11 October 2016


The world of traditional jazz desperately needs more musicians - especially young ones. I have written on this subject before (about three years ago) and hundreds of people read the article, so it seems to be a topic worth considering again.

Would you consider playing in a traditional jazz band? How should you go about it?
You must start by reaching a reasonable level of technical proficiency on your chosen instrument. If you are a complete beginner, you will need lessons to get you started, mainly to set you up with good habits. I would recommend finding a qualified professional music teacher rather than someone who happens to play traditional jazz. (Players do not necessarily make good teachers.) Make sure you learn about scales, keys, chords and arpeggios and it will help if you learn to read music, at least at a basic level. After that, practice will be your main pursuit.
If you are already a competent musician, it does not follow that you will move easily into traditional jazz. Good piano soloists sometimes find it hard to adapt to their rôle in a band. Teamwork is the key to success in traditional jazz and players of the piano, guitar and banjo have to accept that for most of the time their job is simply to lay down the correct chords, firmly and clearly, rather than display virtuoso skills.

The one exception may be highly-skilled double bass players. If they are willing to adjust to the style and hardly use the bow at all, they can contribute extremely well with nothing more to guide them than the band's chord book. I remember how, during the 1950s, there were some double bass players, members of the symphony orchestras based in London, who would finish a concert with their orchestra and then head to a jazz club where they would join a traditional jazz jam session. It was easy enough for them to jump from Handel to Handy and from Mozart to Morton.
Becoming good enough to perform traditional jazz in public doesn't mean passing lots of exams. But be warned: it can take hundreds of hours of hard work in the woodshed.

You should start early on learning some tunes from the traditional jazz repertoire - easy ones to begin with. Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler is a particularly good and easy one as it is fun but uses very few notes and virtually only two alternating chords.

Soon you could try Algiers StrutTin Roof BluesWhen The Saints Go Marching InCareless LoveDown By The Riverside, and Lily of the Valley.
There are plenty of sources of printed music, such as busker's books. But an excellent site you should consult is Lasse Collin's, where there's enough to keep you going for years: CLICK HERE TO VIEW.

And here's an important tip: when you first learn a tune, make sure you learn it accurately. If you get into a habit of playing a phrase or a sequence of chords wrongly, it is very hard to unlearn them later, after the tune has become embedded in your brain and fingers.

Develop an understanding of and fluency in different keys. Those most commonly (but by no means exclusively) needed in traditional jazz are Bb, Eb and F. Next most common are Ab and C.

Listen to lots of traditional jazz - especially noting the part played by your chosen instrument - to get a feel for what is required. Use the wonderful resource of YouTube. When you are ready, try playing some tunes along with bands on YouTube. That's almost as good as 'sitting in'.

A similar idea is to play along with backing tracks. Some of these are also freely available on YouTube. This will give you a great chance to assess your progress because, if you are confident and not discordant with a backing track, the chances are you will fit in with a jazz band.

Link up with other musicians. Maybe you can form a band in your town, starting with a nucleus as a trio or quartet. Meet regularly in one of your houses to rehearse and expand your repertoire.

How do you find these musicians? Put the word around among all your friends and acquaintances. Chat in the local music shop. Advertise in the local newspaper. See whether anybody in a social group is interested (e.g. in England, the U3A). There may be a regional website on which you can seek (free of charge) other musicians.

Listen to live traditional jazz bands and talk to the musicians: they are very good sources of information about both learners and established players in the area and may be able to put you in touch with people who could join your group.

For information on which bands are playing where, there is probably a regular publication you can consult. For example, here in England we have the monthly Jazz Guide - available in clubs and from bands and also by post if you pay the very reasonable subscription (payments by PayPal are accepted). You should be able to see a sample page and full information by clicking HERE.

And specifically for the North-West of England, a gentleman called Fred Burnett altruistically runs a website giving full bulletins concerning jazz in his region: click here.

When you feel ready, begin to practise more challenging and more complex tunes: there are hundreds in the repertoire.

Unless you are a born genius, you will need to learn the standard chords and also practise improvising your way though common chord progressions. In particular, work on the Circle of Fifths and The Sunshine Sequence and the basic 12-bar Blues Sequence as these will be useful in hundreds of jazz tunes. If you don't know what I mean, look at the blog posts in which I have written about them.

Are you worried about improvising? Watch Charlie Porter's excellent videos. For an example CLICK HERE.

When your group is good enough at fifteen or so tunes, start playing gigs! You can give your band a name and offer yourselves for free to a local pub or residential home and get your band officially launched.

Also, when you have built up confidence by playing along with YouTube, ask whether you may sit in for a couple of tunes with an existing band. Most bands are so keen to keep the music alive that they readily give opportunities to anyone who shares that mission.

Make sure you give your telephone number and email address to everyone who may be able to help you in the future - especially band-leaders. It may be worth having some business cards printed.

Band-leaders and agents keep lists of musicians within a radius of seventy miles. You never know when you may receive a call to deputise for a musician who is ill or on holiday.

Eventually you may succeed in obtaining a place in a reputable well-established band. There is a rapid turn-over of personnel and a need for new blood, especially these days when many elderly musicians are hanging up their trumpets and clarinets.

Most of today's traditional jazz musicians have gone through the stages I have described above, except that in their day they did not have the enormous benefit of YouTube and such sites as Lasse Collin's to help with learning and training. In years gone by, players had to listen to records and later to cassettes in order to pick up tunes by ear and learn from the masters.