I am currently learning saxophone, and I've recently been introduced to jazz compositions (after playing classical music for a few months). The second measure here has had me puzzled for a few weeks by now:

Coo's Blues first 2 bars

I know that swing eighths are more or less similar in length to the following group:

Swing feel

How would I apply that knowledge to the second bar though? How do I count the notes therein? Each eighth is preceded by a quarter note (which has the same duration in swing time as it does in straight time). Are the quarter notes increased to five triplet eighths in duration? This can't be, as the same page in my book has a composition where a quarter note is dotted and played for five triplet eighths. Or do I just play the quarters normally but still only play the eighths for the length of one triplet eighth, getting a grace-note-like effect?


Write the second half of the second bar as four eighth notes with a tie between the second and third eighth note. Can you see now how to play that rhythm in swing time?

  • Thank you. Why is it played that way though? I can't say the way it's written makes such an interpretation particularly obvious. Were I the composer, I'd tie two eighths instead of placing a quarter note there. To avoid articulation confusion (with staccato), I'd simply omit the second eighth within the tie. – Pyromonk Jan 8 '18 at 12:18
  • @Pyromonk: Both ways of writing are equivalent, regardless whether it's swung or not. With a bit more experience you'll be able to read both and interpret them correctly. – Matt L. Jan 8 '18 at 13:11

The first eighth note is on-beat and thus has the length of two triplets. The second eighth note is off-beat and thus has the length on one triplet. That leaves a length of three triplets for the quarter note, as usual. It just starts later. So what happens with the staccato? That's really a bit up to interpretation. One rigorous interpretation would be to replace the quarter note by an eighth note and an eighth rest, and swing those. That would make an on-beat staccato quarter note last longer than an off-beat staccato quarter note. Or you can shorten as it feels right to you for the phrase.

  • Thank you kindly, I was wondering what to do about articulation as well. – Pyromonk Jan 9 '18 at 1:53

As a general note, tempo of the song determines how much "swing" eighth notes get: you're going to feel the triplet nature of eighth notes a lot more in a blues number at 75 bpm than you are in a Charlie Parker tune at 300 bpm (at that tempo, they're just straight eighths).

It sounds trite, but learning to feel what it would sound like will help a lot more than trying to think of "one-la-le, two-la-la, etc." in your head for every syncopated rhythm you see. That comes with time, and a lot of playing and a lot of listening. This is a good recommendation for everything you're going to play: find a recording of it, listen to how they do it.

This is not to say that you shouldn't be able to sight-read a song you've never heard nor played before.

This is saying that becoming a good musician is more than just reading notes on a page. It's more than listening to recordings. It's more than participating in live music, either as a performer or as an audience. It's more than 6-hour woodshedding sessions. It's all of these things, and more.

  • I fully agree, thank you. I normally perform a new piece electronically or go through it slowly, but this one made me stumble. I do listen to a lot of jazz and classical music, both old and contemporary. – Pyromonk Jan 9 '18 at 1:48

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