7 April 2013


Wolverine Blues was composed by Jelly Roll Morton in or before 1922. It's a popular tune with traditional jazz bands because it gives them more to get their teeth into than the 32-bar songs which occupy a large part of their programmes.

Wolverine Blues is not a 'real' blues in the sense of having a 12-bar structure or sad sentiments with many 'blues' notes. According to some sources, Jelly Roll himself had been playing it for quite some time as The Wolverines, so maybe that should be its title.

It usually begins with a bright 4-bar Introduction, establishing the key. Then comes the jaunty Theme A (16 bars, comprising 8 + 8, much moving between the tonic and dominant, and ending with The Sunshine Sequence). This theme is usually played twice. Immediately next comes Theme B (another 16 bars, comprising 8 + 8, but this time using a simple chord sequence of the Sister Kate type). This can also be played twice; and occasionally you come across a band that uses Theme B as a basis for improvisations.

Next comes a 4-bar Bridge (sometimes a chromatic uphill gallop). To lead in smoothly to Theme C, the Bridge needs to end firmly on the Dominant 7th of the key that will be used in Theme C.

Finally is Theme C - familiar to all jazz enthusiasts. It is based on a simple chord progression and consists of 32 bars (16 + 16), It is easy to stick on this theme and improvise upon it, as most bands do.

Generally, to round the performance off, the band plays the final eight bars of Theme C as a coda.

But if your band intends to play Wolverine Blues, you have to agree on certain points before you start. Which keys will you use? Will you omit the Bridge or any Themes?

If you listen to the following eight performances (see the chart below - you can find them easily enough on YouTube), you will notice what variety there can be.

All have an Intro. But after that, note the variations.

Most bands play Theme A in Bb. But The Antique Six prefer to play it in F (which is very comfortable). Three of the eight bands omit Theme B altogether, which I think is disappointing. The five who play it all stick in the same key as for Theme A, except Benny Goodman's band. He switches to Eb. I notice that the famous Australian 'Red Book', used by hundreds of banjo players, supports Goodman's version, also heading back like him to Bb for the final theme.

Going on, we find Jack Teagarden's Band omits the Bridge. A pity. Louis Armstrong's version omits everything apart from the main theme - Theme C. Of course, what he does with that theme is magical.

The final theme (Theme C) is played by seven of the eight bands in the key of Bb. The odd man out is Jelly Roll Morton, who actually composed the tune and ought to know in which keys it should be played! He goes into Eb - a logical progression from the previous themes in Bb.
So, after all that, how on earth are we supposed to tackle it? I'll give you my preference, for what it's worth.

I think we should not omit any parts. After the 4-bar Introduction, I would suggest Theme A twice, then Theme B twice; then the Bridge, and then stick on Theme C, not forgetting the Coda.

But keys? I don't care for the Goodman Bb to Eb back to Bb. It's tempting to stick with Bb all the way, like Kid Ory and John Shillito; or to go for the Antique Six version (easy on the lips of the blowing players). 

But by a narrow margin, my vote goes to the Jelly Roll version - first two Themes in Bb, using Eb for Theme C, with its natural development from the dominant to the tonic. Note how his Bridge is entirely on the chord of Bb7: perfect.