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Nam 48 west end blues general background Information

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General background Information
The overall style of this piece is that of Chicago-style jazz. The instrumentation is typical of New Orleans jazz, consisting of a frontline (trumpet (Louis Armstrong – who also does the vocals), clarinet and trombone), and a rhythm section (piano, banjo and drums). In early jazz there is much collective improvisation of the theme by all the front line instruments at once, but by the time of West End Blues (in a later Chicago style), there is more emphasis on solo improvisation. This allows the players to establish totally new melodic ideas over the common chord pattern. This is really a fingerprint of the Chicago jazz style of the late 1920s. The emphasis on improvisation gave jazz a freedom that became increasingly important in the years ahead, (seen here in Armstrong’s intro!) The supremacy of the soloist is evident throughout – Armstrong dominates the texture, while the other frontline instruments supply mostly sustained harmony notes, which occasional points of motivic interest (bits of tune!)

In early jazz, the cornet was often preferred to the trumpet. Bands often also included a double bass, which is absent here, possibly because it was so difficult to record in the early days of gramophone recording. (Armstrong partially solved this problem by using a tuba on the bassline in other recordings of the period!) In live performance drums would play a greater role than they do here, but again the limitations of recording often meant that novelty affects (e.g the bock-a-da-bock!) had to be used instead.

It is important to remember that NAM is a transcription of what was actually improvised, (and not a score from which the music was played). The performers would have been very familiar with the 12-bar-blues chord pattern though, and there would have been collective agreement about what was to be played where, as well as obviously improvising around and developing the basic theme and harmonies.
NAM 48 is an arrangement Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five performed, of the song ‘West End Blues’ by Joe ‘King’ Oliver.

The Choruses

In most jazz, the underlying chord sequence is the most important element, and it forms the foundation for most of the improvised material. Each repetition of the chord pattern is known as a chorus. West End Blues uses the best known of all such chord patterns – the 12-bar blues:















Q) How many choruses are there of this pattern?

Q) Complete the table below concerning the structure, and the way in which the material in NAM 48 is related to the original melody.










Q) What else makes up the overall structure?

Q) What is different about the chord in bar 6 of the trombone solo? What is type of change called?


Q) The intro is a dazzling solo display, which forms a nicely novel way of starting the blues. Armstrong would have heard this type of brilliant high brass playing from the Mexican bands in New Orleans. What is this called in classical music?

Q) What is the intro like rhythmically? What do we call the accidentals?

Q) What, in particular, do we call the Gbs/F#s and Dbs that are littered around the intro? Think of the overall key of Eb!!

Q) The solo is obviously virtuosic, but is also effective because of its ambiguous tonality. What keys are suggested at the following places?

  • Bars 2-3?

  • Bar 4?

  • Bar 5?

Q) Describe the chord heard at bar 6, where the entire band come in. What note, in particular provides a really smooth link into the main theme?

First Chorus (7-19)

Now we are finally and firmly in the key of Eb major, the improvisation gets increasingly elaborate until the top Bb in bar 18.

Q) What instrumental effect is heard on the top Bb in bar 18?

Q) What is the name given to the style of the piano and banjo playing?

Q) The opening of the main theme could be notated in a number of ways. How exactly? What is the name given to the actual rhythm we hear?

Q) How can we tell from the relationship between the trumpet and clarinet, that the opening to this chorus was probably pre-arranged?

Second chorus (19-31)

Q) The second chorus differs from the first. How?

Q) What is the instrumental effect utilised by the trombone, that is a typical feature of the New Orleans style?

The ‘milk bottle sound’ mentioned in bars 18-19 of the score is actually a percussion instrument of the time called a bock-a-da-bock. It consists of two metallic discs about 8cm in diameter, mounted on sprung tongs, which the drummer cups in his hands to play.

Third Chorus

Q) What is the main texture of the third chorus?

Q) What is the vocal style employed here? Armstrong is credited as inventing this, which is basically singing to nonsense syllables, that are chosen to enhance the expressive musical qualities of the solo.

Q) The clarinet is entirely in the lower register. What is this called?

The clarinet is also played with the fast vibrato typical of New Orleans clarinettists.
Q) In bar 32 Armstrong picks up a clarinet figure from further back in the music. Where is it from, and why does he do this?

Fourth Chorus

Q) The fourth chorus provides yet another change in texture, with a brilliant piano solo in salon music style. What does the RH play? What ragtime technique does the LH use?

Notice here how the pianist Earl Hines embellishes the actual 12 bar blues pattern!

Fifth Chorus

The full frontline return for the final chorus, which Armstrong starts with the opening motif an octave higher than before. He then holds a top Bb for 4 full bars, before cascading down on the chord change to Ab. Notice how he emphasises the Bbs on the actual beats, against the underlying Ab harmony!

At 63 there is a short coda featuring a brief piano solo, leading to the final 3 chords.
Q) Describe these chords, and the final cadence as fully as possible.

Final Questions

1) Find four substitution chords on page 462. (8)

2) What is the role of the frontline instruments in the 2nd and 5th chorus? (2)
3) Briefly describe the roles of the clarinet and trombones in the first chorus. (2)
4) Define the following terms, and give an example of each from NAM 48: (8)
portamento comping scat stride bass
5) What were the conditions in New Orleans that enabled jazz to develop and flourish? (6)
6) (i) What is meant by the term ‘the changes’ in jazz?

(ii) What are the changes in NAM 48?(4)

7) The song begins with the notes F#-G#Bb.

  1. Where is this motif first heard in NAM 48? (1)

  2. How is this motif used in the rest of NAM 48? (4)

8) Using examples from the intro, explain the difference between swung and straight rhythm. (4)

9) Which aspects of NAM 48 suggest that there must have been some pre-planning of improvised material? (6)
10) What do you notice about the rate of harmonic change in most of this piece? (4)

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