27 June 2017


Sometimes you come across a great tune on YouTube but can't for the life of you think of its title. That happened to me with one from Tuba Skinny.

The person who put up the video didn't know it either.

Well, a blog-reader (James Buck) very kindly put us both out of our misery and told us it is 'Dear Almanzoer', written and recorded in 1927 by Oscar Celestin. He's right! How to watch the video? CLICK HERE.

Listen to Celestin's version and then Tuba Skinny's. You will find the musicians of Tuba Skinny have kept faithfully to the original, even though their instrumentation is slightly different from Celestin's. The structure of Tuba Skinny's performance is as follows.The entire piece (which comprises three themes) is played in the key of Eb:

Theme A (played once): 16-bar theme like a Verse of a Song. Typical of verses in Eb, it ends on the chord of Bb7, leading perfectly into the tonic at the start of Theme B.

Theme B (played once): 32-bar theme (like a Chorus of a song).

Theme C: a 12-bar blues theme (played 5 times: i. clarinet against offbeats - exactly as on the Celestin version, ii. clarinet against stop chords - again exactly as on the Celestin version, iii. cornet, iv. trombone leading, v. trombone leading - with decoration from cornet).

Theme B: the 32-bar theme is played ensemble again to finish (again as in the original Celestin performance).

Thanks as so often to the great video-maker digitalalexa for recording this performance for us.

Later, another very good YouTube video of this tune played by Tuba Skinny appeared. It was made by Dave Mann. You can enjoy it here:

24 June 2017


Have you heard Decatur Street Blues? I expect you have. If not, you can enjoy a lively 1922 performance of it made by Leonia Williams and Her Dixie Band BY CLICKING HERE.

Leonie was a native of New Orleans and her 'Dixie Band' comprised five musicians, - Phil Napoleon on trumpet, Frank Signorelli on piano, Miff Mole on trombone, Johnny Costello on clarinet, and Jack Roth on drums.

The song was composed in 1922 by Tausha 'Tosh' A. Hammed and Clarence Williams, with words by Mercedes Gilbert.

I thought until today that the title of the song referred to Decatur Street in New Orleans. (By the way, they pronounce it Di - CAYY - ter, with the stress on the second syllable.) This is one of the favourite roads of every visitor to the French Quarter - this road, in fact:
But today, giving close attention to the words of the song, I found it's actually Decatur Street in Atlanta, Georgia! We're even told to hear a gentleman called Eddie Heywood 'whip those ivories' down 'at eighty-one'. This would be the Atlanta jazz pianist Eddie Heywood, whose son - also called Eddie Heywood - became even more famous and ran a sextet in the 1940s.

I guess the scene has changed beyond recognition since Eddie played there.
Decatur Street, Atlanta - today.

21 June 2017


The year was 1954 and I had discovered the wonderful early New Orleans-style jazz music coming to us in London on recordings from America. One of the first - what a great introduction to the heady effects of raw New Orleans jazz! - was Gravier Street Blues, composed by Clarence Williams in 1924 and played by Johnny Dodds and His Orchestra. The recording was made in 1940. I have recently learned Johnny recorded it, in fact, just two months before he died.
Johnny Dodds
This tune - catchily melodic, even though largely made up of simple riffs played in a 'bluesy' manner - galvanized my interest in this branch of music. I loved the combination of Johnny's clarinet with Natty Dominique's cornet. 

On the recording, there are, incidentally, good solo choruses from Johnny himself and from Lonnie Johnson on guitar.

As was often the case in the days of 78rpm recordings, the whole piece is completed in about two and a half minutes - a lesson to us all in the impact value of brevity.

A Johnny Dodds enthusiast has generously put this recording on YouTube for us all to enjoy. So please see whether you can share my enthusiasm:
Gravier Street, by the way, is very central in New Orleans. It runs parallel to - and between - Tulane Avenue and Perdido Street, not far from 723 Jane Alley, where Louis Armstrong was born.

I struggled to work the tune out for my mini filofax system and came up with a version typical of my amateurish approach. But then I found the great Lasse Collin had put up a leadsheet on his site: http://cjam.lassecollin.se
So here is Lasse's, followed - for what it's worth - by mine.
Many thanks, Lasse:

18 June 2017


I was at a traditional jazz concert recently when a lady in the audience said she was enjoying it very much but that she didn't 'normally listen to such erudite music'.

I was struck by the word 'erudite', partly because it's not a word you often hear these days, but even more because it was a word I had never myself applied to traditional jazz.

However, when I reflected on it afterwards, I came to see that it really was a clever choice of word and very appropriate to our music.

If we think of traditional jazz only as a pleasant noise that makes us tap our feet and want to dance, we are missing the enormous amount of learning that lies behind it. And the greatest musicians make it look so easy that we may not recognise how 'erudite' it is. 
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines 'erudite' as 'having or showing knowledge that is gained by studying'. The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us that 'erudite' means 'remarkably learned'. It comes from the Latin erudire, meaning to instruct.

When you think about it, you find a huge amount of erudition behind every performance of traditional jazz.

The musicians have had to:

master the techniques of playing their instrument(s) [many hundreds of hours of practice];

study the history of traditional jazz and learn from the work and recordings of past masters;

learn to play in various keys and become fluent in the appropriate chords and arpeggios - major, minor, diminished and so on - and be able to improvise freely around them;

study and learn to use syncopation, riffs, jazzy devices and a variety of tempos and rhythms; 

understand the structures of the tunes;

learn and hold in their heads the melodies and harmonic progressions of many tunes [often hundreds];

study the role of their own instrument and use this knowledge effectively in contributing to the playing as a team-member;

master the conventions and the methods of communication within a performance.
Compared with most conventional kinds of musicians who play instruments directly from printed music and without any requirement to improvise or deviate from what is written, jazz musicians may be considered exceptionally erudite.

Imagine you would like to speak a foreign language but you are starting from scratch. Think how much study it will take for you to reach a point when you will be able to hold a fluent natural conversation with native speakers of that language.

Learning to play an instrument in a traditional jazz band is very similar to that.

Yes, well said that lady: traditional jazz is erudite all right.