Jazz and Trains: A Connected History

It is no secret that Jazz musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, had a fascination with trains. Piece after piece has train whistle imitations and train references in its title. Where did this interconnectedness between Jazz and trains come from?

Constructing Railroads in the United States

American music has a long-standing connection to trains that reaches back before the advent of Jazz in the late 1910s.

Railroad construction in the United States began in the late 1820s, the first railway to charter freight and passengers being the Baltimore and Ohio constructed in 1827. By the 1870s, there was already a vast network of railroads spanning the country, allowing for unprecedented travel of goods and people.

One of the reasons that railroads were able to be constructed so rapidly was the use of slave labor. Southern railroad companies began buying slaves in the early 1840s and used enslaved labor almost exclusively to construction their lines. Thousands of enslaved African Americans were working on Southern railroads by 1850. In spite of the immense hardship of this labor, trains became a “symbol of hope and transformation” for enslaved people and their descendants (Davis, p. 82).

Pullman Porters and the Great Migration

Shortly after the Civil War, businessman George M. Pullman hired thousands of African American men to work on his luxury railroad sleeping cars. While these men were often severely overworked and underpaid, porters were paid more than many other Black workers at the time.

In 1925, Pullman porters established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union to represent Black workers because the American Railway Union refused to include them. They were trailblazers, securing the first-ever agreement between a union of Black workers and a major U.S. company, successfully bargaining for a more reasonable work schedule and better wages. This accomplishment was monumental and lead to further economic mobility for Pullman porters and their families.

The Great Migration was crucial to the development of American music and every facet of society. From 1916 to 1970, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. They sought better economic opportunities and an escape from the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In moving, they brought their music, cuisine, and customs with them. This newfound means of travel allowed for a broader and more rapid exchange of ideas.

Trains in Early Black American Music

The Crush Collision March, Scott Joplin

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named it Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Two soon-to-be retired trains were commissioned to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

Linin’ Track, Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter (c. 1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, performs Linin’ Track. He was legendary for picking a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad tracks.

Famous Jazz Pieces Incorporating Trains

Daybreak Express, Duke Ellington

Ellington uses his orchestra to emulate the sounds of a speeding train.

Chattanooga Choo Choo, Glenn Miller

In his WBUR interview, Rob Kapilow breaks down the music and lyrics behind Chattanooga Choo Choo. Regarding the lyrics:

“The lyrics immediately give you a feeling of what the Civil Rights situation was at the time. I mean, it’s amazing how lyrics embed American history within them. You know, ‘pardon me, boy, is that the chattanooga choo choo?’ Then they go, ‘yes, yes, track 29.’ ‘Boy, you can give me a shine.’ I mean, in just those few lines yo get the whole situation of the south in the 1940s with luxury train travel in which white passengers are served by Black pullman porters and Black shoeshine boys, which was almost the only regular employment that you could get at the time. And in just those few lines, you get the world of Plessy versus Ferguson, of separate but equal, of segregated luxury train travel.”

– Rob Kapilow

Further Learning

This is an area of American history that I am just beginning to explore. I was inspired to learn more after reading Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, in which a passing reference to train whistle imitation sparked my curiosity dig deeper.

Here are a few more resources to explore:

Choo Choo Boogaloo: 5 Jazz for Trains, A Blog Supreme

Railroads in the African American Experience, book

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, The Syncopated Times

The Train in Jazz & Blues podcast, from the The Joys of Jazz

New Single: Cabin Fever

Today, Henry Godfrey and I are releasing a new single on Bandcamp!

“Cabin Fever” is a short burst of energy, representing the angst caused by social isolation.

And check out the music video!

On the first Friday of each month, Bandcamp has generously been waiving their cut of the sales to the artists. It’s a great day to support your favorite artists by purchasing their music and merch through Bandcamp.

Solo Transcription: Lou Donaldson’s “Minor Bash”

I always enjoy learning a Lou Donaldson solo. He plays with great clarity, intention, and inventiveness. All his lines feel great under the fingers. And his sound is incredible — full but not overwhelmingly bright with the perfect subtle, warm vibrato at the ends of his phrases.

His solo on “Minor Bash” from a 1970 Blue Note record is a short and savory masterpiece. Donaldson’s ideas unfold with perfect pacing, drawing in the listener. But what captured my attention and fascination with this solo is how he subtly drew upon several facets of the Jazz tradition. Perhaps these references were intentional, a subconscious part of his musical persona, or this could be me reading into the performance too deeply and interpreting it through my own biases and aural understandings.

Download a copy of the transcription and get ready to dive in deep.

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In measures 38-40, Donaldson quotes the melody from “Habanera,” one of the famous themes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen.

Maria Callas performs “Habanera” from Carmen in Germany, 1962

While this may seem like a minor and possibly humorous detail, this tradition goes back to one of the paramount figures in American music and culture, Louis Armstrong. In his book Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman (from my summer reading list), Joshua Berrett discusses Armstrong’s affinity for opera that came about early in his life. Musician Jon Batiste shared in an interview how opera influenced the way Armstrong approached playing trumpet playing, with a singing quality.

Jon Batiste discusses opera’s influence on Louis Armstrong

Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, points to one of Armstrong’s most celebrated recordings, “West End Blues,” to showcase opera’s profound impact on the artist. Riccardi writes, “The opening unaccompanied cadenza, fueled by the trumpeter’s love of opera, might well be the most famous 12 seconds in jazz.”

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five perform “West End Blues,” (1928)

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Back to Lou Donaldson…

Another moment of his solo on “Minor Bash” that caught my attention was his rhythm in measures 70-71. The accented (emphasized) beats line up with the classic “Charleston” rhythm made famous by James P. Johnson’s 1923 composition by the same name. This iconic rhythm harks back to an earlier time in this music’s development, giving a nod to the fore-parents of this tradition.

James P. Johnson performs “Charleston,” 1923

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This is perhaps the most outlandish sonic connection I made, but it is unshakeable once I heard it. At the very end of the solo, Donaldson plays a short quarter note followed by a longer accented note on the second beat. I immediately connected this with one of the themes from Charles Mingus‘ “Fables of Faubus.” This was perhaps aided by the fact that one of the areas where this rhythm occurs is on the same pitch as it appears in “Minor Bash,” though the pitch is the tonic in “Minor Bash” and the fifth scale degree in “Fables of Faubus.” The placement of this rhythmic stress goes against the grain and does not appear particularly often, which made it

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What do you think of this solo and the musical connections that resonated with me? Let me know in the comments.

And in case you didn’t get your copy yet…

or browse my full collection of transcriptions.

Listening Log: Week 1

During these uncertain times, it is easy to rush back to the music, foods, and activities that make me comfortable. It’s time to shake that up!

I need to find a way to stay accountable to listening to “new” music (whether it is recently recorded or something from 100 years ago that I never heard before). After a long hiatus, I started keeping a listening log again and thought it would be fun to start sharing five of my favorite tracks of the week.

This is not a review or critique. I am just going to share five tracks I really enjoyed this week and where to learn more about the artists. Please don’t send unsolicited requests for me to review music.

The tracks are not listed in any particular order.

With all of that out of the way, here’s Listening Log: Week 1!


If It’s Magic – Artemis

I was blown away by this magical track that jazz supergroup Artemis dropped to promote their upcoming self-titled album. The group honored this Stevie Wonder classic, yet found their own voice on it, a magnificent accomplishment.

Cynical Sideliners – Ambrose Akinmusire

This stripped down track from Ambroses Akinmusire’s album on the tender spot of every calloused moment is pensive and haunting. It made me reflect on how critical people are from behind screens in the age of social media without putting anything on the line themselves.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business – Jason Moran

Ain’t Nobody’s Business has been one of my favorite songs for more than a decade now (particularly the Billie Holiday version). It was refreshing to hear Jason Moran’s take – crafting practically a new setting – on this tune in his album ALL RISE: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller.

Play Money – Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller

Play Money, the first track on Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller’s album Parlour Game, is a series of winding melodic lines infused with blues language. I enjoyed the journey of the entire album, and the warm quality the violin brought to the music.

(While there is a rich tradition of violin in “Jazz” and improvised music, it is still a less featured melodic instrument in these idioms.)

Rosetta – Johnny Hodges & Earl Hines

Okay, I’m cheating with this one a little bit because I knew this track and album (Stride Right) before this week. It is a song I know and love that brings me joy and comfort during this time. I’m also including it here because I want more people to know about this album!

What did you think of my list this week? Who have you been listening to? Let me know in the comments!

Jelly Roll Morton: Bridging Ragtime and Jazz Traditions

Ragtime and Jazz are two musical traditions that are closely related, yet distinctively unique. In a previous blogpost, I wrote about the defining features of these two styles pertaining specifically to the piano. Now I would like to explore the works of a specific artist who was crucial to bridging these traditions – Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known by the crude moniker “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941).

Morton claimed that he invented Jazz, a bold statement. Nonetheless, Morton was active as a pianist and composer during the shift between Ragtime and Jazz. Morton’s influence on American music was well-documented in his 1938 interview series with Alan Lomax.

Using Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Morton demonstrated the difference between a Ragtime and Jazz interpretation of the piece.

Morton performing Maple Leaf Rag in a Ragtime and Jazz style in his 1938 interview with Alan Lomax

In his critical book Early Jazz (1968), Gunther Schuller singles out this particular recording as a prime example of the evolution of swing feel. Schuller purports that the key to Morton’s “smoothing out” of the “rhythmic tightness” found in Ragtime is due to the improvisation in his right hand (Schuller p. 144). “By means of his improvisational methods, Morton was able to horizontalize the music, as it were, and to suppress the vertical, harmonic emphasis of ragtime and other musical forms” (Schuller p. 144).

In other words, Morton’s rhythmic language was less predictable and contained more forward momentum than Ragtime. The side-by-side comparison Morton offered makes the difference strikingly clear.

I agree with Schuller’s observations, but I also need to add that there is more in the music than can be expressed in mere words. We are fortunate to have this recorded history of a primary innovative source demonstrating the nuances of the music he grew up around and went on to advance irrevocably.


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

A Guide to Transcribing Jazz Solos

Solo transcription is a vital part of learning how to play Jazz. Learning how to play the solos of important improvisers note for note is a long-standing tradition in the community and one that builds a number of critical skills for every musician (even musicians who are not interested in playing “Jazz). However, this process can be intimidating for the newly-initiated. In this article, I’m going to break down the steps of transcribing a solo and offer some tips along the way.

Step 0: Play a lot of solo transcriptions

Before you embark on your own solo transcription project, I highly recommend studying other people’s solo transcriptions. Observe what kinds of information they include, how they notate difficult rhythms, and how notational practices vary from transcriber to transcriber.

Not sure where to look first? I have a lot of solo transcriptions available on my website for free!

I also recommend searching for a transcription book of one of your favorite player’s solos. The Charlie Parker Omnibook is a popular starting point for many saxophonists. There are comparable books like this for a number of players (and not just saxophonists).

Back to transcribing a solo yourself…

Step 1: Listen to the solo, a LOT of times

Become incredibly familiar with the solo. When you know it well, no sections or notes should sound surprising. Be able to sing along to the solo. This doesn’t mean you need to be an amazing vocalist or have 100% pitch accuracy, but do the best you can. This level of familiarity will help you be able to transcribe the solo faster and retain the information better.

Plus, if you are able to tolerate listening to it that many times, you must really love the solo. Transcribe solos you love and want to emulate. Don’t choose a solo only because you feel like you are “supposed” to transcribe that solo or player.

Step 2: Figure out the form

How many choruses does the soloist take? Does the soloist start playing at the top of the form or have a short solo break leading into it? What tune is the soloist playing on and how many bars are in each chorus? What are the chord changes?

Answering these questions can help you map out the solo so you can fill in the details later. It can also help you divide the solo into smaller chunks to transcribe.

Step 3: Rhythms and notes

This step is perhaps the most daunting. There are a few ways to make this process a little easier.

If you’re stuck, transcribe the rhythm first. Write down the rhythms without any pitches. Make sure you have the correct amount of beats for the time signature. Then assign pitches to the rhythms. If you have too many pitches to fit in the rhythm, then reevaluate the rhythm you transcribed. It is a tedious process, but it helps to isolate one part, the rhythm.

Don’t be afraid to slow down the recording. This is not cheating. People have been doing this for a long time, and in this day in age we are fortunate to have technology that makes this incredibly easy! Here are a few things to try:

  • Audacity – free software for your computer, make sure you “change tempo” instead of “change speed” to keep the pitch consistent
  • Amazing Slow Downer – phone and computer versions, exceptional sound quality maintained even when substantially slowing down the recording
  • Transcribe – a powerful computer software designed specifically for transcribing music
  • YouTube – If you are transcribing a live performance that you can only find on YouTube, it is possible to slow down the speed of the recording in the settings at the bottom right of the video display.

Loop sections of the solo. If you have an audio file of the solo, loop a small section (even 1 bar). Play the recording, then try to play it on your instrument. Go back and forth until you get it. It is tedious, but there is really no way around this hard work!

Step 4 (optional): Write it down

I personally think there is a lot of value in writing down a solo. It allows you to observe the solo on the page in addition to experiencing it aurally. More perspectives = more knowledge.

Some transcribers like to learn the entire solo on their instrument before writing it down while others prefer to write down the solo as they learn it. I have used both of these methods and found that I can learn a solo faster by writing it down as I learn it, but will retain the improvisational vocabulary if I learn the whole solo on my instrument before writing it down.

Some rhythms are difficult, if not impossible to write down using our limiting music notation nomenclature. One common work around for this is using words such as “lay back” over sections that are behind the beat or “rush” for sections on top of the beat. There are many variations on theses phrases, and you might need to make up your own!

There are two main options for writing out the solo – pencil and manuscript paper or a music notation software. I personally like to write everything out by hand first and then entire it into a software. I usually use Archives paper because it is thick and the off-white color is easy to stare at for a long time.

There are wide variety of music notation softwares. I use Finale, but if you are just getting started with music engraving, I recommend trying Noteflight. It is very intuitive and will give you all the tools you need – and more – to get started with transcribing. Plus, you can start with a free account.

Some more advice

Here are some more pointers for your transcribing journey.

Learn the tune that the soloist is playing on, especially if it’s a standard. Learn the melody and the chord progression. Better yet, learn the lyrics (if applicable), or at least read through them and know what the song is about.

Play along with the original recording. This helps you check for note accuracy, but, more importantly, it helps you emulate the nuances of the performance – time feel, vibrato, articulations, etc.

Record yourself playing the solo (alone, with the original recording, with a backing track, all of the above). Listening back to the recording will give you a more objective way to determine what you’re nailing and what needs more work. This is true for practicing in general, not just solo transcription!

I mentioned this previously, but I will say it again. Transcribe what you love. The saying goes “you are what you eat.” The same thing applies musically; you will begin to start sounding more like the people you transcribe. Don’t transcribe something just because you think it will make your teacher happy or impress your friends. Choose something that resonates with you.

I hope you found this guide helpful! How do you approach transcribing solos? Who are your favorite musicians to transcribe? Let me know in the comments.

Now Selling: The New Groove Sheet Music

I am excited to share that all the sheet music for my debut EP The New Groove is available for sale on my Bandcamp merch page!

Each song’s sheet music is available individually and in a combined songbook. Every sheet music purchase comes with the track from the EP (or in the case of the songbook, the entire EP)!

This week only, The New Groove Songbook is available with a 20% discount – just enter the code new_groove_songbook during checkout!

If you are interested in checking out more of my sheet music, I just created a new sheet music store on my website!

Sheet Music Store

I am excited to share that my new sheet music store is now up and running on my website! I have original compositions and arrangements for a variety of instrumentations including lead sheets, saxophone quartet, small jazz ensembles, and big band.

5 Ways to Include Women in Your Jazz Studies Curriculum – And Why You Should

The #MeToo Movement shined a light on sexism in many fields of study, “jazz” included. Now, with the immense public support for Black Lives Matter, discussions about racial justice and justice for people with intersectional marginalized identities are out in the open. Students from among the most elite conservatories have taken to social media to share their difficult and traumatic experiences in music education (see @nec_anonymous and @MSMSpeaksOut, among others).

Here five strategies for including more women in jazz studies curriculum. While the followings examples here are specific to women, these points are applicable to any group of people who are underrepresented in this field of study.

1. Hire women on your faculty and as guest artists/speakers

Support women jazz musicians by supporting their careers. There are ample incredible women who play every instrument, compose, understand music business, etc. Hire them, not just as adjuncts but as full-time faculty with a livable salary and benefits. By doing this, you are signaling to you female students that they can achieve this and deserve to be recognized as respected authorities on the music when they enter the professional world.

Bring female guest artists to your campus. Play her music with your school’s ensembles. Treat her with the respect you would any other guest artist rather than tokenizing her.

Include female guest lecturers in your classes. Remember, there are women experts in a variety of fields concerning jazz, not just “women issues.”

2. Use the works of women in your curriculum

For ensemble directors, include the works of women composers in your repertoire. Do not do this for just one “celebrate women concert” but all the time.

For classroom teachers, use reading materials about women and written by women. A few books to start with are Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Morning Glory, and Madame Jazz. Play examples of music performed and/or written by women in your classes. If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve got you covered.

While it is not directly related to “jazz” or “popular” music, I want to give a shoutout to MusicTheoryExamplesByWomen.com!

3. Commit to lifelong learning

It’s okay to not know everything, but it’s important to continue learning. Decide on a commitment that is meaningful but practical for you. Maybe that looks like reading a book, listening to online lectures or panel discussions about women’s issues, or engaging with a local women in jazz organization.

Don’t be afraid to consult with your peers about resources they have found useful for continuing their education or for enhancing their classes.

Be transparent with your students about your learning. This could inspire some of them to learn more about the role of women in jazz and signal that this is something worth their attention. Don’t be afraid to ask your students about what they already know. Some of them might be very knowledgeable about how women have contributed to jazz or be aware of resources for female artists.

It is also important to recognize that many people have intersecting marginalized identities. For instance, your Black female students and white female students are going to likely have different lived experiences. Learn more about intersectional feminism.

4. Call out your peers – and yourself

When you hear someone say something inappropriate, call it out. This can be hard, especially if it is a close friend or someone in a position of power over you. But, if you choose to stay silent, you are signaling that hurtful language and actions are acceptable in this space. Find a way that you are most comfortable with to express yourself. This could be as simple as, “What you just said made me uncomfortable.” Here are some more ideas.

Be mindful of your own biases. Are you overly impressed when a female student plays well? Did you have lower expectations for her when she walked into the room? While these types of thoughts may be nearly subconscious, it is important to observe them and question them. Why did I think that way? Where did I learn to think that way? Are my thoughts based in facts? Then, seek more information (see #3).

5. If there is truly no way to include women in your curriculum, have a conversation with your students about why women are absent

I had a teacher who did this incredibly well, and I found the impact to be powerful.

I was taking an Intro to Western Classical Music class, a topic notoriously devoid of women and BIPOC. Toward the beginning of the course, perhaps even the first class, the teacher acknowledged that there were very few women in the curriculum. He explained how women were often denied a musical education, especially beyond childhood, and that the details of their lives were not preserved to the same degree as their male colleagues.

To me, this was so much better than saying nothing. This explained that there is injustice in this field of study and that the teacher knows this and is doing his best to include women in the curriculum when information is available.

Why this is important

Taking these steps are critical to addressing the ramifications of historical abuse of women in “jazz” and “popular music” that continues to this days from the smallest clubs to the most prestigious conservatories.

Representation matters. It shows women that they are valued and capable of achieving more. While this article is about representation in Hollywood films, the same logic applies. And the same logic – that not only is this the right thing to do, but is good for a school’s bottom line – applies, too. Many women want to attend a music school where they will be able to learn from women and interact with female peers and are finding ways to make their voices heard about this.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, including women in your curriculum is the right thing to do. This is not just from a moral standpoint but also from an academic one. If you are excluding women, you are inaccurately retelling the history of this music.

Side note: I just wrote an article about the role of women in Ragtime music. We have been part of this lineage all along.

I hope this list serves as a starting point for how to make jazz education more inclusive, mindful, and accurate.

How have you worked to include women in your jazz studies curriculum? Let me know in the comments.

The New Groove: Now Available for Streaming!

Today I am celebrating my birthday!

I am so thankful to be entering my next year of life being healthy, happy, and inspired. Thank you to everyone who has sent their birthday wishes. It means so much.

Join me in celebrating this milestone by streaming my EP The New Groove! You can find it on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube Music among many other places. And it is still available to purchase on Bandcamp. If you like it, please share it with your friends!

Thanks for continuing to support me and my music. Can’t wait to make more for you soon!