#80 How To Play Night Train by Jimmy Forrest (Back To The Future)

sax hall of fame Jul 26, 2020

Night Train is a tune that holds a special place in my heart. When I was a teenager I used to play in pubs in Falkirk with my Scottish mates Dru and Baz and the song we used to play every gig was Night Train. We were all obsessed with Back To The Future back then and we could quote every line!

Night Train was mainly composed by Duke Ellington and recorded by Jimmy Forrest, but at that time the only version we knew was by the fictitious 1955 dance band Marvin Berry And The Starlighters, who played the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance in Back To The Future. Of course, later on I discovered all the other great versions of Night Train and in today's free online saxophone lesson you're gonna learn the famous Jimmy Forrest version.

Be sure to pick up the free PDF sheet music for Night Train and if you want to play along you can get the backing track here. Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on YouTube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are at the bottom of the blog.


Who plays the sax solo on Night Train? (1:07)

  • the sax on the original version of Night Train is by tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest
  • the sax on the Marvin Berry And The Starlighters version of Night Train from the Back To The Future movie is played by session saxophonist Ray Pizzi
  • there are several other notable versions with different saxophonists, including Earl Bostic


Who is Jimmy Forrest?

  • Jimmy Forrest was an American tenor saxophonist who played with Duke Ellington at the end of the 1940s, Miles Davis in 1952, led his own combos and later played with the Count Basie Orchestra
  • his best known hit was Night Train from 1951
  • he died in 1980


Are there different versions of Night Train? (1:07)

  • the first part of the Night Train head was first recorded by Ellington sideman Johnny Hodges as "That's The Blues Old Man" in 1940
  • Duke Ellington recorded the second part of the Night Train head as "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" in 1946
  • Jimmy Forrest recorded his (much slower) hit version of Night Train in Ab major, now called "Night Train" for the first time, in 1951
  • Earl Bostic re-recorded the song at a faster tempo in 1952, this time in A major
  • James Brown recorded his version of Night Train, complete with namechecks, in 1961 and played drums on it himself
  • there are many other versions, but maybe the best known version of all is the Bb major version by the fictitious 1955 dance band Marvin Berry And The Starlighters at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance in the 1985 movie Back To The Future featuring Michael J. Fox


What are the chords for Night Train?

  • Night Train is a twelve bar blues in Ab (Bb for tenor, F for alto)
  • click here to find out more about the twelve bar blues and blues saxophone in general


What are the notes for the sax in Night Train?

-=low octave, *=second octave, **=third octave, __=longer note

  • phrase 1 - tenor (3:29): D**___D**  Bb*  D**  C*  Bb*  Ab*  F*  Eb*  Db  C___
  • phrase 2 - tenor (4:22): F*  F*  F*  E*  E*  E*  E*  E*  E*
  • phrase 3 - tenor (5:18): Db*___Db*  Bb*  D**  C*  Bb*  Ab*  F*  Eb*  Db  C___
  • phrase 4 - tenor (6:14): F  [Bb  Bb  Db  Db  Bb  Bb  G  F] x2  Bb__Bb  Bb-  Bb-  Bb- [PLAY IT ALL 3Xs]
  • phrase 5 - tenor (6:55): Bb  C#  D*  Eb*  E*  F*  E*  F*  Db  Bb__ Bb  C#  D*  Eb*  E*  F*  Bb*  E*  Eb*__
  • phrase 6 - tenor (7:29): Bb  C#  D*  Eb*  E*  F*  E*  F*  E*  F*  E*  F*  Ab*  Bb*  C*  Db*  C*  Bb*  Ab*  F*  Eb*  Db  Bb


  • phrase 1 - alto (3:29): A*___A*  F*  A*  G*  F*  Eb*  C  Bb  Ab  G___
  • phrase 2 - alto (4:22): C   C   C  B   B   B  B   B   B
  • phrase 3 - alto (5:18): Ab*___Ab*  F*  A*  G*  F*  Eb*  C  Bb  Ab  G___
  • phrase 4 - alto (6:14): C  [F  F  Ab  Ab  F  F  D  C] x2  F__F  F  F  F [PLAY IT ALL 3Xs]
  • phrase 5 - alto (6:55): F  G#  A  Bb  B  C  B  C  Ab  F  F  G#  A  Bb  B  C  F  B  Bb__
  • phrase 6 - alto (7:29): F  G#  A  Bb  B  C  B  C  B  C  B  C  Eb*  F*  G*  Ab*  G*  F*  Eb*  C  Bb  Ab  F


How are the phrases combined? (7:49)

  • chorus 1: phases 1 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 3
  • chorus 2: phrase 4 (played x3)
  • chorus 3: phrases 5 - 6 - 4 - 4


Is there a backing track for Forget Me Nots? (11:14)


So I hope you've enjoyed learning Night Train blues by Jimmy Forrest. Hopefully this lesson will help you play it better than I did when I was a teenager! lol Don't forget to pick up the free PDF sheet music for Night Train and I'll see you next week, where we'll be covering altissimo playing. See ya!

Jamie :-)


Video Timestamps

0:00 - Intro Performance

0:34 - intro and titles

1:07 - about Night Train

2:27 - why Night Train is special to me

2:50 - how to get your free PDF sheet music for Night Train

3:17 - the key and form of Night Train


3:45 - how to get your free one hour Masterclass


4:30 - Question of the week 

5:01 - those glissandos


5:45 - about the blues


6:35 - about send offs


7:15 - how to growl on sax


7:49 - Night Train song structure

8:26 - about the blog making this lesson



13:19 - sign off

14:09 - end music and blooper reel


Video Transcript


Hi, I’m pro saxophonist Jamie Anderson and you’re watching Get Your Sax Together. I sax up your Sunday every week with technique and improvising tips, player profiles and, of course, my famous breakdowns of the world’s best loved sax lines.

In today’s free online sax lesson you’ll be learning how to play a real dirty blues song, and that’s Night Train by Jimmy Forrest.


If you love dirty blues saxophone you’re gonna love this week’s breakdown! Night Train blues was a big hit for tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest in nineteen-fifty-one, but the composition has had an interesting evolution. The first part of the song was originally recorded by Duke Ellington sideman Johnny Hodges in nineteen-forty under the title “That’s The Blues Old Man” and the second section of the song was first recorded by Ellington himself in nineteen-forty-six, under the title “Happy-Go-Lucky Local”, as part of his Deep South Suite. Jimmy Forrest was in Ellington’s band at the time, so obviously that’s where he got the melody from. Forrest then went on to record his much slower version, called "Night Train” for the first time, in nineteen-fifty-one. Using the same bass obstinato riff as Jimmy Forrest but in A instead of Ab, Earl Bostic recorded a more uptempo version in nineteen-fifty-two and James Brown did his well known name-checking version in nineteen-sixty-one. However, probably the best known version of all, this time in Bb, is by the fictitious fifties dance band Marvin Berry And The Starlighters, performing at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance in the nineteen-eighty-five movie Back To The Future. Right enough, it seems historically feasible that a dance band in nineteen-fifty-five would be playing an R&B hit from nineteen-fifty-one or two. I couldn’t find out who played sax on the Back To The Future version, but if YOU know, let me know in the comments.

This song has always had a special part in my heart, as me and my mate Dru Baker used to play it together in pub gigs in Falkirk in Scotland when I was about fifteen or sixteen. Shout out to Dru Baker. He was older than me and I used to really look up to him, but I dread to think what we both sounded like back then! lol

Just before we dive in to the first phrase remember to go down into the description for this video and click the link to get your free PDF sheet music for Night Train. It’s written out for alto AND tenor sax, with all the phrase numbers marked in. Also, keep watching to the end, cos after I’ve played the whole thing I let the backing track run for YOU to play along with. If you’re a beginner on saxophone this is gonna be a better week for you than last week! Night Train is a twelve bar blues in concert Ab - which is a blues in B flat for tenor and a blues in F for alto. There’s six phrases to learn in total, and once we’ve learned these phrases I’ll show you how to put them all together into the arrangement. Here’s the breakdown of phrase one…


Just before we move on to the second phrase, I wanted to quickly mention my free Saxophone Success Masterclass. This is my gift to you guys and it’s a one hour video lesson for saxophonists of ANY standard, with loads of in-depth teaching to help you transform your tone, improve your timing, design a structured practice routine so you don’t waste your time and loads of other pro tips and tricks. The link is in the description, or you can visit double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass. 

Okay, without further ado, let’s look at phrase two now. This is a very short phrase which is in the Earl Bostic version, but not the Back To The Future version.


Just before we learn phrase three, here’s the question of the week - what’s YOUR favourite version of Night Train? Let me know in the comments. I actually love the Happy-Go-Lucky Ellington version, but Back To The Future is one of my favourite  movies of all time, so that version will always have a nostalgic place in my heart! Just realised I didn’t even mention THIS version. Ooops! I do love it though.

Moving swiftly on then, here’s phrase three. It’s only the first two notes that are different from phrase one. One of the most notable features of this opening chorus is the long glissandos Jimmy Forrest uses. If you wanna learn how to do that go to the card linked above now. In this case I’m just putting all my fingers down, without paying much attention to what scale it is, and tapering off my embouchure and breath.


If you get the free PDF from the description you’ll see that you would now play phrase two again, followed by phrase three. That completes the first blues chorus. If you wanna find out more about the twelve bar blues, go to the card linked above now which is my epic blues sax special. Phrase four is played three times in a row to make up the second chorus of this twelve bar blues. I’m sure that Jimmy Forrest chose the unusual key of Ab major just so that he could bark those low B flats out on tenor. I mean, come on…loud, low B flats on tenor - is there a more satisfying sound in the world? lol Sadly, you’ll have to settle for a normal F on alto as it goes too low for that instrument. Booo!


Although you’ll learn them separately, phrases five and six are really one four bar phrase which is what we call a “send off”. A send off is a four bar phrase at the start of a chorus, that acts as a springboard into the solo section. Often a send off will have stop time. On this occasion, Jimmy Forrest doesn’t actually spring into a solo, but re-states the melody. Here’s the first half of that send off, which is phrase five…


Jimmy Forrest adds a bit of a growly tone to this send off. If you wanna learn how to growl on sax go to the card linked above now. In this case he’s using a humming, throat growl, but it’s not that strong so don’t overdo it. Here’s phrase six now - the second half of the send off…


[STING:The Structure]

We’ve now got all the phrases covered so let’s have a quick look at the structure of the song, and how we piece together the sections we’ve just learned.

The melody is divided into three separate twelve bar blues choruses. The first chorus is… phrase one, phrase two, phrase three, phrase two and phrase three.

The second chorus - the rhythmic, riffy chorus - is simply phrase four, played three times.

And the final chorus has the send off, which is phrase five then phrase six, followed by phrase four played twice.

[Sting:Putting It All Together]

While I was producing this lesson I made an informal “behind the scenes blog” so you can all see what my creation process is from start to finish. If you’re interested, or if you just wanna get to know me a bit better, go to the card linked above now to watch it. 

I’ve put together a backing track for this one and after I’ve played it through, the backing track runs for YOU to play along with. It’s deliberately dirty, so don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with your stereo! I might have over-filthed it a tad, but never mind! Remember to get your free PDF from the description to follow along with each phrase as I play it, and as always, be sure to listen to the original recording and try and mimic the phrasing, groove and sound. The intro is two bars, and when it’s all put together it should sound something like this, here we go…



[Sting:Before You Go]

I hope you enjoyed this week’s lesson. Sometimes you just can’t beat a dirty slow blues. In fact, when I bought Night Train on iTunes it was featured on a compilation called Essential Burlesque, so that tells you all you need to know about how filthy this song is! lol

If you wanna learn some more in-depth sax stuff go to double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass and get your free one hour lesson with me, and as always, you can support me by giving this video a thumbs up, subscribe to the channel, click the bell icon to be notified when I upload new content and check out my Insta and Facebook pages. I genuinely appreciate you watching the channel and supporting me, so thank you.

Next Sunday you’ll be learning the basics of playing altissimo notes on sax, but until then, practice smart and have an awesome week. Laters! 



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