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Riffs and Shouts: The Building Blocks of Jazz

Harlem Dancers Leon James and Willa Mae Riker, from The Swing Era, Time-Life.

Nothing gets in the groove like a catchy ‘riff.’ The hot rhythm of a good riff lifts us out of our seats and onto the dance floor. Riffs are one of the building blocks of jazz. They are everywhere—as background figures, parts of jazz solos, and even entire riff tunes.

 

A riff is a short melody—just a few notes—repeated over and over in a rhythmic manner. The origin of the riff can be traced to early African-American gospel and blues forms where short, repeated, chant-like melodic fragments were typically sung or played as a background figure to support a soloist. The jazz riff evolved out of this call-and-response practice.

 

With their New York debut at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in the late 1930s, the great Count Basie Orchestra and their riffing style breathed new life into the Swing Era. It is said that in rehearsal Basie would send each section of the band into a separate room, charged with the task of coming up with their own new riff. These sectional riffs would later be combined to create a shouting call-and-response effect. The result—riff tunes like "One O'clock Jump" with its famous final 'shout' chorus.

 

The Count Basie Orchestra at the Famous Door in New York, late 1940s. Courtesy Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie, Albert Murray.

 

Louis Armstrong, whose pioneering genius inspired generations of jazz musicians from the 1920s to the present day, often used riffs in his solos to build tension. A good example of Louis' solo riffing can be heard on his 1929 Okeh recording of  "St. Louis Blues." As an added attraction to his big-band dance concerts, Benny Goodman often featured small combinations—or combos—of three to six pieces. The later Goodman small combos, featuring guitarist Charlie Christian, developed many riff-based tunes like "Gilly," named after Goodman's daughter.

 

This week on Riverwalk Jazz The Jim Cullum Jazz Band uses simple, familiar riffs to build entire arrangements and tunes—from originals like “Keep Off the Grass” to standards like “Dinah.” Special guest Bob Barnard joins the band on trumpet.

 

Louis Armstrong. Courtesy Frank Driggs Collection

Riffs are really very simple, infectious melodic ideas. There is a 'chant-like' background figure in the Band's interpretation of "Perdido Street Blues" that’s a good example of how the riff' began to evolve in early jazz. Sitting in on cornet special guest Bob Barnard helps brings back the hot, riff-based sounds of New York's 1930s jazz mecca—52nd Street—on "Undecided," a tune star trumpeter Charlie Shavers wrote for small combos of the day.
 
Jim Cullum talks about what it was like for a new player joining the Count Basie Band when there were no written musical arrangements of the Band's repertoire. Trumpeter Harry 'Sweets' Edison described the process years ago on one of our Riverwalk radio shows. Shortly after Edison started working for Basie, Sweets complained to him that he wanted to quit because he felt lost on the bandstand. Sweets couldn’t find his place in the Band, meaning he couldn’t find harmony notes on the riffs that weren’t already being played by another player. Basie told Sweets Edison, “If you find a note tonight that works play the same damn note every night.”

 

Photo credit for home page teaser image: Harlem Dancers Leon James and Willa Mae Riker. Photo courtesy The Swing Era by Time-Life

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