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8 February 2018


The band-leader announced that we would play I Get The Blues When It Rains.

The clarinet-player leaned across to me and quietly said, 'Just remind me how the Middle Eight goes.'

I hummed the tune and soon had to stop. 'Hey, wait a minute!' I said. 'I Get The Blues When It Rains doesn't have a Middle Eight. It's a 16 plus 16.'

'Ah yes. Got it!' he replied. And away we went, with no problems playing the tune.

But the incident reminded me that Middle Eights can cause problems and anxiety.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about, let me tell you most of our standard tunes are written in a 32-bar form. Sometimes (as in I Get The Blues When It Rains) the structure could be described as A1 (16 bars) + A2 (16 bars), in which A1 and A2 are very similar, beginning in identical ways for the first few bars.

But a huge number of the 32-bar tunes are structured in 8-bar segments, of which the first (A1), second (A2) and fourth (A3) are almost identical, while the third (B1) is something quite different. This 'B' section is called the Middle Eight (even though it does not come in the very middle); and it is sometimes called the Bridge or the Release.

(Incidentally I'm reminded of a very old joke. Two jazz musicians walked past a newspaper hoarding on which were the words Indiana Bridge Disaster. 'That's funny,' said one of them. 'I didn't think there was a bridge in Indiana.')

Although there are some stock patterns for Middle Eights (making it easy to improvise), there are also a few tunes that defy conventions. In these cases, you have to learn the Middle Eight the hard way and keep it in your head with regular practice.

All musicians have trouble with Middle Eights occasionally. I have even heard some of the 'big names' being flummoxed at this part of their improvisation.

Examples of tunes needing practice and care with the Middle Eight are I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, RosettaBlue Moon, You Took Advantage of Me, Have You Met Miss Jones?, Polka Dots and MoonbeamsYearning, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?, and C'est Si Bon. Although very few bands play them, Body and Soul and When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes need care, too.
In more complex multi-part tunes, you may find several themes, each of which has a challenging Middle Eight. Think of Deep Henderson, which contains three themes with Middle Eights that have to be thoroughly mastered. The Middle Eight of the final theme is a real thriller (arpeggios descending over unlikely chords). But Shaye Cohn, Barnabus Jones and Jonathan Doyle make it sound easy at 1 minute 53 seconds in this video:

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