Monday, November 7, 2011

The "Shouldknows" vs. "New Orleans Bump"

Lookie here. Let me tell you about one of my problems. Don’t worry, just one. I don’t want to put a strain on our friendship. My problem is not really the worst thing that could happen to a person, though it will be one that roosts with me the rest of my life. A First World Problem, I guess. Maybe I should stop describing the quality of my problem and finally take you into my confidence:

There are too many songs I want to learn.

Please…please…stop crying. Really, I’ll be all right. Here’s what happens to me when I get to thinking. With no exaggeration, there are two to three thousand songs worth a jazz musician’s attention, and that’s even just sticking to early jazz and swing. You might whittle that down to a list that’s merely filled with Warhorses, Chestnuts, songs so old they have whiskers on them; you know, the ones you’re “supposed” to have in your repertoire. “Hindustan,” for instance. Even that list reaches into the hundreds. I’m going to call these the Shouldknows. Because I think it has a nice rhythm. The Shouldknows, however, bring about bandstand exchanges such as this:

Smartypants: “Do you know_______________?”
Heroic Clarinetist Unafraid To Admit His Ignorance: “No, I haven’t learned that one yet.”
Smartypants: “Really? You should know that one.”

There exists not too many more irritating sounds than the sound of that “Really?” It sometimes makes me want to say, “Really? You should know what it feels like to have a clarinet poked in your eye.” One difficulty with Shouldknows is that there can never be a universal list. I would bet that if you compared the repertoires of any two jazz musicians, there would be at least fifty songs that don’t overlap. Not to mention this fairly common scenario: the more songs a musician stacks up, the more the Shouldknows list grows. I admit to feeling a certain responsibility to making sure I know songs like “Hindustan,” but right about the time I get all disciplined, I hear a record that makes me wander off Chestnuts Path. Just take the title tunes of the Southside Aces last two albums, if you want to know what I mean.  Bucktown Bounce and A Big Fine Thing. If there did exist a universal list of Shouldknows, neither of those tunes would be on it. But we Aces just couldn’t resist. 

There are hundreds, thousands of songs that come flying by your ears, worming their way into your noggin, and bugging you until you just have to play them. But assuming we all only have one lifetime to get around to this business, some picking and choosing must be entered into. Let me give you an example of how this can be an overwhelming prospect. I love a lot of Duke Ellington’s music. But the man spent some fifty years writing songs! He has over a thousand of them to his credit! Granted, not every one of them falls into my need-to-play-it bin. I could skip at least seventeen of them and survive. But even if you chopped half of his body of work away, you could spend a good portion of your life ignoring Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and the hundreds of other equal and lesser folk of jazz writing. All so that you could have enough time to absorb all those compositions of that great Washingtonian. You might also, for instance, miss out on Jelly Roll Morton.

Jelly Roll has been occupying my time as of late. This Thursday night, the Southside Aces will be featuring his music at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34. I’ve been listening to his records, playing his music and reading about all his jazz boasting. Jelly Roll immersion? Bakery jokes and more blue material come to mind, but I’ll leave it alone. Anyway, should you decide to plant yourself in front of us, the Aces are prepared to give you Jelly Roll what for. One thing you’ll hear is the debut, in our repertoire, of an evocatively titled piece, “New Orleans Bump,” recorded by Jelly Roll Morton and his Orchestra in July of 1929. I remember about eight years ago when I held the 33 and a 1/3 in my hands and I saw that title. It was the fourth track of side four of a three-record set. On account of my intrigue (what is a New Orleans bump?!) I played it first. That title drew me in, and the recording had me completely sold by the end of the fourth bar, the sound of Harry Prather’s swaggering brass bass making me go, “Oh!!” like I’d just been gut-punched in the soul. In the good way. Thus began a not unusual process I have of letting a tune rattle around in my hat rack for a while. The song was thrown on my ever-growing, I-will-play-that-song-in-my-lifetime-so-help-me pile. That pile is like the human population. Tunes eventually come off the pile, just as people eventually die, but both continue to get bigger and bigger. After a long gestation allowed “New Orleans Bump” to come to term, I arranged it last month. Listen to Jelly Roll's band!

Here’s the deal, though. “New Orleans Bump” is not in the top ten hits of Jelly Roll Morton. Probably not even in the top twenty. If I were a perhaps more responsible bandleader, I would have ushered the Aces into Jelly’s repertoire via those more popular tunes. It certainly would be part of a more solid jazz education for my band mates and me. But, as usual, I spend half of my time ignoring the Shouldknows, and this is, for better or worse, what we have to show for it. From a certain perspective you could definitely say it’s a weakness. I mean, I agree! A lot of these tunes so labeled Shouldknows we, well, should know! But think about this. It’s the year 2011 in South Minneapolis, and you get to hear a live band play “New Orleans Bump.” There’s nothing weak about that! I’m beside myself with anticipation. On Thursday night, however, should you decide to plant yourself next to me, you may overhear a conversation that goes roughly like this:

Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Hey, are you guys going to play “Sidewalk Blues?”
Heroic Bandleader Unafraid To Admit Repertoire Shortcomings: “No, we don’t play that one yet.”
Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Well, you’ll for sure play “Wolverine Blues,” or what Jelly preferred to call “The Wolverines.” 
Heroic Bandleader Continuing, Patiently, To Admit Repertoire Shortcomings: “Nope. Not that one either.”
Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Really? You guys should know that one.”


  1. Nice, Tony--the column and the song. Won't the dancers have fun with this one!

  2. Your column always makes me smile. And thanks for the introduction to Jelly Roll!