Some Technicalities





All ragtime and jazz is in 4/4 time. There are a few exceptions, notably the Jitterbug Waltz by Fats Waller, also Take 5 by Paul Desmond. We shall not discuss these here. A large number of early rags are written in 2/4 time. This is misleading because they are really in 4/8 time, meaning 4 quavers to the bar, as opposed to 4/4 which means 4 crotchets to the bar. There is no difference to the music if they are rewritten in 4/4 time.

The essential feature of jazz and ragtime is the syncopation. This means emphasis on beats or half beats other than the first beat of the bar. There are several ways in which this can happen. Firstly, by stressing the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar usually called the 'off beats'. This kind of syncopation originally arose from the pianist's left hand in ragtime. A bass note alternates with a chord in the middle area of the keyboard. The chord inevitably comes over louder and produces the off beat emphasis.

Secondly, there is emphasis on the half beats. Anticipation of the 2nd beat of the bar by a quaver is the essential feature of the cakewalk which is the earliest form of syncopated music. Think of At A Georgia Camp Meeting (1897) or Golliwog's Cakewalk (1909).

By the first decade of the 20th century syncopation of the other beats in the bar had begun to appear. Up to 1920 or so the half beats were strictly half beats, i.e. equal quavers. This mode of playing is often referred to as 8 to the bar since 4 crotchet beats give 8 quaver half beats.

By the middle of the 1920's jazz musicians were beginning to subdivide each crotchet beat into 3 equal parts to produce either a quaver triplet or a crotchet and quaver triplet. This mode of playing is often called swing, or 12 to the bar. In more recent times it has become the custom in popular music to play at 16 to the bar, meaning each crotchet beat is subdivided into 4 equal semi quavers. Listen to the canned music in any bar for examples of this last phenomenon.

Ragtime originated as piano music, but it was also played by brass bands. Jazz was played by smaller groups often including a pianist. These pianists began to adopt jazz styles of playing. In particular, simplifying the structure of a number, using improvisation, adopting the 12 to the bar mode, using more and more complicated forms of syncopation. Listen to any Art Tatum record for an idea of the possibilities of jazz piano at this time.

After 1940 a new style of jazz appeared called 'modern jazz'. Different chords were used; major and minor sevenths instead of dominant sevenths. Also the pianist's left hand was simplified. A string bass took over the role of playing the bass note so that the left hand could stay in the middle of the keyboard playing discordant chords on or off the beat. The jazz pianist was no longer self sufficient. He relied on the services of bass and drums.

The music featured on John Reade's CD and sheet music comes form the middle period. It is played by a solo pianist. It is mainly 12 to the bar, and improvisation is allowed. It is above all a 2 handed style where right hand and left hand make their separate contributions, the left hand laying down the steady beat whilst the right hand syncopates against it.