13 August 2015


Pianist Chris Reilley has submitted articles for use in this Blog before - most recently on the subject of Boogie-Woogie.

Chris has now emailed the article below to me. I hope you will find it of interest.


Part two of the various Devices: Breaks, Stops, Riffs, Rhythms and More article which I submitted in February this year, I would like to cover three other aspects which could be considered whilst playing Traditional Jazz namely Key choice and changes Tempo and Volume.

Choosing the Key and Key Changes

Recently I was enthralled by a recording made by the Shotgun Jazz band called “You Always Hurt The One You Love” with the vocal being taken by Marla Dixon (trumpet and leader). In this recording the ensemble is played to begin with and just before the band goes into the Vocal they change key – normally this would be to suit the singer's choice of key for singing. However the band revert back to the original key for the following ensemble and then lo-and-behold Marla sings again in the ensemble key.

For me this is the first time that I have heard any vocalist attempt to do this, as usually the reason for the change of key is because the melody line is outside the vocalist's range.

More often than not a proposed change from the original composed key (say from one of the sharp keys) is to make the tune easier to play for Bb Instruments. For example Concert G Major (1#), D Major (2#'s), A Major (3#'s) etc. would normally be transposed to the nearest (or easiest) flattened keys:- Concert F major (1b) or Ab Major (4b's), C Major (natural) or Eb Major (3b's), Bb Major (2b's) or Ab Major (4b's). Note these are all shown in Concert Keys whereas the Bb Instruments reading their parts would refer the key of Bb major to their key as C Major.
(Note I found this so confusing when I started to learn to play both Clarinet and Trombone that I thereafter memorised the note names on my instrument as the Concert key names.)

All of these choices have to be moderated by the musical range of both the instrument and musician. Some tunes require a very large range with some instruments naturally limited to something like one and a half octaves (not counting the musician's limitations) and in some cases the top end of the available notes might be slightly out of tune (this is especially a problem with Keyed Instruments where the musician has to “bend” the note to keep in tune).

There is no doubt that being able to play in numerous keys is very desirable but it is far easier playing those tunes that are more natural to the instrument and it makes improvising (a salient part of playing Jazz) far easier as well.
Unfortunately the obvious choice for many Jazz Bands is to play a lot of tunes in the easiest keys of concert Bb, Eb and F Major. Whilst this might be the easiest of choices it tends to make for a “Repetitive” range of sound and for those who want to “stand out from the crowd” it might be wise to include tunes in other more uncommon keys.

The use of a change of key whilst playing a chorus (or the main theme) can add interest to the tune for the listener. One example of this can be heard when some Bands play a tune like Tiger Rag where the last chorus is played say a whole tone up from the previous chorus. Eg. the penultimate chorus is in Ab and the last chorus is in Bb. There are numerous examples of this which can be accessed on YouTube.

Another way for Bands to stretch their ability is to play tunes that include several parts, such as those that have a verse (usually in a different key from the chorus), or the more complicated Rags, Stomps or Marches. Not only do these change key from part to part, but the original arrangement (if followed) has other features including “Breaks”, “Riffs”, “Stops” Tempo Change, Latin Rhythms, Minor Strains, etc.

A good guide is to listen to recordings of the Masters playing the tunes you enjoy, but take into account that the equipment used in the early days was not as accurate in respect of timing compared with more modern day so that some recordings could be as much as a tone different to the live performance, so for example if a recording appears to be in D Major, it was probably recorded in Db, if it appears to be recorded in Db it was probably recorded in C Major and most commonly if it appears to be recorded in B major, it was probably recorded in Bb.
Fortunately we are now blessed with Computer Software that can easily correct this deficiency.
Choosing the Tempo

As this can be a more contentious subject, I would like to re-iterate that these words represent my view only and hopefully others will agree.

The first point I would like to make is that the tempo a tune is played at out reflects how the Band intend it to be heard i.e. “Fast”, “Medium” or “Slow” and all the varieties in between. This is usually decided by the leader of the Band and either counted or “tapped in”. Another criterion I would consider important is that of “Swing”. (One way I have found helpful to listen for the “Swing Element” is to listen to the tune being played - or play it solo yourself - and see if you can feel the rhythm throughout.)
I use an example which I have used before of Wynton Marsalis playing “Buddy Bolden's Blues”:-
It is not necessary to watch the Video because you can feel the “swing” from just the audio.
I think most Dancers would prefer that any tune would be easier to dance to if it “swings” as this is the natural rhythm of the tune. As Jazz was more often a “dance music”, I think we ought to be guided by that.
The most common problem I have come across is that of playing a tune too quickly (racing) or at the other end of the scale, playing it too slowly (dragging). With the faster tunes there are several considerations to be made:-
  1. If there are established complicated many-note solos or ensembles required (for example High Society where the Clarinet plays the famous Alphonse Picou solo) the tempo needs to take this into account.
    As a guide watch the Video on YouTube in which he plays this solo at some extraordinary age of about 90 years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ftr_knt4D8
  2. If there is a Vocal in the tune, the speed has to take account of the singer being able to sing all the words throughout the song without difficulty. As examples, here are two approaches to two different tunes, each played at different tempos:-
    Two versions of “There'll be Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight:-
    Two versions of “Down in Honky Tonk Town”
    Using the “dancing to” yardstick I cannot see anyone preferring the faster of the two tunes. This is however my own personal opinion.
  1. Some of the slower tunes conversely should not be played so slow that they “drag” and yet nor played too quickly and lose the finesse of the melody.
  2. A very great bone of contention for me is when a Band loses control of a steady tempo of any tune, excitement creeps in and away it goes. I confess to being guilty of this myself, but I have learnt to try and control it and as part of the Rhythm Section it is part of our job to try and steady any “racing” down. It is most helpful for the “front line” if the rhythm is kept steady as they want to be able to play their improvisation neatly around the rhythmic accompaniment.
Choosing the Volume

In days gone by there was no such thing as Amplification or Electronic Instruments on a Concert Stand, Dance Hall, Concert Hall, Marching Band instrumentalists were positioned (in most cases) according to how loud they were. In the Recording Studio a similar approach was taken with the weakest-sounding instruments being closest to the “Recording Horn”. From photographs of Jazz Bands performing on Stage it can be seen that a common line up position was arrived at with the line up usually being (facing the Band: “front line” left – Trombone, Centre – Trumpet/Cornet, Right – Reeds (Clarinet/Alto Sax/Tenor Sax). “back line” left – Drums, to his right (with a four piece back line) String Bass/Brass Bass, next right - Piano next right and sometimes part of the “front line” - Banjo/Guitar. The leader would usually be the Horn Player and he/she would usually call the tune to play and set the Tempo. The overall sound would be adjusted most likely by the Drummer who would bring the volume down for the quietest instruments – Clarinet, Bass, Piano and Banjo solos and/or vocals.
At some point the playing volume might change to allow for the larger auditorium and towards the end of a tune. I suspect much of this detail was sorted out at a practice when all arrangements were thrashed out as well.
Then came along electronic amplification and everybody was “miced up” and thereafter the Band Sound was in the hands of the “mixer boys” or in the more hospitable venues, the band used their own portable gear (sometimes less than great) and had to check the sound mid-session.
In my experience the audience soon let you know if you are playing too loudly.

I hope this information does not discourage anyone who may be reading this and who is interested in starting or joining a Jazz Band. I can assure you that playing jazz with other people in a band can be very enjoyable, particularly when it goes well.