About a year ago, my friend Thomas Helton had the idea to put together a group that specialized in early/New Orleans/hot/trad jazz* and featured trumpet, clarinet, trombone, guitar, banjo, and tuba. The concept was a fresh one for Houston (in that it was 100 years behind the times) and instantly appealed to me. Why? Because it would rely on the chemistry of playing together in various roles instead of playing over one another.
Academically, this is referred to as "collective improvisation", an approach that was pioneered and popularized in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. Today, the landscape of collectively improvising groups has dwindled down to practically none at all but you can still find traditional and interesting new examples if you look deep enough. Popular music has moved on from this practice, for better or worse, and so it's considered archaic in certain contemporary jazz circles.
Today, when many musicians attempt to play early jazz, they don't seem to know the first thing about the style. I've heard many try to apply modern practices and it doesn't work. Top offenses include:
- Playing notes, rhythms and ideas that are too advanced or complicated
- Playing "busily" for the sake of playing fast
- Playing too many choruses on a solo
- Trading solos exhaustively and to the boredom of the audience
Musicians take note: DON'T DO THESE THINGS! They make the music suffer as a result of being too clunky and complicated. Early jazz and swing music are styles made for dancing, not endless solos. So, keep it simple and (most of all) fun. I would always remind myself of the Joe "King" Oliver style before performing:
- Don’t get in each others’ way
- Try to invent melodies that complement each others’ melodies
- Strive to create an exciting feeling
- Use interesting rhythms that will make people want to dance
There's more to it, of course, but my time playing with Boomtown Brass Band was a fantastic musical experience. The challenge of spontaneously creating group chemistry is much harder than it first seems, and it was always a great feeling to pull it off!
* I refuse to call it "Dixieland jazz" because 1) We're not from Chicago and 2) I hate that stupid name.