When Jazz Was Played by ‘Routine’ Musicians

SKF NOTE: I still find great value in reading biographies and autobiographies of past jazz masters, including those musicians who were at the beginning of jazz. Danny Barker is such a musician. I bought his book, A Life in Jazz on April 3, 1993 and underscored those parts telling stories of early drummers and shared timeless words of wisdom.

Here’s Danny Barker telling readers a memorable story about his grandfather and early jazz musicians.

[My grandfather] Isidore referred to musicians who played jazz music in the many six-piece jazz bands about the city as “routine” musicians. It was a slur. To him, “routine” meant playing by ear, with no music, in the now “classic” jazz pattern: melody, then variations on a theme. All hot jazz bands were now using this set-up and playing free.

If you couldn’t read well, you could still master this pattern of playing, jazzing a melody: noodling around the theme, doing many things on your instrument with taste and within reason. Once you learned the pattern and played the routine it was OK. The better you mastered the style the greater you became.

This style of playing music had become popular, and so many were now playing it. Who cared if you read music? You were free: free to take liberties, free to express yourself from deep inside. The public was clamoring for it.

Routine? Sure. But everybody could not master this pattern. Many tried but never could get it just right and master jazz so that they could play with other masters of jazz.

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