How often have we heard this comment? It was often heard during the experimental days of the late 40’s to mid 60’s. Purists wrote to one of the leading music papers in England protesting that it wasn’t jazz if you played it on the saxophone! Jazz, they claimed, had to be played on trumpet/cornet, clarinet and trombone, backed by banjo (not guitar) bass and drums. Some even objected to the string bass, believing the tuba or, more likely, sousaphone was the correct bass instrument. As we all know, early jazz bands often used instruments discarded by the military.
I’ve always believed that jazz is more a matter of how you play rather than what you play, or even what you play it on. The subject has suddenly assumed great significance due to the way modern communication methods and cheap transport have caused the world to shrink. The internet, too, will have its effect, with streaming audio and MP3 and other download capabilities. The problem we all face, not only with regard to this topic, but in every walk of life, is that we are all imprisoned within our own narrow perspectives. Evidence of this can be seen in the shocking effect that some commonplace habits can have on different ethnic groups. Around ten years ago, an elderly lady in England, who had lived in her home all her life, was asked to remove ceramic pigs from her bay window display because it offended newly arriving ethnic groups!
Cultural divisions would not have existed in the first place without geographic isolation. Obviously, when people who have been separated by huge distances and who have emerged from vastly different environments first come into contact with each other, they will inevitably affect each others’ chances of living what they all consider to be a ‘normal’ existence. Resentment is the natural human response and its expression can take many forms, even violence.
As we point out in the book, the consequences of an increasingly global culture are difficult to predict and we have seen many successful fusions. A recent example is the Indie/jazz style and long before that we saw classical forms and instrumentation being introduced into jazz. Influences from Latin America were probably the first to enrich so-called ‘modern’ jazz.
In the immediate future there will be a limit to our musical flexibility. Someone setting out to a jazz club has different expectations to those who bought tickets for the opera. But will this always be the case? Some argue that music written centuries ago cannot fully satisfy contemporary ears (I agree with them).
So what’s the bottom line? Jazz is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself from the outside looking in, with bluesy riffs and raunchy ensembles all too often taking the place of the truly innovative work of the best writers of the past. Many contemporary arrangements for the big band sound like they were all written by the same computer. In many cases, the music is reduced to becoming a fashion statement for the clientèle of bistros and cafés.
There’s no such thing as progress, in our perception of life, since more will always want more. That’s why we always feel hard done by. What we have is evolution, which is a different matter altogether. We can’t stop evolution because it’s part of the very process of cause and effect. Right at the end of the book we refer to the growing commercialization of music and the fact that, to survive, you have to play with more soul than the man across the street. OK, we all have to earn a living. We just need to remind ourselves of the need to write something occasionally for the same reason that we entered music in the first place ‑ because we have something to say.
There’s evidence that the future is in safe hands, with more and more young players rejecting the ‘isms’ and unashamedly drawing on a multitude of influences.
Some time is spent in the book referring to brass band instrumentation. This would have been unthinkable until recently, a fact that reflects the above topic.
Now that a young generation of players and conductors have breathed fresh life into the movement, the British brass band instrumentation should be considered for jazz writing, especially the Eb ‘tenor’ horns (they’re really ‘alto’ horns, of course), baritone horns, tubas (they call them basses) and euphoniums. Many brass bands are finding it increasingly difficult to find gigs due to local authority economies and loss of commercial sponsorship. They often contain very keen players indeed who would value the extra playing opportunities jazz performances will offer. Some are hurtfully unable to swing due to the lack of appropriate listening experience, but they will learn (non-jazz performers feel secretly inferior to jazz players). The best brass band players are awesome technicians.
Here are a few thoughts on instrumentation:
The brass band technique of doubling up voices in the 8 or 9 piece cornet section does not work too well in the drier sound of jazz close harmony section work. And cornets, although admittedly more agile, lack the projection of trumpets. You can have screaming trumpets but you can’t have screaming cornets; it’s a different ball game altogether. So keep to five trumpets with the addition of a separate flugel chair.
The Eb soprano cornet’s ability to extend the upwards range of the brass is not essential due to the fact that double high c’s are state-of-the-art in jazz anyway. The instrument is, nevertheless, capable of very great delicacy in solos, or duets with a cornet or flugel. It also sparkles delightfully at the top of the ensemble.
Eb horns provide an evocative trio sound both in unison countermelodies and harmony. The flugel can be used as a lead instrument, making up a homogenous four part section. It’s fairly easy for trumpet players to adapt to playing the horn, which is not unduly expensive to buy. Mellophoniums in F can tune down to play Eb horn parts, but it’s very easy to transpose fresh parts with music notation programs. Early mellophoniums were slightly difficult to play in tune so that tuning down by as much as a tone will aggravate the problem.
Baritones and euphoniums provide a warm unison sound for cantabile playing and an incredibly rich divisi sound, especially when combined with the tubas. (Please don’t call them ‘basses’ – ‘Tubby the Bass’ doesn’t quite work for me.) Tubas can also be written divisi, within a narrow orchestral range. A full brass band has two Bb tubas and two Eb’s. In ensembles, the baritone/euphonium/ tuba section often operates in a similar way to the violas/cellos/basses in a string section. The book gives advice on accommodating passing chords in upper harmonies.
Baritone horns and euphoniums also blend well with saxophones. How often have you heard that combination?
All brass band players except the bass trombonist read in treble clef (transposed) but some lower brass players can read bass clef in concert pitch, especially in the USA.
Henry Mancini’s French* horns/trombones/tuba sound that we all admire so much can be attained reasonably convincingly with the Eb horns replacing the French horns. As we point out in the book, show band versions of Bb horns, baritones and euphoniums that point out at the audience horizontally are available. Just as a clean car seems to drive better, a band that has all the brass instrument bells strung out in straight lines is so much more convincing.
(*These days we call them ‘horns’.)
If the tubas play a vamping role, as they so often do in their natural habitat, the combination of the electric bass will require some thought. We shall extend that topic in the next blog when I write about the emancipation of the rhythm section. It would certainly be interesting to see more jazz drummers with brass bands. They’re sorely needed.
Many brass bands have additional percussion instruments such as tubular bells, timps, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone and glockenspiel. Glocks work a treat with trumpets in harmon mutes, piano, vibes etc…
The more observant will have noticed that the kind of instrumentation we are discussing more or less already exists in the form of the military band. I knew that really. But the whole concept is different. You see that, don’t you…?
One final word: quite apart from traditional band loyalty etc., brass band players frequently use instruments owned by the band so tread carefully to avoid accusations of poaching. Invite the MD along, too. Who knows what could develop? A punch-up, probably….
Very few brass bands rehearse at the weekend or during the daytime so these are obvious choices to avoid a clash of interests.
It has always been a pipe dream of mine to see a band similar to the one described here turning up at one of the British brass band contests. No hope of that at present. Cue back to the global culture scene…
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