The Spanish Tinge


Jelly Roll Morton:

In one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues,” you can notice the Spanish tinge. If fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.
Here’s the seasoning exactly–Jell Roll Morton performing New Orleans Blues. He makes it sound easy. But why not? Jelly Roll Morton said, so it’s told, he invented jazz.

A transcription of New Orleans Blues is in James Dapogny’s Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton The Collected Piano Music. Here are two measures from the left hand part to show the general Spanish tinge. It’s basically two dotted notes followed by note without a dot–the feel of it is 3+3+2.


Creepy Feeling is another well-known Jelly Roll Morton Spanish tinge.


Jelly Roll Morton’s Spanish tinge derives from at least a few different sources. Very likely he came to it as a Cuban rhythm known as a habernera and which itself is basically a tresillo–two dotted notes followed by an note without a dot.
The rhythm shows up all over the place. George Bizet used it in the 19th century in his opera Carmen.

New Orleans pianists like Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and others built their styles on that same rhythm. Of course they were all influenced by Jelly Roll Morton.

The Spanish Tinge–Misty–Jaki Byard

I came to the Spanish tinge through the prism of Jaki Byard. In one of my first lessons at the New England Conservatory Jaki played Misty to demonstrate the Spanish tinge was for everything and everyone. It went like this:
The essence–Jelly Roll Morton’s 3+3+2 rhythms as in the New Orleans Blues or Creepy Feeling–is in the left hand. The single notes in right hand could just as well be octaves or octaves with fifths.

The essentials and J.S. Bach

A great way to learn how to do anything–working with the Spanish tinge for example–is reduce it to an essential, something simple that’s easy. Which is a key tenet for learning–divide and conquer–reduce the thing being learned to a manageable repeatable chunk.

Which means first things first, we need a simple pattern for a bass line, maybe something even simpler than what Jaki demonstrated in Misty. There are a lot of places to get a simple pattern–for example JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I mean, why not?
All we need for now is the left-hand part. If Bach had composed the Goldberg Variations Spanish-tinge style perhaps what he wrote in the left hand would have looked like this:

The basic Spanish tinge

Having established a simple left-hand figure established we can add whatever we’d like in the right hand–quarter notes for simplicity.

Variants are fine

Grace- and eight-note anticipations are fine. The important thing is the general feel of the Spanish tinge rather than exactness or correctness of any one detail. Which is true with the Goldberg Variations too?

Spanish tinge and boogie woogie

A next step: Spanish-tinge with a common right hand boogie woogie pattern. It doesn’t have to be played fast, the important thing is boogie woogie feel. Which means if the right hand “feels” right–if it falls into the so-called “pocket” then the left hand will follow along and do the same.

Practicing with a timing reference, which could be a metronome, is helpful. Far better than a metronome is a play-along recording or far better than that is a drum beat from an app like Drumgenius. Transposing the example to 12 keys is a good idea.


Converting the Spanish tinge figure sort of exactly into triplets is another way to practice to acquire control of the rhythm.

What Is This Thing Called Love

Here’s the 1st 8 measures of Cole Porter’s What is This Thing Called Love with Spanish tinge in the left hand. Simplifying the harmony transforms the left hand into a I–iv–V chord progression.
Honeysuckle Rose by Fats Waller is another tune to try Spanish tinge style or for more fun there’s Charlie Parker’s Honeysuckle Rose contrafact which would be Scrapple from the Apple.
Q: What’s a contrafact?
A: (from Google):

  1. In jazz, a contrafact is a musical composition consisting of a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure. Contrafact can also be explained as the use of borrowed chord progressions.

3+3+2 = 2+3+3 = 3+2+3 = 8

When notated in 4/4 Spanish-tinge is 8th notes grouped in 3+3+2. But the 8ths could be grouped as 2+3+3 or 3+2+3–for practice purposes to acquire looseness with the feel and the style.Picture

Jaki Byard

Jaki didn’t speak to the New Orleans style of pianism that players like Professor Longhair, Allan Toussaint, Dr. John, and others grew from from Jelly Roll Morton’s accomplishments. It’s hard to imagine Jaki wasn’t fluent or knowledgeable in those later styles of New Orleans pianism–it was second nature for him to assimilate and rework musical styles. But on the other hand no one plays everything. Except perhaps for Jaki.

And more

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