Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide
BY BILL ANSCHELL
Ready to check out your first jam session? There’s much more to jazz music - and to the “session” in particular - than meets the eye. This primer will help you better appreciate the intense psychodrama being played out on stage. Special “Insider’s Hints” (“I.H.”) highlighted throughout the text will help you make the most of your maiden voyage.
I.H.: Although your food and drink dollars are the lifeblood of the jazz economy, remember that to the musicians, you’re irrelevant. Don’t make requests. Don’t start dancing. And don’t try to sing along. The last thing the session needs is another ego. Things are complicated enough already.
1) The Room
Session venues fall into two distinct categories:
Yuppie jazz dives
Yuppies don’t generally like dives, but jazz, to a Yuppie, is a daring adventure. There may be no valet parking, but caution be damned!
The club will be located in a “transitional” part of town. Walking hurriedly from parking space to venue will raise the courageous Yuppie’s heartbeat past Stairmaster level. All the more gratifying, then, to finally feel the club’s warm embrace. Home at last among the expensive cigars and fancy martinis.
The food will be overpriced and lousy. There will be at least one fake Cajun dish on the menu. There will be an abstract painting of a saxophonist. There will be a state-of-the-art ventilation system that makes the thick cigar smoke swirl around in impressionistic patterns. In the restrooms, a fresh coat of Lysol won’t fully supress the smell of vomit.
There will be no piano, or there will be a Samick. “Samick,” translated from Korean, means “looks like a Steinway but sounds like a Hyundai.” (I.H.: an actual piano; can Yugo be far behind?) The room itself will be an acoustical nightmare. In the absence of carpeting or drapery, sounds will reverberate and distort like a bad LSD trip. Feeding this psychedelic nightmare will the the bar’s blender, a cash register, a big-screen television, and a CD player cranking out music that bears no resemblance to jazz. When the band starts, somebody will forget to turn the CD off. Yuppie conversation, to compete with these sounds, is elevated to a roar. Somewhere, in the background, a jam session takes place.
Non-Yuppie jazz dives
Same as Yuppie jazz dives, but without the Lysol.
I.H.: Sit as close to the band as possible. Stare intensely at each musician during his solo, and move your mouth along with his lines. Don’t smile. Now watch - each will assume that: a) you play his instrument, and b) you think he sucks. You are “vibing” them, and they’ll come undone. All jazz players, regardless of age, instrument, or ability, are deeply insecure. Have fun with this.
2) The Musicians
While a jazz artist may claim to have a “unique voice” on his instrument, sociological analysis tells us otherwise. In reality, jazz players are simply the embodiment of instrumental archetypes. Jam sessions, then, are the playing-out of archetypal conflicts. Jazz “standards” performed at the sessions make up the script. Over time, an epic play is realized. Here are the characters:
Piano: Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied theory, harmony and composition in college. Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald. They should have big hands, but often don’t. They were social rejects as adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers. If you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.
Bass: Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not he’s listening.
Drums: Drummers are radical. Specific personalities vary, but are always extreme. A drummer might be the funniest person in the world, or the most psychotic, or the smelliest. Drummers are uneasy because of the many jokes about them, most of which stem from the fact that they aren’t really musicians. Pianists are particularly successful at making drummers feel bad. Most drummers are highly excitable; when excited, they play louder. If you decide to talk to the drummer during a break, be careful not to sneak up on him.
Saxophone: Saxophonists think they are the most important players on stage. Consequently, they are temperamental and territorial. They know all the Coltrane and Bird licks but have their own sound, a mixture of Coltrane and Bird. They take exceptionally long solos, which reach a peak half way through and then just don’t stop. They practice quietly but audibly while other people are trying to play. They are obsessed. Saxophonists sleep with their instruments, forget to shower, and are mangy. If you talk to a saxophonist during a break, you will hear a lot of excuses about his reeds.
Trumpet: Trumpet players are image-conscious and walk with a swagger. They are often former college linebackers. Trumpet players are very attractive to women, despite the strange indentation on their lips. Many of them sing; misguided critics then compare them to either Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker depending whether they’re black or white. (I.H.: Arrive at the session early, and you may get to witness the special trumpet game. The rules are: play as loud and as high as possible. The winner is the one who plays loudest and highest. Caution: It is loud and high.) If you talk to a trumpet player during a break, he might confess that his favorite player is Maynard Ferguson, the merciless God of loud-high trumpeting.
Guitar: Jazz guitarists are never very happy. Deep inside they want to be rock stars, but they’re old and overweight. In protest, they wear their hair long, prowl for groupies, drink a lot, and play too loud. Guitarists hate piano players because they can hit ten notes at once, but guitarists make up for it by playing as fast as they can. The more a guitarist drinks, the higher he turns his amp. Then the drummer starts to play harder, and the trumpeter dips into his loud/high arsenal. Suddenly, the saxophonist’s universe crumbles, because he is no longer the most important player on stage. He packs up his horn, nicks his best reed in haste, and storms out of the room. The pianist struggles to suppress a laugh. If you talk to a guitarist during the break he’ll ask intimate questions about your 14-year-old sister.
Vocals: Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as “...jazzy.” Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see “The Vocalist” below). I.H.: The vocalist will try to seduce you - and the rest of the audience – by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her “manager.”
Trombone: The trombone is known for its pleading, voice-like quality. “Listen,” it seems to say in the male tenor range, “Why won’t anybody hire me for a gig?” Trombonists like to play fast, because their notes become indistinguishable and thus immune to criticism. Most trombonists played trumpet in their early years, then decided they didn’t want to walk around with a strange indentation on their lips. Now they hate trumpet players, who somehow get all the women despite this disfigurement. Trombonists are usually tall and lean, with forlorn faces. They don’t eat much. They have to be very friendly, because nobody really needs a trombonist. Talk to a trombonist during a break and he’ll ask you for a gig, try to sell you insurance, or offer to mow your lawn.
3) The Music
Now that you know a little bit about the room and the players, it’s time to turn your attention to the music. Your new-found knowledge will give you astonishing insights. Let’s look at some typical session landmarks:
Picking the Tune
Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one. That’s a fundamental concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with jam session group processes.
Tune selection makes a huge difference to the musicians. They love to show off on tunes that feel comfortable, and they tremble at the threat of the unknown. But to pick a tune is to invite close scrutiny: “So this is how you sound at your best. Hmm...” It’s a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes no one wants to pick a tune, and sometimes everyone wants to pick a tune.
The resulting disagreements lead to faction-building and - under extreme conditions - even impromptu elections. The politics of tune selection makes for some of the session’s best entertainment.
Example 1: No one wants to pick a tune
(previous tune ends)
trumpet player: “What the f#@*? Is someone gonna to pick a tune?”
trumpet player: “This s%!* is lame. I’m outa here.” (Storms out of room, forgetting to pay tab).
rest of band (in unison): “Yes!!!” (Band takes extended break, puts drinks on trumpet player’s tab).
Example 2: Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election and eventual tune selection
(previous tune ends)
(pianist and guitarist simultaneously): “Beautiful Love!”/“Donna Lee!”
guitarist to pianist: “You just want to play your fat, stupid ten-note chords!”
pianist to guitarist: “You just want to play a lot of notes really fast!”
saxophonist: "Giant Steps’.” (I.H.: a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.)
guitarist and pianist (together): “Go ahead, asshole.”
trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. 'Night in Tunisia'.” (I.H.: a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for loud, high playing.)
saxophonist: "Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard."
(long, awkward silence)
pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn to drummer: "Your turn, Skin-head."
(drummer pauses to think of hardest possible tune) I.H.: a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play actual notes
trumpet player: F#@* this! I’m outa here.” (Storms out of room. Bartender chases after him.)
trombonist: “Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?”
Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions that will last all through the night. I.H.: As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart diagramming the shifting alliances. You can also keep statistics on individual tune-calling. Under no circumstances, though, should you take sides or yell out song titles. Things are complicated enough already.
The first set ends without further controversy. The guitarist, still sober, has kept his volume down. The saxophonist eventually found a reed that didn’t traumatize him. The trombonist handed out business cards. The pianist kept his ego in check. No one told any drummer jokes, and the bassist grunted during the better moments. Sure, they lost a trumpet player, but no one really likes trumpet players anyway (except women and misguided critics).
Now other musicians will sit in. Some are regulars, others are unknown. Look toward the bandstand. Musicians new to the session will be hovering about the fringes, wondering how to proceed. There should be a sign-up sheet, but isn’t. There should be a charismatic leader, too; forget it. These are fundamental concepts that, again, run at odds with jam session group processes.
I.H.: Pretend you’re in charge. Approach these hovering musicians one by one. Ask who they normally play with, then stare at them blankly. Ask what tune they’d like to play, and shake your head in disgust. Ask if they’re students. Ask why they aren’t at a paying gig. Ask if they mind waiting until a singer shows up. This is important work you’re doing - cultivating insecurities, planting seeds for eventual drama. If instigating doesn’t come naturally to you, go have a drink or two. There. Now try again. Good.
Eventually, things sort themselves out, and the set begins. Interpersonal dynamics grow more complex. As a newcomer approaches the bandstand, the house musicians sit in judgment; the visitor is on trial. At the same time, the house musicians are slyly observing one another’s reactions, not fully trusting their own. Meanwhile, each is also acutely conscious of his own reactions being judged, and is hesitant to react at all. Added to this is the backlash factor: If the newcomer proves to be a great player, his own judgments of the house band - especially if it was initially unwelcoming - could be devastating.
So the house musicians take the safest route, hiding behind impassive faces, affecting a veil of stoicism. This further unnerves the newcomer. He may feel that he is being “vibed,” or that he has somehow failed before he has even begun.
But there is no turning around – one of the few set rules in the session Code of Conduct. The newcomer reluctantly calls a tune, looks in vain for approval, then counts it off. His job now is to sound relaxed and confident, and, of course, to have fun. His success in doing so will lead to either of two outcomes:
newcomer: “How about a ballad?”
saxophonist: “Are you crazy? LISTEN!”
(blender blends, tv blares, cash register rings, Yuppies roar, room echoes cavernously)
newcomer: “Okay, how about something loud and fast?”
(pianist points at guitarist): “What, you want to set Eddie Van Halen loose?”
Seeing no potential for consensus, the newcomer starts playing a blues tune. It’s a smart move: everyone sounds good on the blues, so no one complains. And since this is the first tune of the set, there haven’t been ten other blues tunes yet, though there will be. A good start, no doubt, but the jury is still out...
I.H.: There’s much more on these players’ minds than just melody, harmony, and rhythm. Let’s see what they’re REALLY thinking, captured in mid-tune:
saxophonist: S%!*! Another sad-ass, no-playing student: Improv 101, licks-to-go, play-by-number, your name here. Who needs ears? Who needs history? I need a drink.
guitarist: Holy s%!* - this cat’s got licks from hell! Burning it up! (looks around; sees saxophonist scowling) But I gotta be careful - these guys already think I’m some kinda Van Halen chops freak, like I got no soul, like I didn't pay dues in Motown cover bands for eight years. They won't cut me any slack, the arrogant bastards. Now if I hook up with this new cat, they’ll just laugh about it. F#@* them! I should call "Dock of the Bay" and see how they do. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just go get a beer (leaves stage).
drummer: Man, this cat is swinging! Here, baby, take THIS (plays a complicated rhythmic figure against the newcomer’s lines, loud). Are we going somewhere? We might be going somewhere. I FEEL LIKE WE’RE GOING SOMEWHERE! Yeah, baby. This is for you! (catches newcomers rhythms with his high-hat). We could be hooking up now. WE’RE HOOKING UP NOW! GO, BABY!
bassist (digging in): Grrrhh. Gnmnt. Glppnt.
pianist: I’m so sick of this crap. Yeah, I can play the same twelve bars over and over while you jerk off ad nauseum, you little s%!*. You and all your friends. Then we get to my solo 25 minutes later and no one even notices all the s%!* I’m playing. Put the tune out of its misery already, for chrissake. But wait, what’s that? Whoa, hang on! This cat’s playing some serious lines - maybe better than my lines? My God, what if I’m not really that great? But, s%!*, I mean I’ve heard Herbie (I.H.: Hancock, legendary jazz pianist) play lines worse than this, too. So maybe this cat’s great, and I still could be really good. Or, maybe he’s really good, and I’m just pretty good. Or maybe he’s barely decent, and I suck. Why won’t anyone just tell me? I hate this asshole.
trombonist: Oh, God, Help!!! Two guys dig him. Two guys don’t. The guitarist left. They’re all looking at me. Think, man, think: The piano player was maybe gonna use me on a gig next Sunday; can’t piss him off. But I was working the insurance thing with the drummer - no, that was the guitarist. Wait: who was about to buy an amp from me? The bassist - hell, that don’t matter. But this new cat, he sounds pretty damn good - maybe he’ll get some gigs I can play on. The sax player’s never gonna use me for anything, anyway. But everybody seems to respect the crusty bastard. I don’t know. I guess this new guy sucks, kinda.
(house musicians, exchanging glances, begin rolling their eyes. Piano player starts hitting ugly chords. Drummer succumbs to the group will and forces a yawn. Bass player is oblivious.)
(newcomer ends solo. No response. He is not invited to play another tune. He leaves the stage dejected, head hanging. Boys can be so cruel...)
newcomer: “How about a ballad?”
saxophonist: “Are you crazy? LISTEN!”
(blender blends, tv blares, cash register rings, Yuppies roar, room echoes cavernously)
newcomer (pointing at you): “But HE told me I could call whatever I want.”
all musicians (turning to you): “Who the hell are YOU? Who put YOU in charge?”
I.H.: Shut your mouth. NOW.
newcomer: “Aw, forget that asshole. Let’s just play ‘Cherokee’.”
(“Cherokee” begins. The musicians all bond in the face of a common enemy - you. In their newfound brotherhood, they drop their defenses and enjoy the music. They are pointing their horns at you and playing with great emotion. It is the sound of jazz: Joy, sorrow and anger. You should take the anger personally. You should leave while it is safe.)
(But, no, there’s still so much to be learned. Take a chance: Order a round of drinks for everyone. Hope they’ll forgive you. As it turns out, you’re suddenly the hero. They need the drinks, in a big way, because approaching the bandstand now is...)
She’s wearing a tight-fitting dress. Her hair is a sculpture. She glides to the bandstand like a model on a runway, ignoring the drink stains and cigarette burns peppering the floor. Her posture is perfect, her arms move just so. She picks up the mike and balances it between three arched fingers. She turns to the audience, a stagey, far-away look in her eyes. “Oh Jesus, here we go,” the saxophonist says under his breath.
“How about a hand for these hard-working guys,” she says, just like she is supposed to. There is no applause. She laughs a stage laugh and tries again. “Where are you all from? Anyone here from New York?” Silence. The crowd is captivated - not by her, but by a racy rock video blasting over the television. Still, she tries. “How many of you are in love?” she asks, giggling a little girl giggle. She’s looking right at you, because you’re the only one paying attention. The musicians are looking at you, too. “You’re NOT from New York, and you’re NOT in love,” their dark eyes say.
“Not a real talkative bunch, are you?” she asks rhetorically, then turns to the band. “Well, I guess we’d better give them something to talk about.” She winks at the sax player, who almost spits. “Do you fellas know ‘Summertime’?” There is a collective shudder. “What key?” the pianist asks, knowing she won’t have an answer. Her veneer momentarily fades; she is in trouble. She did not prepare for the session by practicing or figuring out her keys. She prepared for it by buying a new outfit and having her hair coiffed.
But then she has an idea. With studied nonchalance, she says: “You, know. The regular key.” There is a collective snort. “Regular?” asks the pianist. Not decaf?” The others join in. “Not unleaded?” asks the saxophonist. “Not minty fresh?” asks the drummer. “Not extra wide?” asks the trombonist. “Not the special prescription-strength formula with possible side effects including nausea, headaches, and dry-mouth?” asks the bassist. All turn and stare at him in amazement. The trumpet player shouldn’t have left so soon. This is too much fun.
Now she is near tears. All she can do is start singing, and she lands half-way between two keys. “Lovely,” the pianist mutters. “Quarter-tone explorations on ‘Summertime.’ B minor-and-a-half. C minor-minus. John Cage meets Liza Minelli. Ravi Shankar meets Barbara Streisand. Here, lady, I’ll help you - forgive me, guys. Just because I’m brilliant doesn’t mean I’m heartless. Let’s put it in C minor, and here’s your melody note. Now sing, or act, or whatever it is you do.”
The band joins in, and she works her way through the song’s two choruses. Her voice is pleasant, but barely discernable beneath a haphazard dungheap of inflections that are her “jazz bag.” She approaches the end of the melody. “PLEASE DON’T SCAT! PLEASE, PLEASE!” the musicans silently implore. She scats. There are shooby-doos. There are piercing wails. There are throaty moans. There is writhing and grimacing. There are photo ops. She is smiling at the band, inviting them to feel the spirit. They return blank stares. Finally the saxophonist can take no more. He begins soloing loudly, pointing his horn right at her. The band launches into 20 minutes of improvisation, and the music is good. They have, once again, found a common enemy. Again there is great joy and sorrow and anger. This time, they are not angry at you.
The tune ends. Before anyone can make a move, the vocalist launches into “Route 66.” It is a pre-emptive strike on her part, a brilliant tactical maneuver. The band has no choice but to play along - it’s too late to call up the next artist. Even their emergency bail-out plan - leaving the stage for a premature break - has been disabled. Six musicians crushed by one singer in a single, clean surgical strike. Having won the upper hand, she assumes the role of benevolent dictator. She does not scat. She demands that the audience applaud for each soloist (I.H.: Go ahead). The musicians, in turn, take short polite solos. A new world order has been established.
But the regime will prove a short one. Like any leader buoyed by new-found power, she feels compelled to test the limits. She dips deep into her Star Search bag, pulling out the secret weapon she’s been saving for just such a moment. Ammo that will blast the blender, tv, cash register, and roaring Yuppies into stunned silence. All will stand in awe. She will, at last, be discovered. “Get your kicks,” she belts, “on Route...Sixty...” She throws her arms laterally, telling the band with great passion that she, alone, will take it from here. It is going to be the word “Six,” and it is going to take a very long time.
Sssssiiiii... (the histrionics commence. She drops to one knee. She plumbs the bottom of her range, then her voice begins a slow ascent. Her eyes are shut, chin tucked against chest. She is bent forward, cleavage showing mightily)
...ii... (her voice is in mid-register, still climbing, now wrapped in a wide, swooping vibrato. She rises from her knee to an upright position).
...iii...(she approaches her upper register and begins a series of blues cliches. Her fingers wiggle on the microphone as if she is playing an instrument - first trumpet, then trombone, then saxophone. She has not taken a breath yet.)
...iiii... (as she nears the top of her range, her free hand begins to rise. She is preparing to land on a note that will startle all with its power and beauty. At the exact moment she hits it, her finger will...)
“F#@* this!” says the sax player. “Let’s take a break.” The musicians quickly scramble off-stage, order - as they know it - restored. The singer is still peaking, now in piercing soprano range, pointing dramatically off-stage, eyes closed. Sensing that change is afoot, she sneaks a glance. Quickly at first, eyes barely open. Then longer, eyes agog. The truth sets in, the sheer horror of it. An outright coup d’etat, and she’s been rendered powerless, impotent, ludicrous. She cuts off in mid-note, suddenly slumping. Quietly, resignedly, she concludes, “...ix.”
But it’s okay – no one except you was listening anyway. And you’d best not clap, if you want to be a part of...
The house musicians are seated at the crowded bar. Actually, two are sitting, and three are standing behind, jutting into the flow of traffic. They are flanked by drunken Yuppies on either side. Other drunk Yuppies periodically bump them from behind.
Despite their nominal victory, the battle with the vocalist has left them in poor spirits. They have felt the wrath of the jazz universe. Their capacity for suffering has been tested and found wanting. They wonder why. Life itself seems without reason. A solution cannot be found in words, only in drink.
You try to help. You explain that evil must exist in the jazz world so they may better appreciate the good. Blessings should be counted. For example, tonight there have been no violinists or accordian players. No harmonica player has sat in and called “Stormy Monday.” No beer has been spilled on the keyboard. And there is still much music to be played.
“Wait a minute,” says the saxophonist. “Aren’t you that asshole that was trying to run the session?” You see anger gathering in his face. He is moving toward you threateningly when a passing Yuppie taps him on the shoulder. “Excuse me. You’re the sax player, right?” The saxophonist’s face lightens. He has been recognized. He nods his head. “Do you play here often?” the Yuppie asks. The saxophonist shrugs with newfound humility. The Yuppie continues: “Good. Perfect. Can you tell me where the bathroom is?”
“AAAIIIIIIIEEEEEE!” screams the saxophonist, reeling from the sucker punch. Then he thrusts his middle finger Yuppieward, yelling, “It’s right HERE, s%!*head!” The Yuppie stares at the finger in stunned silence. Quickly, the trombonist leaps in, hands wringing. “Restrooms are over there, Sir,” he says, politely. “Hope you don’t mind the smell of vomit. And Sir, permit me one personal question: Is your loved one provided for in the event that something, God forbid, should happen to you?”
Other Yuppies see the dialogue, but miss the finger and the insurance pitch. They decide it is acceptable to talk to musicians, despite the obvious class differences. Several more approach the group. “Dudes, you know any Skynyrd?” asks a pony-tailed businessman. The guitarist looks away, lest his eyes betray him. “How about some Kenny G?” asks a well-dressed young woman. The pianist and drummer quickly grab the saxophonist, restraining him from further violence. There are also requests for “Pennsylvania Polka,” “something we can dance to” and “could you just leave the CD player on?”
Across the bar, you see the newcomer and the vocalist talking intently. You walk over to introduce yourself, but they don’t even notice. They are forming a band. They’re going to figure out the vocalist’s keys and record accompaniment parts on a sequencer. Fake drums, fake bass, fake orchestra, state-of-the-art digital deception. Then they’re going to look for gigs as duo. They’ll start in this very room, seeking out the clubowner, offering to play for half of what tonight’s band is making. They are no longer traumatized by their bandstand humiliation; they are vengeful. Justice must be served.
There’s no place for you in this conversation, so you head back to the house musicians. Coincidentally, the clubowner is talking with them. More precisely, he’s yelling at them. He has each arm over the shoulder of a rebuilt Yuppie bimbo, with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other. He’s screaming about the fact that the last set was only 30 minutes long and had just two tunes in it. He’s reminding them that vocalists are good for business and look great on stage. He’s letting them know that they cannot, under any circumstances, scream hari-kari screams and thrust middle fingers Yuppieward. He’s delivering an ultimatum that if they screw up one more time he’s going to find a sequenced duo and save some money. Then he and the silicone Valley Girls disappear into his office. He needs to go over some figures.
Suddenly, this wretched gig becomes very important to the six musicians. They stare at their drinks dejectedly. They can already picture the glaring, aching white space on their calendars every Tuesday. They can hear the painful silence of phones no longer ringing; they’re not wanted, not needed. Rejection hurts; even rejection from Yuppie hell. And now, their world turned upside down, they at last see the good in one another: A saxophonist who so desperately loves the music; a pianist with a brilliant grasp of harmony; a drummer who throws himself headlong into the musical moment; a bassist who selflessly lays down the pulse; a trombonist striving to overcome the handicap of a useless instrument. Surely this magical unit can’t be so easily undone. There is an uncomfortable silence among them, the noises of the bar echoing about like a bad dream. You dare not speak. What could you possibly say?
A few minutes later, the clubowner emerges from his office. He is alone now, drink still in hand, cigar left behind. He has more demands: An earlier start time, a dress code, a maximum of two drinks per musician. The musicians continue to stare silently at their glasses; those seated slump closer to the bar. Meanwhile, the vocalist and the newcomer have spotted the clubowner. They circle around the bar to approach him from behind. They tap his shoulder to get his attention, then quietly talk to him just out of earshot. The musicians don’t need to hear it, anyway. They know exactly what’s going on.
Now the clubowner draws the singer and newcomer into the group. It’s time for a discussion. “Look,” he says to the band. “Can you give me one good reason I shouldn’t book this duo for next Tuesday?” The band is silent. “Okay, fine.” He turns to the duo triumphantly. “Give me a reason or two why I might want to try something different.” He is having fun now. He’s pitting the musicians against one another, Chapter One in the Clubowner Playbook. He’s tapping into the clubowners’ collective unconscious, the seamy underbelly of the jazz universe. He’s drawing strength from the awesome, evil karma of clubowners around the world and throughout time. Disdain for musicians seeps from his every pore.
But he has underestimated the sacred tie that binds all jazz artists, even those momentarily blinded by vengeance. The singer and newcomer purse their lips and refuse to speak. Now the clubowner is getting irritated. “C’mon, you two,” he says. “The same s%!* you said in my ear two minutes ago. What’s the difference?” Still they are silent, and the clubowner becomes angry. He turns suddenly to you. “You,” he says. “You decide. You, the impartial observer. You, all serious holding that crappy ‘Jazz Jam Session’ primer. You tell me who to book next week.”
You frantically thumb through the primer, only to realize that this section is still being written. It’s time to take the lead now, reach deep inside yourself and improvise. You look at the house musicians, still staring silently at their drinks. No question, they screwed up. They were blatantly rude to the newcomer and the singer. Just five minutes ago, the saxophonist almost slugged you. No audience will ever like them. But they really do love music; that much you know for sure. And they need the gig.
You turn to the singer and the newcomer. They came to the club wanting simply to make music. They gave it their best effort, and in return received only ridicule and scorn. But now they’re trying to undercut the band and steal its gig. They want to pollute the already acrid air with carcinogenic Musak.
You need guidance. What would Dr. Laura say? Or Rush? What would Jesus do? What would Journey do? Help, sadly, is not forthcoming; not from radio personalities, nor from spiritual models. (I.H.: Don’t look at me - you’re on your own now, pal.) You run it over and over in your mind, wheels spinning. You look from the clubowner to the six musicians to the duo. The clubowner is furious, returning your glance with a burning glare. All eight musicians are avoiding your eyes, staring at their drinks, or their shoes, or the sticky, stinking floor.
And then you realize that this is not musician versus musician. This is musician versus clubowner. Artist versus cynical businessman. Art versus commerce. And it goes deeper still, a playing-out of the grandest archetypal battle. Repressed employee versus miserly employer. Tiny Tim (sans ukelele) versus Scrooge. The proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. There is only one side you can take, Limbaugh be damned.
You look the clubowner in the eye. “You, sir, SUCK,” you say dramatically. You quickly make your way to the bandstand, grabbing the microphone that still bears traces of the singer’s designer lipstick. “I said, YOU SUCK!” you yell over the house system. A hush falls over the Yuppies. The bartender turns off the blender. Someone turns off the CD player. You point at the clubowner and repeat, more gently, “He sucks.”
The Yuppies snicker. There is applause, first a polite smattering, then a substantial ovation. This must be Performance Art, they decide. But we understand it, and it is Good. Confidently, you stride back to the musicians, slap a couple of twenties on the bar, and say, “Drinks for everyone. Except HIM.” You point an accusing finger at the clubowner. Then you head for the exit.
You feel good. You’ve learned a lot about jazz jam sessions tonight. You’ve also single-handedly defused an explosive situation, and done it with flair. As it turns out, you won’t soon be forgotten, either. Looking back over your shoulder, you see Yuppies flocking to the stage to be part of this new cutting-edge art form. A middle-aged businessman has the mike, and is pointing to one of his associates near the back of the room. “Eat s%!*,” he bellows artistically, to great laughter and applause. He passes the mike to a slender young woman, who points at a beefy young man near the bar. “Kiss my ASS,” she warbles. The room goes ballistic. The line behind the microphone grows, filled out by Yuppies in search of self-expression. Meanwhile, the house band has snuck back into the picture. It is both accompanying and commenting upon the surreal proceedings with freely improvised blips, bleeps, squeaks, and farts.
Your final image, as the door swings shut behind you, is of a critic seated near the stage. He is furiously taking notes, euphoric to be present at the birth of next “New Thing.” He will praise the “collective spontaneity” of the Yuppies, noting their “almost Ellingtonian integration of individual voices into a collective fabric.” He will draw parallels between your creation and avant-garde work of the 1960s, describing it as “Ornette Coleman meets Laurie Anderson in a revisionist framework for the new millenium.” He will note a “new dynamic redefining audience as performer and performer as audience.” He will praise the “direct and powerful text elements.” He will refer to you as a “drive-by genius,” and an “unassuming sculptor of human interactive paradigm.”
Your place in music history is assured.
(I.H.: Need a manager? Try the Musicians Union directory, under “Trombonists”...)
Copyright XXXX, Bill Anschell
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