4 February 2018


For anybody interested in studying traditional jazz, 'Big House Blues', composed by Duke Ellington in 1930, is a good illustration of what makes the music endlessly fascinating and interesting.

For a start, like plenty of other pieces from our standard repertoire, it has two sections of which one is in a major key (in this case Eb) and the other in the related minor key (C minor).

Next, it reminds us that not all tunes in the 1920s and 1930s were structured in 12-bar or 32-bar formats. In fact, the first theme (Section A - see below) consists of 20 bars. Other examples of 20-bar tunes from our early repertoire are After You've GoneOh You Beautiful DollThe Darktown Strutters BallI Guess I'll Have To Change My PlanKeeping Out of Mischief NowYou've Got the Right Key but the Wrong KeyholeYou Got Me Crying Againand Papa De Da Da.

The tune uses riffs – again typical of our music – and they are unusually pretty and rhythmically interesting. Note what happens in bars 17 and 18 of the A section, for example. 

It is possible to go straight from section A into section B , though bands with a piano often get the pianist to play a four-bar link between the two, just as Ellington did.

Now look at the second theme - section B – in the key of C minor. It has a 32-bar AABA structure, again using a pretty, dramatic riff for the A sections. The middle eight has its own striking, defiant melody ending with a powerful use of the G7 chord.

Improvisations are normally played on this B section and they can be very dramatic. The melody and the minor key lend themselves to growling, muted work, for example. Actually, the chord sequence is much simpler than it sounds: it is possible for a musician of average ability to produce something quite impressive from this material. I think that is why it is popular with trumpet and trombone players.

I have heard some bands also introducing a 12-bar blues chorus in Eb, and using this for improvisations. I think that spoils the overall impact of all the minor chord stuff. Ellington himself didn't do it in 1930, so why should we?

A very good way to end the tune is to play Section A again, with those bars 17 to 18 sustaining the drama and bar 20  bringing the piece to a striking sudden halt.

You can hear the tune being played by Ellington himself BY CLICKING HERE. And you may watch a band playing the piece in 2008 BY CLICKING HERE.


The book 'Playing Traditional Jazz' by Pops Coffee is available from Amazon.