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16 January 2017


Have you ever wondered why so many classic jazz pieces run through two or three themes - perhaps including some links or bridges - and then finally settle into a chunky 32-bar theme on a straightforward chord progression - a theme that may be repeated with variations and improvisations for as long as the band wishes? I'm thinking of such tunes as At a Georgia Camp Meeting, Buddy's Habit, Blame It On The Blues, Bugle Boy March, Fidgety Feet, Frogimore Rag, Hiawatha Rag, Original Dixieland One-Step, Mabel's Dream, and Tiger Rag.

I believe it is all part of a tradition passed down to us from the days of Haydn. It is the 'Trio'.

Yes, I know a 'trio' usually means a group of three - three musicians, for example.

But there is another use of the word 'Trio' in connection with music and it dates from the way pieces were structured by the classical composers of the mid-Eighteenth Century.

Symphonies and string quartets by the likes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were made up of several units of music, spread over a number of movements.

The 'Trio', which often came within a 'Minuet' movement, was often provided as a contrast to another theme that was played before and after it.

Why it was called a 'Trio' is somewhat obscure, but it seems likely that, originally at least, it really did involve some kind of three-part harmonizing. (You can certainly find that in Haydn string quartets.)

Move forward to the late Nineteenth Century and we find that composers of light or semi-classical music still considered it proper to create pieces that included four or five separate themes, or parts. By analogy, they thought they too should have a section called the Trio; and often it appeared as a somewhat grand but simple melody (usually 16 or 32 bars). Just as the classical composers had done, they often switched to a different key for the Trio. And, just as in classical music, they sometimes indicated that the musicians were expected to go back to the opening theme and play that again AFTER the Trio.

This idea of including Trios was immensely popular in Brass Band music of the Nineteenth Century. Think of those great marches, in many of which there is a theme called the 'Trio'. Sometimes it is quite grandiose.

So it's hardly surprising that the Trio found its way into early jazz - and that it's still there today, though I doubt whether any of our current musicians ever consciously think about it.

Look at the original sheet music of some of our jazz classics. This is the final section of Deep Henderson. I have highlighted where the Trio begins.

And here is the point in Panama where the Trio begins:

It switches from the key of F to the key of Bb at the start of the Trio - the most common switch of all, in which early themes are played in the key that is the Dominant of the Final Theme.

The same happens in Maple Leaf Rag. Here the switch is from the key of Ab (for the earlier themes) to Db for the Trio.

And here's the Trio from Charles Cooke's 1914 piano rag Blame It On The Blues. When our jazz bands play it today, it sounds very unlike this, because it has been re-interpreted with a much more simple melodic line, easier for trumpet players to cope with.
A few more examples:

The Cactus Rag (1916) is written in Eb - until the Trio, which is in Ab.

Chimes (by Homer Denny, 1910 - not to be confused with Chimes Blues) is a rag in F with a Trio in Bb.

The rag Cole Smoak (1906) is in Eb, with the Trio in Ab.

James Scott's Evergreen Rag (1915) goes from G to C for the Trio.

So, whenever we play one of those multi-part tunes that ends with a steady theme on which we all love to improvise, perhaps we should spare a thought for the likes of Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809), who so long ago showed how pieces of music may be constructed by putting together various parts - or themes - and how interesting it is to have such an impressive contrasting theme (perhaps in a related key) that, for want of a better term, we may call 'The Trio'.


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