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.

15 June 2017


I have written before about the value of fake books (sometimes called 'busker's books') to traditional jazz musicians, especially in the early stages of mastering your craft.

But beware. Some fake books - though crammed with tunes - are not as helpful as you may expect. They contain very few tunes the traditional jazz musician is likely to play.

But you can find less pretentious books that provide the leadsheets (words, notes and chords) of quite a few essential tunes. Such is 101 Pub Favourites for Buskers. Pub favourites tend to be in most cases traditional jazz favourites too; and they are often among the simplest tunes you need to master.
So from this book, for example, you can learn such tunes as After the Ball, You Always Hurt the One You Love,  Ain't She Sweet, Bill Bailey, On a Slow Boat to China, Nobody's Sweetheart Now, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, I Can't Give You Anything But Love, and so on. Here, for example, is On The Sunny Side of the Street - as you can see, very clear and easy to learn from. AND it even includes the Verse (which many musicians don't know).
I bought this book way back in 1986, would you believe, when I was at the stage of getting started and trying to play a few simple tunes in a group formed by three friends. It was produced by Wise Publications. There were several others in the '101' series.

I doubted whether these books were still on sale three decades later. But a quick internet search showed me that you can easily still order a new copy for about £18 (i.e., U.K. price) or you may obtain a used copy much more cheaply.
By the way, if you may be interested in reading my e-Book called 'Playing Traditional Jazz', which is for jazz players and would-be jazzers, click here:
This will let you sample-read a few pages.