18 February 2016


I receive many emails from readers who tell me they are in the early stages of trying to play traditional jazz. They ask whether I can help them.

Unfortunately, I am no great expert and certainly not a music teacher. I tell them there is quite a lot of help available on the internet (such as Lasse Collin's site and Charlie Porter's videos) and I have referred to these in several of my articles.

These emailers tell me they hope one day to play in a band but at present they are mastering their instruments, and learning tunes and chord progressions.

Maybe you should start by watching this excellent little video, which makes very clear how the trumpet, trombone and clarinet can improvise collectively:

While I was listening recently to a performance of Till We Meet Again, it occurred to me that I could at least recommend this super tune to you as something on which to practise.


Well, for a start you can take it quite slowly. Next, it includes two essential basic chord progressions that will turn up in very many tunes, so you need to feel comfortable improvising over them.

First you need to look at what goes on in this tune. So let's consider it, in the key of F.

We discover that it is a 32-bar tune (the most common type of all) and it is structured ABAB (each letter representing eight bars).

So you have two 'A' sections that are pretty much identical. These eight bars (marked in red below) use one of the most common chord progressions:

I    I    V7    V7    V7    V7    I    I

This movement from the tonic chord to the dominant and then back is found in very many tunes.

The F7 in the eighth bar leads perfectly into the Bb chord of Bar 9.

The 'B' sections use The Sunshine Chord Progression (also used in dozens of tunes). I have written about The Sunshine Progression in several articles. For example, click here to read one. Every jazzer must get the The Sunshine Progression into his fingers - in a range of keys.

In the first use of this progression, Bars 15 and 16 hold on to the dominant 7th (C7) rather than resolve completely to the tonic. The purpose of this is to lead back to the melodic theme all over again in Bar 17.

But when we reach the final eight bars of Till We Meet Again (B for the second time) we find the full Sunshine Progression - ending on the tonic to round the tune off perfectly.

So here is the full chord chart (in F):
Now: how about improvising? A simple way of creating an improvisation is to use this chord chart [F   F  C7   etc.] and simply play notes from the relevant chords as you go along. Basic arpeggios to begin with. For a beginner, this is not easy. That is why it helps to work with a slow tune such as this: it gives you time to think.

Don't forget that if you are a Bb or Eb instrument, then the Concert key of F will become G for you (Bb instruments, i.e. most trumpets and clarinets) or D for you (Eb instruments).

To give you some idea how this improvising-on-the-chords business works, I put the tune into Band-in-the-Box and then let my computer play it while with my cornet I tried to play notes from the arpeggios of the chords. I mostly used notes above the melody, in order to avoid clashing with it. To watch my attempt - or play along yourself - CLICK HERE.
Till We Meet Again was composed in 1918 by Raymond Egan, with words by Richard Whiting.

The book Playing Traditional Jazz by Pops Coffee is available from Amazon.