[Dixielandjazz] Violin in OKOM

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Fri Mar 11 11:03:17 PST 2005

On Mar 10, 2005, at 6:46 PM, Mike C. wrote:

> With a trumpet on the melody, clarinet a third above the 
> melody(typically) and trombone on the harmony what role does the 
> fiddle player play in the front line?
> Mike

I thought someone would pick up on this good question. Here’s one 
historical and musicological take on it, which I hope others will 
comment on and correct.

In the pre-jazz and early jazz days, many groups playing dances in N.O. 
had a violin in the front line, with some variation, of 
trumpet/trombone/cl. or reedman. Often the violinist was leader and 
played the melody. The force and clarity the trumpet lead with the 
clarinet and bone playing the roles you describe hadn’t come into 

While the oft-maligned ODJB probably wasn’t the first band to assert 
the three-player front line, their wildly popular recordings 
demonstrated the vitality of the lineup. Some historians say that the 
violin then faded from the scene as an essential instrument in small 
combos in the city as a direct result of this.

The enemy of a good front-line sound is clutter and lack of sonic 
balance. The traditional three-man lineup caught on and lasted, I 
think, because the counterpoint with this instrumentation can be so 
nicely articulated, and the players have a lot of freedom in ensemble 
improvisation (assuming the freedom isn’t abused, as when they aren’t 
really listening to each other, which happens too often in OKOM). I’ve 
never been fond of adding a sax to the ensemble because the 
contrapuntal relationship tends to become muddled or obscure. Many 
exceptions exist, like Eddie Miler in the Bobcats, and sometimes even 
the crowded sound “works” for me when it shouldn’t, as in the 
Dorseyland Band. (Sax without clarinet loses the “high-end” excitement 
of the clarinet sound.)

I don’t see these as rules. The traditional lineup can be negative, 
bending unimaginative players to formulaic approaches. Conversely, we 
all know that great jazz has been played with various front lines, from 
one horn (or violin) and rhythm to a two-trumpet sound like Oliver and 
Armstrong to what-have-you. Even so, there’s an enduring appeal in the 
standard front-line ensemble that I still find exciting both as a 
listener and a drummer.

Charlie Suhor

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