Playing Dixieland in the Front Line

When playing dixieland, New Orleans/Chicago styles of traditional jazz each of the horn players in the front line (usually trumpet or cornet, clarinet, and trombone) will collectively improvise polyphonic ensemble passages. In order to make this work without getting in each others’ way, each instrumentalist fits within a particular role. The cornet player will usually play or paraphrase the melody while the clarinetist improvises a rhythmically active line generally in a register above the cornet player. Meanwhile, the trombonist plays a supporting line under the cornet and clarinet, with an emphasis on outlining the chord progression with lots of glisses. Done well, this is one of the most exciting things to listen to and is great fun to play.

Who has the hardest job in the traditional jazz front line, the trumpet/cornet player, the clarinetist, or the trombonist? Ivan, over on his Playing Traditional Jazz blog, discusses this very question. I’ve found that most players will automatically assume that their own job is the most challenging, but one clarinetist thought differently.

Clarinet is easier than trumpet in that we generally don’t have to learn many melodies. If you’re flexible and have a good ear and instinct, you can listen to the trumpet for specific types of melody lines that tell you a) what the next chord might be, and b) if we do a double-ending or change pitch, etc.

. . .

To play the way I do, clarinet is easier, because I can play whatever I want and don’t need to know the song one bit.

One of the points Ivan makes is that cornet/trumpet players not only need to learn the chord progression for soloing and embellishing on the ensemble passages, but they also need to know the melody very well, since they usually cover the melody in performance.

This insight is supported by another correspondent (a trumpet player), who told me he often asks whether – for a change – one of the other players would like to play the melody line in the first chorus or two of a tune. He has been surprised to find that very fine players are often reluctant to do this, claiming that they are not sure of the melody – even though they can create wonderful decorations around it!

Ivan does make the point that clarinet players can really make or break a traditional jazz band and that the clarinet part requires a mastery of the instrument and of the tune.

What about the trombonist?

I consider his job extremely difficult too. He needs to know the harmonic progression of every tune the band plays (either as a result of hard graft in learning the chord sequences or by developing an amazing ear for the bassline of the successive chords). He has to push the band along through the chord changes. This frequently involves (starting on the fourth note of a bar and moving on to the first of the next) taking the harmony from the root of one chord to the root of the next by means of a glissando or direct punching out of the notes.

But he must also have a huge repertoire of tricks and phrases. He should be able to take on the melody for an occasional chorus – to give variety to the presentation. And he should be a skilful user of mutes: a good range of trombone effects is possible to embellish the music.

Ultimately, I think Ivan and I agree that playing any of the instruments in the front line requires a lot of work and practice to do well, however there is one point I would like to make that I don’t think is emphasized enough in Ivan’s post. Playing the clarinet or trombone part still means you need to know the melody extremely well, if anything so you know what not to play!

This is particularly important for the group I perform with, the Low-Down Sires. We currently have only a two horn front line, cornet and trombone. With a 3rd horn player it’s not such a big deal if two of us end up on the same melody or countermelody note because someone will be playing another chord tone. But with two horns if I don’t know what the cornet will be playing and I end up on the same pitch the whole character of the ensemble chorus suddenly gets thin sounding. This was a point that Ben Polcer made in the recent Lindy Focus music track I sat in on. He asked me to help demonstrate a collective improvisation with him on the tune Careless Love. There’s one spot in the tune where the natural tendency for me as the trombonist would be to keep a descending melodic line going, and as a line it fits great over the chord changes. Unfortunately, it also happens to coincide with one very important melody note, so I had to sacrifice a nice voice leading in that part to not double his part. Ben went out of his way to point out that I did this afterwards and noted how important is was for all the horn players to learn the melody, not just the trumpet or cornet player.

Not to mention that it’s a nice change once in a while to change the roles around and have one of the other horn players cover the melody. And you will never know when it might suddenly become necessary. Several years ago I went to a performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and their trumpet player, John Brunious, had passed away unexpectedly just before their tour. Since there wasn’t enough time to replace him, the other horn players covered the melody the whole concert.

Yes, I’m guilty of neglecting the melody on a lot of the tunes I regularly play with the Sires, but I’ve found that on those pieces where I not only have the chord progression memorized but also can cover the melody if asked my tailgating fits so much better with what the rest of the band is doing. Which reminds me that I have some transcribing to do in order to learn some new tunes. . .

Tip of the hat to Mick G., from the Low-Down Sires, for passing along Ivan’s Playing Traditional Jazz post.

2 thoughts on “Playing Dixieland in the Front Line

  1. Hi. I’m the clarinetist whose opinion Ivan was kind enough to post in his blog.
    I think the reality about whether or not a clarinetist has to know the melody or not lies somewhere in between.
    I have sat in with plenty of bands who played songs I had never even heard of before. However, I was able to play along and fit in just fine just by listening carefully what was going on around me. I personally see one of the clarinetist’s main roles in “filling holes”, i.e. to especially play then, when the melody has a quick pause, so that’s a time where I KNOW I won’t interfere with the trumpet as long as I can pick out these pauses, whether I know the melody or not. So in my experience, I had no trouble playing along well with bands and tunes that were unfamiliar to me.
    On the other hand, when I DO know the melody, it opens up a lot more doors in my playing – on-the-fly harmonizing, being mentally prepared for when the melody breaks occur, typically played arrangements, etc.
    So while I stand by my original statement that especially as a clarinetist with a good ear and flexibility you do not have to know the song in order to play along (for most songs – there are always exceptions), I also concur that to really shine and be able to “plan” better what you’ll play, it is ALWAYS best to know the melody – which is what I’ll be concentrating on in the next few weeks for my personal development as a musician.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and elaborating, Richard!

      Yes, like you I sometimes find myself doing just fine without really knowing the melody, but have a good grasp on what the trumpet/cornet is going to play really helps. Of course, as a trombonist I tend to play lines that have longer notes, whereas on clarinet you’re much more rhythmically active and if you land on the melody note it doesn’t stick around as long.

      Now I’ve got to get to memorizing some tunes myself…

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