Â© 2009 and 2010 by Mayne Smith; reproduced with permission of the author.
This essay, which was revised and updated in April 2010 by the author, debuted and endures at Pieces of Our Mind.
Download the updated version from MayneSmith.com by clicking the Adobe PDF button below.
Â© Gail Wilson-Smith
Scholar-songwriter-performer Mayne Smith
A Shuffle in Charlie:
Among Improvising Musicians
By Mayne Smith
This piece originally appeared in a collection of essays published to honor Neil Rosenberg on the occasion of his retirement from the Department of Folklore at Memorial University in St. Johnâ€™s, Newfoundland (see the bibliography below under Smith 2005). I made some additions and corrections in October of 2009 for republication on my website. The essay concludes with a lengthy glossary of brief definitions for the italicized words, followed by a bibliography of cited publications. Any contributions, comments, or corrections are quite welcome.Â
In a jam session, with or without an audience, improvising musicians in North America inevitably need to share coordinating technical information. For instance, with a group of jamming country or rock players onstage somewhere, you might hear one call to the others, “A blues shuffle in Charlie. Start with a turn-around. One, two, three, AND â€¦” (The italicized words are defined in the glossary that concludes this essay.) They may be strangers to each other, but if the key musicians are competent, the music will start in a properly organized manner and the performance may continue with alternating vocal and instrumental solos climaxed with a strong ending, as if it had been rehearsed.
What magic makes this happen? Cultural magic: a body of conventional knowledge that is shared among a huge number of musicians, most of whom are scarcely aware of it. (By â€śmusiciansâ€ť I mean people who make music on a regular basis, whether they are amateurs or full-time professionals.)
Consciously or not, when they improvise together all musicians rely on shared, unspoken knowledge â€” much beyond that needed to perform alone.
This essay focuses on vernacular music situations where written music is not supplied and is not commonly used in the learning process. Keep in mind, though, that the use of music notation does not preclude interpretation and improvisation. The jazz world frequently uses head arrangements where specific notes are learned in rehearsal, based sometimes on lead sheets that consist of melody lines with chord-names added. In the sphere of art music, conductors and performers rely on written musical scores to determine which notes will be played and when. However musical notationâ€™s symbols are used and interpreted differently in different musical-cultural contexts. Written notes function in art music, theatrical, and jazz spheres in disparate ways.
In the country and rock worlds, various types of chord charts are often used as the infrastructure for improvising in recording sessions, in live performances, and sometimes in jam sessions. One type is just a step away from lead sheets, with chord names written between bar lines on a musical staff, sometimes with marks indicating the number of beats devoted to each chord. A second approach involves writing the chord names on plain paper, with vertical lines or boxes indicating separate measures.
A third type of chord chart is commonly referred to as the Nashville number system. This employs Arabic numerals to represent the scale notes on which the chords are based, and various other symbols to indicate rests, note durations, etc. The exclusive use of chord numbers rather than names makes it easy to transpose a complex arrangement from one key to another â€” very convenient when thereâ€™s a modulation or when a singer needs to change to a more suitable key. The number system is very compact, so it can be written on note cards or scrap paper. A simple spoken language is derived from the system: musicians can be told that a song will begin with a â€śfifty-five eleven turn-around,â€ť meaning that there will be two bars of the dominant (5) chord followed by two bars of the tonic (1). On paper these four bars are represented by the numbers 5511. A 130-page book by Chas Williams covering many variations on this system is available on the Internet (Williams 2005).
When players are improvising on stage together, they need to share a lot of background knowledge. In most styles where improvised jamming occurs, lead players will trade solo breaks or rides backed up by the rest of the ensemble. (But the term â€śbreakâ€ť isnâ€™t universal, and could be interpreted to mean that the musician should stop playing.) Instrumental solos are allocated to individuals on some basis, perhaps alternating with leads by one or more vocalists. In written or head arrangements performed in public, solo breaks are not necessarily given to all lead players, especially in a group numbering more than five. The more informal the jamming situation, the more likely it is that solo breaks will simply be sequenced in clockwise or counter-clockwise order among all musicians. In a non-public context, itâ€™s likely to be assumed that every player will get a solo break â€” including drummers and bassists in the jazz world, not necessarily in others. In some styles or contexts itâ€™s considered appropriate to improvise backup (contrasting responses to the lead) but not always. Another example: in the country scene, solo and backup roles are commonly traded off every 8 bars (two lines of a verse or chorus). In bluegrass or jazz, where instrumental virtuosity is held in especially high regard, instrumentalists are more likely to trade off every 16 or even 32 bars. The musicians have to know or deduce such varying and unspoken rules in order to participate fully.
Thereâ€™s also the question of how tunes are chosen in a jam. I frequently participate in jam sessions where the choice of numbers passes among all the musicians around a circle as in a poker session, and the dealer calls the game. But in less familial contexts there will be a limited number of preeminent singers or players who feel free to suggest songs or tunes as vehicles for jamming. Musicians need to be careful in unfamiliar jam scenes and watch for cues that they are committing sociomusical errors. In many contexts there are standard canonical pieces that journeyman musicians are expected to know, often including exact solos and hooks from famous recordings. In the bluegrass world, players are expected to be able to play (and maybe sing harmony with) almost everything Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs recorded before 1960. In the jazz world, the list of canonical pieces may cover Louis Armstrongâ€™s hits or Duke Ellingtonâ€™s or Miles Davisâ€™, depending on the sub-style involved.
Â© Hugh Peterson
Mayne Smith in performance in 1963 at the Cabale, Berkeley’s fabled folk music club.
Calling the Key
In a jamming situation one of the necessary preliminaries to playing is selecting what key the next piece will be in. Although there are standard keys for canonical pieces, particularly in jazz, whenever singers are involved standard keys may need to be changed to suit their vocal ranges. Jazz musicians can signal key changes for modulating with fingers held up or down to indicate the number of flats or sharps in the key signature (MacLeod 1993:74). This system would be lost on country and blues musicians, who typically are not very familiar with musical notation, much less key signatures. Yet in both musical worlds, experienced musicians expect a modulation to occur by way of the dominant chord of the new key.
Among country musicians, especially when thereâ€™s enough audience noise to make conversation difficult, the leader for a given tune will simply call the next key out loud, but will use whole words to avoid confusion between B, C, D, E, and G, which share the same vowel sound. Onstage, I’ve heard words like Boy, Charlie, Dog, Echo, and George used to call the next key. There are also joking key-designators in use among folkies in informal settings: the Canadian key (A), the Mexican key (C), the key of love (F), and the peopleâ€™s key or Godâ€™s key (G). Iâ€™ve proposed the Buddhist key (B).
A unique, simple, and subtle way of signaling the key was used by bluegrass bandleader Bill Monroe. He would lightly play a chopped chord on his mandolin in the desired key, enabling the guitar and banjo players to position their capoes while he was speaking to the audience.
Establishing the Rhythm
In the art music world, a conductor typically raises his baton to prepare the ensemble and then makes an upward stroke in-tempo before bringing it down on the first beat to be played.
Starting an improvised ensemble performance in a jazz session is not very different. The leader will call the name of a tune and begin it by stomping off a bar or two of the tempo; for standard tunes the musicians are assumed to know the meter, the key, and any conventionalized melodic head that may be expected. Jazz players have used the stomp-off for something like a hundred years â€” no count, just four hammers of a heel on the floor. In public performances â€” particularly while the band was returning to the stand after an intermission, Duke Ellington would often improvise introductory material on the piano, ending up with a lead-in that set the tempo and cued the beginning of the next piece (Hasse 1993:315).
In a loud, rock-oriented context the drummer may click his crossed sticks together in front of his face, effectively providing both visual and audible information. In public performances, he may befed a â€śclick trackâ€ť through ear phones.