18 November 2017


It seems to be the case that humans (in the Western world at least) like their popular music to be served in digestible phrases containing four bars, or multiples of four bars. This was almost invariably the case in the popular music written between 1850 and 1950 and still played by traditional jazz bands. There is something in the DNA of composers and audiences that makes them expect little statements of music to fit perfectly into 4-bar or 8-bar shapes. Maybe it has something to do with the natural rhythms of walking (left-right-left-right) and our capacity to sing up to four bars with one intake of breath.

It's amazing to think that about 80% of all the popular songs were written with precisely 32-bar choruses (i.e. 8 batches of four bars). The tune could take the form of a 16-bar statement followed by another similar 16-bar statement with a conclusive resolution. Think of Indiana or Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey? or Moonlight and Roses or From Monday On or It's a Sin to Tell a Lie or Marie.

The very common alternative was to write 4 batches of 8-bars in which the first, second and fourth more or less used the same musical phrase, but with a 'middle eight' providing a contrast. This structure became known as A - A - B - A. The 'middle eight' bars (B) are often referred to as the 'bridge' or 'release'.

To get the feel of this type of tune, think of Making Whoopee or Smoke Gets in Your Eyes or I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby or Lonesome Road or That's My Weakness Now.

But what about other possible multiples of 4?

I don't know of any tunes consisting of ONLY four bars. Skid Dat De Dat might be considered as one: it seems to require nothing but four bars plus improvised two-bar breaks. But there are quite a few in the jazz repertoire that comprise only eight bars. Sallee Dame and Ice Man are good ones using only two chords. Old-Time Religion uses an eight-bar theme with a very simple chord structure. So does Don't Worry, Be Happy. Leroy Carr's How Long, How Long Blues has the feel of a 12-bar blues but in fact it comprises just eight bars. Similarly, The Girls Go Crazy is an eight-bar tune, using the harmonies of the final eight bars of a standard 12-bar blues structure. Crow Jane is playable as a striking and unusual 8-bar blues, though it sometimes has a tag - repeating the final two bars. Postman's Lament and 'Taint Nobody's Business If I Do and Vine Street Drag comprise a basic 8-bar block and chord progression that can be developed ad infinitum. The same is true of Too Tight BluesMississippi River Blues and I'll See You in the Spring. Spicy Advice, made famous by Bunk Johnson, has a very simple 8-bar structure. These are all very effective tunes for traditional jazz bands.

[By the way, there are two tunes called Vine Street Drag. I am referring to the one by W. Howard Armstrong. The other (by J. Brown) is essentially the 32-bar main theme of Tiger Rag.]

The next multiple of 4 brings us to tunes of 12 bars. I need hardly write here about the massive topic of the 12-bar blues format (obviously using three batches of four bars). There are simply hundreds of these 12-bar tunes - and no traditional jazz programme is complete without one or two of them.

There's a large repertoire of really good 16-bar tunes that bands don't play often enough, in my opinion. Some are particularly good for jazz effects, as they allow for 'breaks'. Think of Do What Ory Say or Up Jumped the Devil or If It Don't Fit, Don't Force It or Don't Go Away, Nobody or How Come You Do Me Like You Do or Hot Nuts, Get 'Em from the Peanut Man or Walkin' The Dog or Winin' Boy Blues or You've Got To See Mamma Ev'ry Night or Oh Miss Hannah, or Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down or Rip 'Em Up Joe or Jamaica March or Walking With The King or I'm Watchin' The Clock.
These are all terrific numbers to play and (because of their simple chord progressions) not too difficult to make sound exciting. And there are some more gentle 16-bar numbers - Careless Love and Royal Telephone and Faraway Blues and Bye and Bye and My Life Will be Sweeter Some Day with lovely but simple harmonies to be milked. The Ellington tune Saturday Night Function is something special. And Of All The Wrongs You've Done to Me is another good one from the 1920s. Early Hours, composed in 1953 by Monty Sunshine and Lonnie Donegan for the Ken Colyer Jazzmen, is a touching 16-bar tune, lovely in its simplicity.

Some of the 16-bar tunes are given an additional two-bar tag at the end (virtually repeating the final two bars). This can happen on the final chorus only or (as in My Sweet Lovin' Man and It's Right Here For You and I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate) on every chorus.

During the years 1912-1928 (and less frequently later), some popular composers experimented with 20-bar tunes (yes - the next multiple of four). Think of After You've Gone, New Orleans Stomp (second theme)Oh You Beautiful DollThe Darktown Strutters Ball, Drop That SackHard-Hearted Hannah, Take Me To The Land of JazzI Guess I'll Have To Change My PlanKeeping Out of Mischief NowYou've Got the Right Key but the Wrong Keyhole, Life is Just a Bowl of CherriesYou Got Me Crying AgainWhat-Cha Gonna Do When There Ain't No Jazz? and Papa De Da Da. Here too there was usually an opportunity for 'breaks'. In Papa Dip, for example, the breaks come in bars 13, 14 and 15.

In a later stage of traditional jazz development, we find Chris Barber in 1959 producing Hush-a-Bye - a delightful minor key tune of 20 bars.

There's a lovely 24-bar song by Georgia White and Richard M. Jones. It's called I'm Blue and Lonesome (Nobody Cares for Me). You can find it performed exquisitely on YouTube by Tuba Skinny. The Chorus of Over in the Gloryland also comprises 24 bars. So does the Chorus of Sing On - and the Chorus of Tailgate Ramble. And I'm Coming, Virginia. And there are plenty of 24-bar blues (essentially a 'doubling up' of the 12-bar blues chord progression). Also there was a fashion in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century for songs that had VERSES of 24 bars, even though the better-known CHORUS had a conventional 32 bar-structure. Examples are San and I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles.

Oh Daddy is an example of a 28-bar tune (next up in the multiples of 4). Way Down Yonder in New Orleans allows for the inclusion of some hiccuping breaks starting at Bar 13; and the 1928 composition I'll Get By As Long As I Have You, with music by the prolific Fred Ahlert, cleverly uses two similar statements of 14 bars each to make up the full 28, and leaves you feeling that you have been listening to a 32-bar tune.

I have already mentioned the 32-bar structures. About 80% of all the songs traditional jazz musicians play have 32-bar themes. They constitute the bulk of our material. So there is no need for me to give examples here.

An interesting curiosity is the haunting Goodnight My Love, which could have sounded fine as a 32-bar tune (16 + 16) but which has an extra four bars inserted (starting at bar number 25), making it an even more emotional 36-bar tune.

There once was even a fashion for 40-bar tunes (essentially 10 batches of four bars). Think of Somebody Stole My Girl, If You Were the Only Girl in the World, Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye, Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay, and Cakewalking Babies from Home.

The lovely French tune La Mer (though rarely attempted by traditional jazz bands) uses the conventional a - a - b - a structure but substitutes 12 bars for the usual 8 in each section, with the result that it runs out at a very unusual 48 bars instead of the usual 32. And Cole Porter's Samantha uses 48 bars in an interesting way: essentially there is what could be a complete 32-bar tune [16 + 16] but Cole Porter then adds a further 16-bar theme.