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3 March 2013


Watch Aurora Nealand at 3 minutes 44 seconds into this exciting video (click on to view), and you will see her rapidly holding up two fingers and then four. Immediately her band knows they are to play just the second and fourth beats of the bars in the next chorus while backing the pianist. And they do so - to great effect. That's a good example of a leader skilfully directing her band.

In pretty well all performances by traditional jazz bands, one of the players is responsible for giving signals about what is to happen next - what we sometimes call 'directing the musical traffic'. These signals are the 'Visual Language' of the music.

I think it looks bad if - while a tune is being played - some of the musicians are seen talking about what they are going to do with the following Chorus. The discreet use of signals is so much better.

In a great band, signals may even be given by the eyes of the leader. Notice, for example, how often with Tuba Skinny all that is required is a glance from Shaye Cohn for the other musicians to know exactly what is required.

The most obvious and most common example or traditional jazz semiology is the signal to tell a player that he or she should improvise a solo (or take the lead) in the following Chorus. The leader usually does this by pointing his instrument towards that player - or sometimes indeed by mere eye contact. Here is Shaye Cohn of Tuba Skinny indicating with the slightest lean towards him that Barnabus is to take the next Chorus:
Here are some of the other useful signals.
This is the hand tapping the top of the head, demonstrated here by Marla Dixon, the dynamic leader of The Shotgun Jazz BandIt means: 'At the end of this Chorus, go right back to the beginning' (i.e. the Introduction or Verse).

And here it is deployed by Shaye Cohn.
This next one (the whisper signal) means 'Play the next Chorus very quietly.' I always enjoy the effect achieved by this.
But I have also noticed Marla signalling 'Next Chorus very quietly, please' by doing this:
The quiet Chorus is usually followed by a much louder one in which the band brings the tune to a climactic ending.

It makes for variety occasionally if a Chorus is played in 'fours'. That is to say, two or more players alternately take four bars each. Here's an example of Shaye setting up such a Chorus (note the four fingers). Immediately after catching the eye with this signal, she points to the two players who are to take the 'fours' and away they go.
Next is a signal Marla uses to tell the whole band to stop dead after the first beat of the next bar - to allow for the singer (or the designated player) to perform a two-bar 'break'. She punches the air behind her head. Some bandleaders indicate the break by holding the fist up and sharply pulling it down.
I like the clarity of that. It prevents the mistake that happens with some bands, when a drummer for example spoils someone's break by drumming right through it.

A great idea for occasional use is to have a chorus played entirely by the three front-line instruments only. To achieve this, the leader must indicate to the entire rhythm section that it must 'Cut!' Marla does this by slashing the hand horizontally in front of them:
To see this signal (at 4 minutes 45 seconds during a thrilling video of Climax RagCLICK HERE.

A rarely-heard signal is the one to indicate that the next chorus is to be performed by human voices only (everybody sings!). The achieve this, the leader calls 'A cappella'. See an example of Matt doing this at 2 minutes 18 seconds into this video: CLICK HERE.

This next signal is so helpful in creating something interesting and unusual. Yet I rarely see it used. As you probably know, the Middle Eight of a tune is also called The Bridge. So this signal means, 'In the next Chorus, start at the Middle Eight (The Bridge) rather than the beginning.' You get the hand into a bridge shape and rock it for a second or two:
Here is Marla using it.
There's a very clear example of Marla using it at 3 minutes 29 seconds into this video (click on to view).

But Shaye has her own signal for 'Go back to the Middle Eight'. She appears to make a 'bridge' with the two index fingers. You can see what she does if you click on this video and watch her fingers at 4 minutes 28 seconds: the band immediately responds by going to the Bridge, neatly bringing the tune to a conclusion.

Sometimes a signal is used to indicate the key of the tune. Fingers up mean sharps; fingers down are flats. So this signal means we are going to play in the key which has two flats (namely the key of Bb):
Normally such a signal should not be needed but it can be useful if the leader decides to switch into a different key at the start of the next Chorus. I have noticed Marla Dixon and Aurora Nealand - after playing several choruses of Why Don't You Go Down To New Orleans? in Eb - giving a one-finger-down signal to indicate that the final chorus would be in F. The effect of the key change was very impressive.

This next one means 'Half and half''. For example, when we play the next 32-bar Chorus, one player will take the first 16 bars and another will take the second.
When some of the players have been 'sitting out' during a Chorus and the leader wants them all to join in for the next, a good signal is a rolling motion with an instrument, indicating that all members of the band are being included. Here is Shaye using this signal. Take my word for it: the cornet is being waved round in a circle, indicating to Barnabus and Jonathan: 'I want us all playing in the next Chorus'.
Alternatively, the circle motion can be performed by the bandleader moving a single finger in a circle - usually above his head, so that everyone can see.

It helps all members of the band to know when they are on the last Chorus, bringing the tune to an end. With most experienced bands, this becomes almost instinctive. But it is helpful if the leader is positive in indicating the final Chorus. It may require no more than the trumpeter raising the bell of his instrument high as he plays and making sure everyone sees it.

But an interesting 'Finish' signal that has crept in recently (possible when bands are seated) is the extended leg.

To judge from YouTube videos, Aurora Nealand started this fashion among traditional jazz bands in about 2008 with a slight raising of the foot. But I have been told folk music groups used this signal in earlier decades. For a video of Aurora using it, CLICK HERE and watch her a few seconds from the end.
Shaye Cohn (who was playing with Aurora in that video) picked up the idea and used the extended leg so much in subsequent years that other bandleaders - so influenced by her - have started to adopt it.
Other signals are used to indicate 'Threes!' (all musicians except the soloist to play only the first three beats of the four in each bar) or 'Off!' (similar - play offbeats only). You can see Shaye order offbeats to back the clarinet at 2 minutes 6 seconds in this video: CLICK HERE. And she uses the same device at 2 minutes 19 seconds in THIS VIDEO where she is briefing the other musicians on how to back her own next chorus. Note the instant perfect response by all members of the band.

Another interesting instruction concerns the Introduction to the tune. Sometimes the last four bars are used as the Introduction. In England, the leader says 'Last Four' just before the band starts. But I note that Shaye Cohn in New Orleans says 'From the turn around'. I prefer that and presume it's the American custom. See an example by clicking here.

Another well-known signal is used when the next Chorus is to be a vocal. The leader's hand is held up and the fingers are used to mimic the shape of a mouth opening and shutting. You can see a very clear example of Shaye doing this if you click here and watch her at 3 minutes 29 seconds.

Of course, there is more to traditional jazz semiology than I have mentioned. Bandleaders develop their own signals.


Pops Coffee's Books Playing Traditional Jazz and Enjoying Traditional Jazz are available from Amazon: