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Trad Jazz Basics for a Jam

We're gonna try to pass along some basics real quick here, hoping to help somebody sit in on a jam and ...
 (a) know what's going on, play along, + contribute sooner, and
 (b) have more fun sooner.

(For a quick look at the COHJS / SwingColumbus Community Jam & Social Dance in action, hit this up.)

Trad jazz bands use some conventions about how they turn a pretty simple + short song into a performance, and also has some patterns (chord progressions) that show up a lot.

How they play a song - "the form"

Let's start with a straight-up "blues" song - High Sierra Jazz Band playing Dallas Blues in Bb.
This whole 6+ minute performance is playing just 12 bars of music.
They play thru those same 12 bars a bunch of times, just not the same each time.
That 12 bars is called "the form", for this song.

Follow along and see what they're doing:
The first 4 times thru, the whole band plays it together.
The next 2 times thru (begins at 1:42), the clarinet plays a solo.
 - the rhythm section supports, + other melody players sit out for the solo.
At 2:30, the trombone solo's for 2 "choruses" (that is, for 2 times thru the form).
 - rhythm section supporting, other melody players sitting out.
After some more solo's, at 4:53 the whole band plays "the form" 3 more times to finish up.

The "form" - that basic 12 bar chunk of music - is rock-solid all the time, all the way thru.
The band never deviates from it, no matter what else is going on- solos, full band, anything! That is the ONE BIGGEST THING that enables them to keep together for 6 minutes and know where they are all the time.

So from that one specific song, let's GENERALIZE about how these approaches get used across lots of different songs:

4 Songs to Start With

These songs all have very common chord progressions. The same or pretty similar sounds (chords) come up in tons of songs. So you get a lot of mileage out of these songs when you get where you can:
1. recognize these sounds,
2. know what the chords + notes are doing in the key you're playing in at the moment, and
3. know how to make them on your instrument.

Dallas Blues- Bb       listenlead sheetBb lead sheet
Yes Sir That's My Baby- Bb   listenlead sheetBb lead sheet

Five Foot Two- C       listenlead sheetBb lead sheet
Bourbon Street Parade- Ab  listenlead sheetBb lead sheet

We suggest you invest 5x more time listening + playing along, than reading the lead sheets + trying to memorize it that way. SO MUCH of this music is in the feel, the rhythm, and the groove, and that just ain't there on the page!

You might want to look at iRealPro - a "robot rhythm section" app available for Android, iPhone + iPad. You can download chord charts for 1000's of songs (or edit or write them in yourself). You select the tempo, the key, + the style and the app plays the chord chart using keyboard, bass, and drum tracks. You can change the instrument in each track and the volume of each track. It's not like playing with a live band but it's a steady rhythm like a metronome with a reasonable rendering of the chords.

Here's a page on the iRealPro forums with the chord charts for 100's of Trad Jazz songs specifically.

Want More of Dis?

Here are a couple of great programs we know about.

Welbourne Jazz Camp - a week full of BOTH dancing (swing, tap, solo, partner, etc!) + trad jazz music, at a beautiful 200+ year old southern mansion B&B in Virginia.

New York Hot Jazz Camp - a week of superb musical instruction, jamming, clubbing, sitting in, right in the heart of the Big Apple's very vibrant trad jazz scene.

New Orleans Trad Jazz Camp - another weeklong fabulous program of instruction, jamming, going out, sitting in, this one in the French Quarter of the Big Easy, New Orleans, the birthplace of it all.

Teagarden Jazz Camp - for youth ages 12-20, in the beautiful Sly Park in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Sacramento CA.

Know of others? Please let us know.


Suggestions? Want more help? Get in touch!


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The Central Ohio Hot Jazz Society is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to enjoying and sharing traditional American jazz of the early 20th century. Comes in many styles and called by many names – traditional jazz, Dixieland jazz, classic jazz, hot jazz, New Orleans style jazz ... or San Francisco, Chicago, Kansas City, New York style jazz ... the happiest music in the world! We listen, play, + dance to it.

(c)2012-2017, Central Ohio Hot Jazz Society