4 October 2015


Art Work by my friend Peter Bunney

Is it better to have a small repertoire and to play all the tunes really well or to aim at a wider, more adventurous and more risky repertoire? What makes the range of jazz bands so appealing is that every band has its own policy on repertoire and style of presentation. 

For example, where I live, I get to hear five local bands and there are big differences in their policies and styles. Let me tell you about them.

This long-established six-piece band has a wide repertoire. It plays many 'easy' standards but it also likes to include rags and classics from the early 1900s, and Jelly Roll Morton and Sam Morgan numbers. So some of its tunes are complex and require all the musicians to know the structure, with the various strains and key changes. The players dress in casual clothes. Typically, you can catch the band playing, for example, Hiawatha Rag, Blame It On The Blues, Ory's Creole Trombone and Big House Blues. The musicians get together to rehearse - but only three or four times a year, as they are scattered over a wide area. The band attracts a fair number of gigs, including some at jazz clubs.

This six-piece band (sometimes five-piece) keeps the repertoire simple. The players wear black shirts but no ties. It specialises in easy numbers - mainly using basic chord progressions, pulsating 12-bars and tunes such as Make Me a Pallet on the Floor, C Jam Blues, Don't Go Away Nobody, Georgia Grind and Redwing. It has a rocking rhythm section including a powerful four-to-the-bar young string-bass player. There is much use of simple riffs by the front line. The music is often entirely improvised - the leader suggesting a theme for a 12-bar - and away they go. The band attracts very few gigs (perhaps it should market itself better), but audiences love it. Feet tap, people dance and nobody goes to sleep while this band is playing. From the musician's point of view, the music is not much of a challenge, but they make people feel they've had a good night out.

This Band always dresses smartly: DJs and bow ties. For public performances the band (five-piece and sometimes only four-piece) always picks its playlist from the same forty 'simple' songs, such as Bill Bailey and All of Me. It's easy for the musicians: they know the tunes so well that they play on automatic pilot. You can count on them always to play When You're SmilingFive Foot TwoDoctor JazzDown By The Riverside - in the most familiar keys. You don't hear them play anything fresh or complex. I bet the playing has become stale for the musicians. But the band is marketed well and gets some of its bookings through an agent and probably attracts more private gigs than the others. Maybe that proves something. 

This six-piece band (with a regular monthly pub gig but not much else) never has a rehearsal and never prepares a playlist. It dresses casually. It offers a mixture of jazz standards and ballads (sung usually by the trombonist - a decent singer), mostly in the conventional keys. It's the kind of band that might play IndianaSt. Louis Blues and Fly Me To The Moon but never Chrysanthemum Rag or Kinklets. It's a typical English pub jazz band - experienced elderly musicians making reasonably good music but not getting many gigs and certainly not making any money!

This band is distinctive in that it has a very talented lady singer as well as five accomplished instrumentalists. The band dresses smartly, in white shirts and bow ties. The leader seeks out music that is harmonically challenging and more interesting than run-of-the-mill traditional jazz tunes. Of course, the band nevertheless plays a few simple jazz standards (certainly no multi-theme pieces) but mostly it backs the singer - often in sophisticated songs with rich harmonic progressions and in 'awkward' keys - to suit her. You find them performing Blues in the Night or Black Coffee or Every Time We Say Goodbye or What a Difference a Day Made. It's hard work for the instrumentalists but more rewarding than playing on automatic pilot. I believe this band does not have many gigs but it is usually well appreciated.

I could try to draw conclusions from all this but I think you can draw them easily enough for yourself. Repertoire, costume, marketing, style of playing and of presentation: all bands have to make their own choices.