should think of itself as the rhythm section. But these days when leaders refer to their rhythm section, they mean the part of the band likely to consist of two or three or four players selected from percussion, banjo, guitar, piano, bass [string or brass]. In a good performance, these players will, as the saying goes, 'sound like one man'. They too must listen carefully to each other and to the trumpet, clarinet and trombone. In so many of the elderly British bands I have heard, or watched on YouTube, they certainly do not sound like one man: often the drummer is too loud and his rhythmic patterns are disruptive to what his colleagues seem to be trying to achieve. At least for the brighter and quicker tunes, most of the time the rhythm section in unison should play a pulsating but not too loud four-to-the-bar poom-poom-poom-poom (not um-CHUCK-um-CHUCK). This pumps the front line along and sets the audience's feet tapping. A good drummer drives the band without being loud or exhibitionist and a good pianist subjects his skills (in ensembles) to the need for a steady rhythmic and chordal underpinning of the music.

Solo Choruses

In performance, most bands include a sequence of 'solo' choruses (normally 32 bars, or even 64 bars) by several of the players in every tune. Often these solos have nothing much of interest to say (they are what Chris Blount would have called 'just a load of notes'), though, if the band has a very good pianist, they give him a rare opportunity to show what he can do. Often solo-takers try to play something stretching to the full their technical skills - showing how clever they are. I suppose this is fair enough if they are technically brilliant. Festival audiences can be counted on to applaud this sort of thing. But my view is that flashy and often raucous solo choruses are not an essential part of good traditional jazz.

Fortunately, in solo choruses a few players are technically brilliant and highly creative at the same time (James Evans again is a great example).

On the whole, though, I don't enjoy a performance padded out with numerous dull solo choruses in which the players have nothing but a string of clichés to offer. I prefer the more creative, unpredictable kind of playing (as best exemplified in the performances of Tuba Skinny) where one player takes the lead for a short time (perhaps 16 bars) but usually other players provide decorative accompaniment to this kind of 'soloing' (another example of good teamwork). Such playing gives the audiences constant delightful surprises.

Sometimes a rather special chorus contributes to a pleasing performance. For example, a band may try a 'front-line-only' chorus and even better a full-band quiet chorus (just tickling the notes) before turning up the volume for the end of the tune.

Ending the Tune

I like a tune to end well, either crisply or with a neat rehearsed coda. I think messy endings are bad.

Band Demeanour

I like all members of the band to take the music seriously. I do not like it when there is much talk between players during the performance of a tune. (Guffaws at each other's private 'jokes' are even worse.) Discreet hand signals for directing the music should be enough.

Listening Test

I will end by giving this tip to my enquirer - and to anybody else like him. When you next listen to a traditional jazz recording, try focusing your ear on just the bass player. If it's a good band, you will be amazed at the precision and importance of his or her contribution.

Now try focusing on just the clarinet. Listen carefully to the notes he or she is playing. How well and how cleverly do they blend into the overall sound?

Try listening intently to the drummer or indeed any of the instruments and you may be surprised at how much your appreciation of what the individuals do (or fail to do) helps you to sort out performances that are really 'good'.