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"learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed response

Postby bloke » Sun Sep 30, 2018 11:06 am

Some who are my betters may find this to be flawed, but I just sent this off to a friend.
If you see flaws in it, feel free to correct/amend.

a friend wrote:
Just a question for you about learning to play dixieland. I am going through some old music books I have purchased over the years and found this dixieland fake book by David Littlefield I bought a long time ago. Looks like his web site is long gone. Have you ever seen these books? I'm just wondering how to start with them. I should have purchased everyone he sold back when he was still doing this. I am guessing I need to learn to develop a bass line based on the chords listed and try to find some of the old bands that have recordings of some of this music. Many of the titles in the book i have never heard of before. The only thing I have never been able to do is learn to improv anything. I’m at a point where I don’t get to play in groups anywhere and I want to learn something new that I can enjoy even at home. The book I have has a ton of songs and from what I have read its really something to keep since the person that made these was really knowledgeable and they are no longer available.

I know I'll probably never be very good at it but I want to at least give it a try and see how i do. I do also have a lot of old sheet music for tuba, lots and lots of old solos that I also enjoy, but learning to do some improv would really be great too. Just wondering if you have any advice on getting started.


bloke wrote:The best thing to do, in my view, is to develop skills via playing along with recordings.

On the web can be found some lists (obviously, people's opinions) of the top 50/100/200/500 (whatever) mostly commonly played dixieland/traditional jazz tunes. (I just call them "old songs").
Start with a list of ten that you personally recognize, that you feel certain would be played by a pick-up band at a new-grocery-store-opening gig, and work on those. Find recordings on you tube of good-sounding bands (good players that play together well, and don't sound like a mess...but not over-stylized...i.e. not some all-written-out "clever" arrangements) and try to play along with them. Make your mistakes, and get lost/confused. Work on one song until you can play along (without seeing a chord sheet) and sound good. Try to pick up on the spots where the chord changes nearly inevitably dictate certain bass lines (for one, two, three, or four bars) and try to remember those lines, and how they fit in with that song in that spot. If you are serious about this, try to listen with a keyboard in front of you, and figure out the chords on your own (without looking at a lead sheet that you find on the web). When you figure out the chords and see how some of those really good bass patterns (that really good players know and use) fit into those chord changes, you'll be enlightened, will remember, and will apply those formulas to similar songs with similar chord movements. Most chords are going to be common...obviously 1, 5, 4, a few 5-of-5, some 6, and some 5-of-6. Occasionally, some diminished and augmented chords (again: "western music...Bach's chords"). Yes, the chords do tend to move along fairly quickly (not quite as quickly as with Bach chorales), but also very logically. Parenthetically, as you develop these aural on-the-fly skills, try to be sensitive to minor chords (yes, some old songs actually use these - wink), and diminished/half-diminished/augmented chords, and notice how they are sometimes used (by original composers of old songs) as substitutes for dominants and sub-dominants. As an example, one dixieland staple, "Hindustan", features chords (in it's 32 bar "chorus", as very few bands even know of the existence of this song's "verse") very similar to "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home", but with a half-diminished chord just before the last four bars. Something else that was occasionally done during that time period was to substitute a major chord (built on the seventh scale step) for the dominant. As you begin develop these aural skills, work on trying to aurally catch those less-obvious chords, and to be able to identify them mentally...not necessarily with your brain labeling their verbal names, but with your lungs/mouth/fingers sounding them on your instrument.

As referred to above when mentioning "Hindustan", many old songs have a "verse" (often, only played once) and a "chorus" (played over-and-over). A few tunes are written somewhat like marches, with "strains" in two or more keys. Tiger Rag and High Society are two examples of this. Other songs are based on 12-bar blues (occasionally, with a twist), or are just 32-bar songs (with no verse). Many tunes have things that are done "as tradition". If (on youtube) you hear several bands doing the same thing at the same places (that won't be found on "lead sheets") those would be examples of this.
The temptation is to buy books, but (again), you can find lists of songs and good performances of them on youtube...as well as lead sheets on the internet to those songs. Again, struggling to write out your own chord changes (and - later - struggling less-and-less, and finding it more-and-more effortless) will strengthen your skills tremendously, it will pay off, and other musicians will quickly hear that you can "hear", and WILL CALL YOU FOR GIGS.

If this sounds like a bunch of nonsense, let me know, and I'll try to answer the question you actually asked (about "which book[s] to buy"...but this will be difficult for me, because did not learn via that approach). In your spare time, you can probably become somewhat proficient (particularly with knowledge of four-dozen-or-so very commonly-played songs) within a few months to a year. Try to be aware of different types of "feels" (styles-within-the-style, in which different rhythmic patterns and even different types of note-length/decay might be utilized). The more you realize that the tuba was often played (as a substitute instrument) by the double bass player (as an "outdoor instrument"), the more you'll pick up on different styles-within-the-style (and will be able to branch out to related styles, such are R&B, zydeco, and others - where chord changes tend to move slower, but rhythm becomes even more predominant). . The more songs you know, the more songs (that you've never heard in your life) you'll be able to "fake" (playing the on-the-fly odds of "the next most likely chord in the song") songs that you've never ever heard before...something along the lines of "sight-hearing"...(??) Just remember that these abilities are not things that I consider so much to be talents, but (rather) skills. I don't view them as "gifts", but as "accomplishments". I was lucky enough to be paid to develop these skills on the bandstand, but I just don't see that happening anymore. That having been said, the tools available (at home, at your fingertips) to develop these skills are infinite, today.

Improvisation: This is a lot of fun, and - when done really well, so as to actually entertain others - requires a combination of intimate knowledge of chord structure relationships from one chord to the next (again, not really verbal names, but skipping past the names to what happens with the tuba), a nice repertoire of "licks" which can be played in all keys (that will get a player through a solo when the "imagination" portion of the brain isn't particularly inspired), an ability to create countermelodies (with one's mind referring to harmonizing with the SONG, rather than pooting around towards some enhanced version of a bass line), a sense of humor, and and (yep) some restraint. This is for LATER. "Front line" (trumpet, trombone, clarinet, sax, etc.) musicians really don't care whether the bass player can play great solo choruses, and there are plenty of jokes about "bass solos", but they are glad for bass players to "give it a shot", and are very supportive. It is quite a bit more difficult for a bass player to play a really good solo, because (well) there's no bass line to back up the bass player and to "remind" the bass player of the chord changes, so - if you ever get to that point - besides all the stuff previously stated in this paragraph, a bass player has to SCREAM the MELODY of (nope: NOT a bass line for) the songs to themselves in their head while playing solo choruses...and what's the best way to remember the MELODIES to songs...?? (yet more work...) Learn the words. For a "bass solo", it actually sounds much better (infinitely better) to (simply) play a conservatively-altered version of the melody than to attempt to turn a structural bass line into a solo. Finally, I do not consider "the creation of bass lines" to be "improvisation". Rather, I consider it to be "structure", and I strive to be completely aware of the best possible bass line to harmonize with a particular melody and (when front-line musicians are playing solo choruses) strive to listen very intently to what they are doing and "where they are going" so that I can "go where they are going", but never seeming to over-anticipate (and certainly not "mock") where they are going.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby The Big Ben » Sun Sep 30, 2018 1:33 pm

Thanks, bloke. I have a couple of friends who play guitar. One of them can read music if he really, really tries but hasn't really done it for thirty years. The other guy is quite fluent on the piano and accordion and reads music well but has said that, for about half the tunes he knows, he has never seen a piece of paper in the time that he has been playing it. I struggle with playing a tuba accompaniment to join in the fun. They are encouraging and we flail away at it- mostly blues and 60s rock and roll. It's been my observation that many guitar players (from the owners of Sears, Roebuck hollow boxes to Martins and Gibsons) know more about how music is put together than I do. Point is, when these guys want to learn a new song, they listen to it a few times, pick and strum around on their guitars, listen to it again and try some more. (When Stevie Ray Vaughn hit the national scene, there was a lot of SRV going on at his house and lots of sad sounding picking until he kind of got the hang of it, He is a pretty good guitar player and has picked up some of SRV's licks and they get thrown in on other tunes also.)

You make a lot of sense and thank you for the post. I'm going to try it out.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby bloke » Sun Sep 30, 2018 2:02 pm

I apologize for it not being very concise, but when coaching people towards most all other skillsets, quite a few words tend to be uttered.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby Art Hovey » Sun Sep 30, 2018 10:28 pm

You have nothing to apologize for. Your piece is well-written and correct on every point. I would only add that it's a skill that one can continue to develop and enjoy for a lifetime if you are lucky enough to have other folks to enjoy it with.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby bloke » Sun Sep 30, 2018 10:54 pm

Art Hovey wrote:You have nothing to apologize for. Your piece is well-written and correct on every point. I would only add that it's a skill that one can continue to develop and enjoy for a lifetime if you are lucky enough to have other folks to enjoy it with.


Thanks, Art, for the most important point. My next long "sprint" of Saturdays (which will end just about the time that daily high temperatures fail to reach into the 50's) begins in a couple of weeks, and I'm really looking forward to it. It's a very personal/intimate type of music. Even in our 2nd Deck lounge (with a couple hundred people shuffled in there while their cabins are hurriedly being made ready for their cruise to New Orleans...only about three hours after the New Orleans-to-Memphis cruise folks just disembarked), those folks find us much more approachable than (say...) a string quartet, etc... as the music is down-to-earth, and very "American"...and the more we can tell that they are listening (probably, at least half of them played the trumpet, clarinet, trombone, tuba, or drums in the school band...and - if not that - most of the rest of them play the *guitar), the geometrically better we tend to perform for them. This little hour-long job ($100-something multiplied by "thirty-something Saturdays") probably helps pay the taxes on other income, but I get a whole bunch more out of it than that...and (truth be told) a whole bunch more out of it than playing someone's else notes...even when I do a very good job of playing someone's else very highly-regarded notes...

...and hey, I get to pretend that I "know" how to play a compensating Eb tuba, when - in reality - I'm just poking around on one while staring into space. :oops:

____________________________________
*There is a singer/banjo player who STAYS on the ship for the entire cruise. Beginning a couple of years ago (instead of sitting in the back of the lounge and listening) he - fascinated with the style and repertoire - asked if he could play along with us...so now - along with the cutaway F-hole guitar back there - is a 5-string (with only four being played) plectrum banjo...We refer to the pair of them as the "wire choir".
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby BrassedOn » Mon Oct 01, 2018 10:27 am

Unless you're a banjoist or pianist, Dixieland and Classic Jazz is a collective activity. Yes, playing with lots of recordings really, really helps. YouTube is a great resource. And start memorizing changes and get your head out of the printed page as fast as you can. BUT if you want to play Classic Jazz, you need to join others. Many-a-garage band have been formed from Craigslist ads, including Classic Jazz, funk groups, and jazz combos.

If needed, I could dig my files for a list of common tunes (to prioritize) given to me by an old time tuba player.

One very comprehensive book is the firehouse dixieland fake book (but all books miss something, and this one does not have "Stardust"). Search web for a pdf. All books have "bad" changes that someone will disagree with, so compare with Dixieland Player's Fun Book, Vintage Jazz Standards, and always always always check multiple recordings. When in doubt, defer to a great pianist, who dependably have a very good understanding of how the progressions progress. And listen.

Bass soloing? You don't need to be Howard Johnson or Rich Matteson or Allan Jaffe or Dave Gannett or Philip Frazier or Dave Bargeron or Michael Goddard or Joe Murphy or *sorry I missed your favorite* when you're starting out.

Many great (and appealing and satisfying to the listener) solos for a tubist can start off simple. Try playing the melody for the tuba solo (surprising for the audience that the tuba can accomplish even that). "Who's Sorry Now" would be a good starter tune. For the novice (and experienced player), melodies that are "open", that is they arpeggiate and have some space/rest (the intervals and the rests are the openings) and are rhythmic can get through to the audience more readily than something overly scalar or chromatic or dense. And the player can focus on feel and phrasing and time. You might hear older recordings of bass players playing what is really just an intricate bass line, maybe with more extreme ranges or articulation or slapping, as the solo, but basically using the vocabulary of bass lines. That'd work on tuba, and mostly I reserve that if someone tosses me a solo in a dance situation. Soon you can progress to playing an original melody line (create your own motif and riff on that through the changes), but model it on some tune. But remember rhythem and space are your friend. And don't freak if the piano or guitar drop out, very common to solo with only drums. Hence, KISS principle works. Also, cuz you took my earlier advice and joined a group, for a short "solo" the tuba can take the lead the last time through the bridge, like the bridge to Ain't Misbehavin' or If I had You. This breaks up the texture of the tune for the band, the tubist is playing melodies, and it is cohesive because it's part of the tune. You can build from this to become the next jazz tuba hero.
Last edited by BrassedOn on Mon Oct 01, 2018 10:40 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby BrassedOn » Mon Oct 01, 2018 10:31 am

BTW, while/if there's interest in the topic, what do we call this kind of music?

Looking historically, the word "Dixieland" comes from Original Dixieland Jass Band, the band not the music genre, linked to the region "Dixieland" around NOLA and greater LA. It's "jazz" for sure. Broadly the category "Early Jazz" to me sounds like somehow it's undeveloped, so I don't use it. "Trad" traditional players may go back to the earlier style in Classic Jazz thad had an improvised quality but was deeply arranged and not as much actual improvising. Think ODJB. "Hot Jazz" is much of what you'd hear form Louis Armstrong. If you call your band "So-and-so Hot Jazz", that's what people would expect. You'll sometimes hear "Swingin' Dixieland", which is later and cops some of the later Big Band style and tunes and swing with class jazz instrumentation and swagger. Swing era starts in the early 1930s. At a classic jazz fest, people want to swing and Lyndy dance, so the band plays more of a 30s/40s/50s swing style. Right now, my band is not playing anything past 1932, not to be purist or puritanical, albeit arbitrary, it's just that the era we're focused on. Body and Soul 1930 can sound "modren" but you'll find recordings where it's not played as a ballad. Georgia on My Mind and Stardust make the cut.

Moreover, all of this risks ignoring the earlier contributions of Blues and other music traditions stemming from the music slaves created on the plantation, with origins in African music, call and response and church hymns and polyrhythm, which combined with the very very important roots of Rag Time (Scott Joplin, who is black/African American) and brass bands (a lot of German/Civil War era march instruments, tonality, and structures). The call and response and rhythm style in some NOLA brass bands may recall and build on earlier traditions, from before jazz per se. I'm not sure what the trend is, but I think we know what we mean when we say "Dixieland" as this amalgamations of styles and/or this umbrella of distinct genres of early jazz. BUT, I'm mindful that "Dixieland" can have a charged meaning as the branding of music by white musicians at one point in the development of jazz. In the end, I go with "Classic Jazz" (which for some reason people don't ever mistake for BeBop although sometimes Swing or Straight Ahead), even tho I play a lot of "Hot Jazz", and if needed I clarify, "You know, like Dixieland". And we don't treat the music as some museum piece that is not altered or influenced by our contemporary sensibilities, which some Trad bands in an effort to preserve the integrity of classic 1911ish jazz may do. Another band I play with is decidedly "New Orleans Style Brass Band" and we've just a few tunes common amongst the two groups.

What does this mean for the aspiring jazz tubist? As you're learning the music, it can help to learn the history and traditions. It can inform your playing, selections, and how you communicate the music to your listeners.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby bloke » Mon Oct 01, 2018 1:01 pm

Just as within all other genre, there are styles within styles.
"Tin Pan Alley" (I wonder how many reading this even know what I'm talking about) can be considered a "sub-style", but there are actually several styles (various appropriate attacks, note-lengths, volume levels, and decays to fit with various songs) within "Tin Pan Alley".

Regardless of any type of music, there are things beyond the typical things mentioned here in order which are time, tuning, articulation, and phrasing.
Many consider "phrasing" to be the ultimate factor in musicianship, but actually – beyond phrasing - is "style". A down-to-earth way of defining style is to say "playing it like the record"...playing music as listeners will expect to hear it played.
I suspect that some - who audition for positions - feel as though they played very well, yet we're not offered a position, might be lacking in "style". Over and over, we hear committee members say, "When I heard them play that excerpt from blah-blah, I could hear blah-blah playing in my head."...and often, "style" might simply mean "not overdoing it".

bloke "style: the final puzzle piece in music"
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby JCRaymo » Mon Oct 01, 2018 4:36 pm

Thanks Joe. Lots and lots of great info.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby David Richoux » Tue Oct 02, 2018 12:18 am

Very true about solos. Sometimes you just have to be satisfied with nailing a perfect 2 bar Break, but depending on how long a band has played together, the tuba may get a 12 or even 24 bar solo on a few songs, especially if a period recording had one.
The main thing is to support the front line and keep the rhythm section going at the right tempo (and key. And song.) Make big hints for key changes or going between sections. Watch the dancers if you can - if they are stumbling all over the floor you are probably doing something wrong.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby JCRaymo » Tue Oct 02, 2018 1:19 pm

For me I would just be happy to be able to play the bass lines without music. I don't even care about soloing just being able to play without the music and make it work is the first task for me.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby Bill Troiano » Tue Oct 02, 2018 3:02 pm

All very good and valid points here. I still wish I could get away from the music more. I know a lot of tunes, but still feel comfortable having my iPad Pro with me where I have around 800 tunes stored.

It's like most other things. The more you do it, the more comfortable you'll be with it. I've never really listened to many recordings of trad. jazz, although I know that's an excellent way to go. For my own skill development, I credit Arban's to the point where you can play around chord changes in a song using arpeggios and scale patterns without having to think much about it. Then, figure out how to lead to any note using a half step. After a while, try leading to a note via 2 half steps. Before you know it, you're moving chromatically. Listen to anyone you're playing with and try to pick up ideas in their solos.

That's basically all I've done to play this. I hate to make it too complicated.
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Re: "learning to play dixieland jazz": bloke's emailed respo

Postby roweenie » Tue Oct 02, 2018 6:00 pm

Bloke's advice is solid and "on the money".

I'd add that knowledge of harmony, an understanding of chord progression/relationships and voice leading is a useful skill when improvising interesting bass lines.

Improvising is basically "on the spot" composition.

Good time (not "a good time", although having a good time does adds to the energy of the music) is crucial.
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