Welcome, Visitor Number

7 May 2017


As an octogenarian Englishman who likes traditional jazz and has a go at playing it, I wish I could occasionally give more praise to our elderly British bands. But I have to face the harsh truth: we (I include myself) are just not good enough.

It's not surprising that our audiences are sparse and that young people don't come to hear us. Our music is often so dull, complacent, predictable, repetitive in format, uncreative and poorly presented. Far from swinging, it is often plodding and tedious.

Here's an example. I recently witnessed one of the well-known English bands playing Lily of The Valley - a fairly simple three-chorder. The tempo was so slow and the drumming weary, heavy and laboured. At times the tune threatened to drag even more. Compared with the great young musicians in New Orleans today, these players (though they possibly played better years ago) seemed to have limited technical skills. The interplay between trumpet, clarinet and trombone was uninteresting. The usual dreary succession of 32-bar 'solos' followed, while the musicians themselves did not look at all enthused. The banjo solo (really necessary?) - though accurately working through all 32 bars - was very basic.

Compare this with a performance of the same tune in Royal Street, New Orleans. Click on here:

These youngsters set and maintain a bright, foot-tapping tempo. They find a great deal to 'say' about the music. Starting - unusually - with the trombone taking the melody, they follow up with much creative interweaving involving the cornet, clarinet and trombone. Instead of tedious 32-bar 'solos', there is much exciting ensemble work, sometimes with the cornet and sometimes the clarinet taking the lead. Simple the tune may be, but some of the improvisations are astonishing. The tuba is intelligently used to provide variety and give some respite to the others before they return for a glorious ensemble finish during which there is some remarkable invention and exciting off-beat cymbal-work. They even do something unusual to end: they play the first 16 bars twice.

I hate to sound unkind. But the truth is I would rather spend my time listening to interesting and exciting performances of this quality than to performances by us elderly British musicians.

By the way, there is a Victorian hymn called The Lily of the Valley with words written by William Fry for the Salvation Army. Ira Sankey set it to the music of the song The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, which had been composed by Will Hays. So when jazz bands play Lily of the Valley, the composers are sometimes given as Fry, Sankey and Hays. But this is WRONG. Look at the music (it's on the Internet) and you will find it is a totally different tune.

The Lily of the Valley that our jazz bands play is the one introduced in 1951 by Paul Barbarin (the New Orleans drummer also famous as the composer of Bourbon Street Parade). He seems to have put it together from sections of What a Friend We Have in Jesus and the theme you can hear very near the end of Red Onion Drag (composed in 1927 by Louis Dumaine and Eddie Jackson and recorded that year by Louis Dumaine's Jazzola Eight). You can check that out on YouTube. After Barbarin, the tune was made popular with jazz bands mainly by Ken Colyer's performances of it.

I received the following email from one of my readers who lives in London, England, and had just returned from a holiday in New Orleans:
I could not agree more with your second paragraph and I am suffering from a lack of enthusiasm for watching UK bands since we got back from NOLA.  However, comparison with Tuba Skinny - an imaginative, creative and compelling band of talented energetic young musicians - is a tough 'ask' for the sort of bands I see in England who are often going through the motions in playing numbers they have played many times in the same way over many decades.