5 Types of Call and Response Phrases

Call and response is deeply embedded into African-American musical traditions including blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, soul, and hip-hop. The phrasing is a musical conversation—a statement made by a musician or group musicians is answered by a response.

Call and response comes from Sub-Saharan African cultures and developed in America through slave work songs and field hollers, spirituals, and blues.

Portrait of Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, and Alcide Pavageau, photo by William Gottlieb
Portrait of Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, and Alcide Pavageau, photo by William Gottlieb

Listening to, assimilating, and practicing call and response phrases will help you connect with the African-American roots of jazz, create clear conversational phrases, and interact with other musicians on the bandstand.

Watch this fun demonstration of call and response in jazz by Reggie Thomas (piano) and Alvin Atkinson (drums).

Work with a partner and improvise your own call and response phrases. Then try playing them by yourself or in a small ensemble. Here are five types of phrases:

1. Imitation

The response copies the call.

In Count Basie’s 1958 recording of Neil Hefti’s “Splanky,” the saxophones imitate the trumpets at 0:35:

Most jazz musicians find excessive imitation annoying, so use it sparingly on the bandstand.

2. Question and Answer

Say these two sentences out loud:

Ella is a great musician.
Ella is a great musician?

Same words, much different meaning. What’s the difference? You may have noticed your voice raised in pitch at the end of the question phrase. Musically, we can play a question phrase by ending with an ascending interval. We can play an answer by ending with a repeated or descending interval.

Cannonball and Nat Adderley play question/answer phrasing in the melody of “Work Song” (1963). The stop-time hits from the rhythm section add another layer of call and response.

3. Statement and Commentary

Originally an instrumental response to a vocalized phrase. Listen to trombonist Charlie Green’s entertaining responses to Bessie Smith’s lyrics in “Empty Bed Blues” (1928). This song is a great example of AAB blues lyric form:

A: Statement
A’: Variation of statement
B: Response/Punch line

4. Affirmation

A short phrase affirming the statement. In Art Blakey’s Performance of “Moanin'” (1958), pianist Bobby Timmons sounds like he is delivering a sermon and the horns respond with “Amen!” Eight bars later, they switch rolls.

5. Surprise

An unexpected and startling response to mix things up.

Art Blakey’s and Thelonious Monk’s make a surprising change to the melody of “Blue Monk” (1957). If you aren’t familiar with this piece, listen to the original first.

What are some of your favorite call and response performances?

-ST

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