Jazz from before WW2 is experiencing a resurgence with a growing audience base. Because jazz education programs at the high school and collegiate level rarely have early jazz specialists on staff and rarely bring in those of us who are experts to work with students, many good players often find themselves entering the freelance world without the skills they need to sub in vintage swing or traditional jazz groups. For the completely selfish reason of helping to develop a deeper sub-list for my own band, and the more altruistic one of helping to elevate our scene’s music, here are eight things that will help young players get hip to vintage playing.
1. Vintage Jazz is Art Music
Previous generations of musicians have often considered early jazz not to be “serious music.” When your professors think of traditional jazz, it’s likely that a lot of them associate it with things like Shakey’s Pizza, octogenarians in powder blue tuxedos, the worst of the 90s neo-swing movement, or weekend warriors in polo shirts playing out of tune versions of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The mainstream jazz community has, for years, unfairly defined vintage jazz by its worst actors. Don’t fall into that fallacy. 90% of music in any genre is crap. 90% of Bird imitators suck too.
Though classic jazz is associated with dancing, drinking, and generally having a good time, that doesn’t make it “less serious” than more modern forms of jazz intended solely for the concert stage.
Traditional jazz, when played well (again only about 10% of the time), holds up as art music no matter where it is played, and those of us who specialize in it take what we do seriously. It will take some effort to learn the style; the ability to play bebop does not mean that you can play swing or trad jazz by default, start with a respect for the art form.
Now that we’re on the same page about the validity of vintage jazz as an art form, going forward I’ll discuss some do’s and don’ts that will be useful to players getting into vintage music. Note that many of the bands that fall into the aforementioned 90% may not be hip to some of these elements, but we’re looking at best practices.
2. Style is the Name of the Game
In most more modern forms of jazz the band sounds like the sum of what each player brings to the table. Your personal style is key. In vintage jazz your personal style needs to come out through a filter of the era. It’s sort of like having a conversation. You might have cool ideas but if you’re speaking French and the rest of us are speaking Italian, all you’re doing is making a bunch of sounds—you’re not participating in the conversation.
This happens every so often at jam sessions. Some cat will come in, play five choruses of loud, burning fast bebop lines with “out” harmonic implications and then feel like he showed everybody what’s what. Of course everyone else in the room is thinking “how un-hip” (if they even kept paying attention after the first four bars). This kinds of thing literally sucks the life out of the room at a jam, so if bumming people out is what you’re into, you should definitely do this.
To take it one step further, vintage jazz is not a stylistic monolith. Showing up on a 1920s gig and you’re playing like you’re in Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars is not going to win you any gigs! Check out the sub-genres and know your instrument’s role in them.
3. Time Feel
Vintage jazz has a much tighter time feel than more modern styles (in fact all the sub-genres of vintage jazz have their own distinct and subtle time feels). Part of what makes a band swing is that everything is rhythmically driving together. Too often I hear horn players trying to lay behind the beat as they do in post-war jazz. It sounds silly on solos and it positively wrecks the ensemble feel. A good classic jazz rhythm section will not let you lay behind them, they’ll slow down to stay with you. Consistently dragging tempos will make the rhythm guitarist and dancers plot your slow painful death.
4. Building an Arrangement
One of the things I personally find less appealing in a lot of more contemporary jazz styles is that tunes seem to be treated as a vehicle for the players’ melodic and harmonic inspirations. In classic jazz we generally take much shorter solos and our most important job as soloists is to supply the next piece of the arrangement we’re all collectively making up on the spot together. The three to four minute tune should have a shape and a direction.
Part of this is instinctive and comes from listening to a lot of traditional jazz music. One important rule to get you started though is to never leave space at the top of your solo. This modern jazz phenomenon where the soloist waits for two to four bars to begin his solo is a major faux pas in classic jazz. It disrupts the flow of the arrangement with dead air and also leaves the rhythm section hanging. They need you to set the tone for your solo section.
When you don’t set the tone the rhythm section defaults to continuing the tone of the last solo creating monotony.
Another great rule is to always be thinking about dynamics and direction. Nothing makes a band more of a drag than a trumpet player who plays loud the whole time, or a rhythm section that doesn’t know when to kick up the energy in the last chorus. Nice moments may be happening, but the feeling of the whole is part of what makes the music gratifying for musicians and listeners. This large scale shape is especially important when playing for dancers. It’s up to the soloists to send them. Without an overarching shape they become bored and feel like they’re just dancing patterns.
When working with a big band or small group that plays arrangements there is a further challenge. The sections that come before and after your solo are often “set points” in the arrangement. They have a specific energy, vibe, dynamic, etc. so your job as a soloist is to look ahead, know what’s coming next, and bridge the sections of the arrangement with something that takes us from point A to point B in an interesting and logical way. You’ve also got to watch out for ending your solo in just the right spot. Blowing over a bit of ensemble that takes over on the last two bars of your chorus spoils the effect of the arrangement.
5. Playing Without Technology
Typically in modern jazz everything is mic’d and players all have monitors. While some bands playing traditional jazz do this (can we still call it traditional jazz if they do? – perhaps a topic for another blog post) you should be prepared to play in situations where the band is not individually mic’d and you don’t have a monitor.
Playing without individual mics means that you also have to be much more aware of your balance in ensemble playing. Without individual mics the sound engineer can’t just “turn up” the clarinet if the other horns decide to bury it. If you’re playing in a big band brass section you can’t play louder than the lead player and assume that it will get fixed in the mics. It requires more sensitive listening. It also requires more power. You need to be able to cut through the band on your solos. Nobody can turn you up to be heard.
Playing without monitors also means having to listen more closely and be more confident on the tunes. You can’t ask for more piano in your monitor to skate by on changes where you don’t know the tune so you’d better shed the changes!
6. Gear Matters
Nothing turns my stomach quite so much as an electronic keyboard in a traditional jazz band, but gear is important for other instruments in the band both stylistically and functionally.
If you’re playing a huge trombone, for example, it will be much more difficult to blend and balance with a section of trad players playing period instruments. Drummers, leave that ride cymbal at home and make sure you have a pair of paper thin hi-hat cymbals. You also won’t win yourself any gigs with an 18″ bass drum. 22″ is the MINIMUM. 24″-28″ is preferable. Bass players. Don’t even ask if you should bring an amp or use a DI. If you can’t be heard without plugging in then don’t take the gig. The other musicians will be miserable and you will feel bad. Guitarists, expect to play rhythm without an amp unless there is no piano. Even then, try to play with as little amp as possible.
Just like you wouldn’t show up to an orchestral gig with your jazz horn, make sure you’re bringing appropriate gear for a vintage gig.
6. The Real Book has the Wrong Changes
Dig it: the Real Book is ruining jazz. It contains carelessly watered down versions of songs’ melodies and changes. Don’t learn tunes from it. If you show up on a swing gig and play ii7-V7 on the end of All of Me you’re gonna out yourself as a neophyte.
Don’t trust recordings, even of famous artists. Just because they chose a substitution or made a mistake in a certain place doesn’t mean it should be endlessly copied as canon. Find the sheet music, check dance band recordings from the year the tune was written (they usually stick pretty close to the composer’s intentions). Then learn what everyone else did with it. Knowing the original changes is hip—it’s the jumping off point for understanding and appreciating what everyone else did with a song. Without the foundation you’re grasping in the dark, and you’re likely to have trouble making the changes when someone plays the right ones.
More important than being hip is doing justice to the composer’s music. I always wish that instead of “songwriter” that the preferred term was, like playwright, songwright. Songs are wrought with care and dumbing down their idiosyncrasies is as unhip as it gets.
That doesn’t mean that we never play substitutions in vintage jazz, but a substitution is something done willfully, not negligently. It’s also important to bear in mind that if and when you choose to play substitutions they have to be ones that make sense within the musical style the bandleader is looking for. For example, III-VI-ii-V turnarounds very rarely make sense on a ’20s gig.
The only thing worse than the Real Book is the iRealBook. Conceptually it was a great idea: “an app where you can make your own chord charts and share them and easily transpose keys,” but what it has become is a repository for terrible changes that are often not only dumbed down but don’t even harmonize the melody correctly. Also, with many vintage bands, part of what the client is buying from the bandleader is the air of class, old world charm, Art Decoiness, etc. that the band represents, and using an iPad on stage wrecks that vibe.
The best thing to do is to know the tunes. At least know the greatest hits. Nobody’s going to vibe you if you don’t know “Here Lies Love” or “My Sweet Tooth Says I Wanna But My Wisdom Tooth Says No” but if you don’t know “When You’re Smiling,” “Keepin’ Out of Mishchief” “Margie,” or “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” you will catch some eye rolls.
A “crash landing” ending is rarely appropriate in swing and traditional jazz tunes. Stingers are sometimes acceptable but become monotonous when played on every tune. If you’re going to be playing lead lines, listen to how Bix and Louis and Benny and other great melody players lead endings of tunes. Copy their shit! Create your own endings. But be clear. Innovation is great but if nobody can follow you it becomes a crash landing.
Rhythm section players, learn to follow endings. Listen for what kinds of things to expect and know how to harmonize them. Be ready for silent cow-bell endings, double endings, extra turn arounds, etc. You’ve really got to tune in and listen.
Endings are always a kerfuffle for singers as well. I can’t tell you how many singers sing the end of a tune and hope for the best, hoping a horn player will do something definitive or that someone else will make the ending happen.
You should have a clear idea in your head of how you want the tune to end and you should push it there. However you also have to listen to what the band is telling you. If you come to the last note and the chording instrument plays a iii half diminished, you’d better be prepared to cycle those last 4 bars. If the trumpet player calls a modulation after your vocal for one more chorus, don’t lay behind on your final phrase because you’re going to get in the way of the modulation harmony. You need to be an active part in making the ending happen—even if that means holding up your hands and looking at the lead horn a few bars before the end to indicate “Straight out, I’m hands off here, you lead the ending.”
8. Rhythm Section
If you’re a rhythm section player it is vital that you have a strong understanding of your instrument’s role in a four-piece rhythm section and that you understand what’s happening stylistically. Here are a few important points for each instrument.
Drums: There are many different subtle variations on how to play the ride pattern on a hi-hat. If you think playing the hi-hat all night is boring and long for a ride cymbal, you need to dig deeper into hi-hat technique. There’s the Jo-Jones pattern which is closed on two and four and the skip beat is open and feels kind of loose. Chick Webb plays the same pattern but his skip beat is closer to the next beat, almost like a dotted quarter-eighth note feel, and he accents one and three while laying off two and four. There’s also further variations. You can strike the hat on two and four, or just chick it with your foot. You can stay open on all four beats. You can hold the hi-hat with your hand to dampen it while doing any of these things. The combinations are endless.
Bass: Short punchy notes! Don’t make your lines legato. You don’t want your walking lines to connect to each other. Instead try to make each note the same length of the rhythm guitar’s pulse and the bass drum’s thud with space between every note. Also, when playing in two don’t play a groove where you’re always playing a note on the skip-beat—this will make the band sound like a Broadway pit orchestra. Also, don’t assume the standard formula of two beat on the head, four beat on solos, two beat on head out. This feels like straight ahead jazz, not swing.
Guitar/Banjo: Disclaimer: these are my instruments, so pardon me if I get a little excited about them.
If there’s one good piece of advice I have it is this: people who tell you that you should always play straight 4 are absolutely full of shit and have never listened closely to rhythm guitar and banjo players. Freddie Green developed the straight 4/4 thing and people picked it up. But Freddie Guy with Ellington? NO WAY. Eddie Condon in the ’20s? NO WAY. Eddie Lang? NO WAY! Explore what these guys had to offer.
Then once you’ve learned all that assume that you’ll probably never get to use it much. Most of the time you’re going to just be wallpaper because the other musicians aren’t listening for anything that subtle, or the stage volume is too high due to monitors/bass amps/keyboards to hear it anyway, etc. And even when that’s not the case the bandleader probably won’t know the difference and will say “just play like Freddie Green.” (I’ve been told this on gigs by bandleaders who ought to know better, so your odds of finding someone who digs it are slim).
…but it’s a beautiful thing when it gets to happen.
Piano: A classic rhythm section includes both guitar and piano. This requires a different way of playing from when you play without guitar. Your chords need to agree. Set up the changes on the first chorus and pretty much stick to ‘em. Try to know the original changes because everyone should be able to default to that. Tune in to the guitar player and soloists and find spots to reharmonize that fit what’s happening and that you and the guitarist will both go together. But avoid the cocktail piano school of jazz playing where you’re constantly re-harmonizing. It sucks the guitar player out of his role of setting a rhythm pulse because he has to spend extra mental attention picking up your changes on every chorus, it makes for lots of bad harmonic moments, and it generally drags the band down.
Focus on rhythm and sending soloists instead, and don’t overplay. Leave the space for the guitar to come through.
I hope this gives some young folks some direction and ideas about how to approach vintage music and maybe even gives some pros something to think about who don’t frequently play vintage jazz. You can always ping me with questions on Facebook at @GlennCrytzerMusic If you happen to be a professor/HS teacher and find this material valuable, consider bringing my band in for a workshop/ concert.
If you live in NYC and are a musician or listener who wants to get more vintage music in your life you have many options. Nothing beats listening to live music but recordings are the next best thing. Information about my latest gigs and album projects are on my website.
Also if you’re a musician, check out the Mona’s Jam Session on Tuesday nights which is a great spot to cut your teeth learning vintage jazz.
Related: On Programming an Album of Original Swing Music, Glenn Crytzer: Composing the New Classics. The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra: Ain’t It Grand?(CD Review #1), The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra Ain’t it Grand? (CD Review #2), Glenn Crytzer CD Release Party, Glenn Crytzer Swings the Easter Ball at the Plaza Hotel, The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra: Underneath the Mistletoe, Enric Peidro Brings Dan Barrett & Glenn Crytzer to Spain