29 August 2017


How many musicians does it take to form a jazz band? I suppose you could get away with two: a clarinet and a banjo playing 'Rosetta' on a street corner would be just fine.

With four (say: sousaphone, banjo, clarinet and trumpet) you certainly have a band: you produce a full sound and can tackle a huge repertoire.

But of course, when most people think of a traditional jazz band, they picture six or seven musicians, with a 'front line' of three including a trombone and a 'rhythm section' of three or four, which may include a pianist and a drummer.

So is it possible to go above seven?

In theory, I would say 'No'. With greater numbers, there is a risk that the musicians will get in each other's way. What started as lovely music could become a din, especially if several of the instruments were using amplification.

So is it possible for a traditional jazz band to function with as many as ELEVEN players? Surely not.

Of course, in the case of bands playing from printed arrangements, there is no problem: the arranger has done the thinking and the musicians need only play what is on the stand in front of them. This is more akin to old-style dance band music and it is not the kind of traditional jazz to which I am referring.

I am more interested in bands where improvisation, teamwork and creativity are highly valued and nobody plays from printed music. 

Well, I can point you to an example where we see a traditional jazz band of ELEVEN musicians playing very well indeed.

How is this possible?

For a start, they are outstanding musicians, all respectful of each other's roles and of the overall sound. They are well directed - by a leader who gives neat and discreet signals, so that they all know who is taking the breaks and who is to take the next solo and when to go back to Part A. They are seated in such a way that everybody can see the leader's signals (very important). They make sure that all instruments can be heard. Note what discipline and restraint there is among the other players during the tuba solo chorus. Listen to the clarinet and saxophone and note how they never trespass on each other's notes. Importantly, nobody in the band is using amplification, so the overall acoustic effect is fine.

It is a performance filmed in Royal Street, New Orleans. We have to be deeply grateful to that indefatigable video-maker codenamed Wild Bill for being there to film the event for us. What we have is a group made up of some members of Tuba Skinny, with star guests sitting in. They are playing Shake it and Break It.