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Mr. P.C.'s Guide to Jazz Etiquette...

January 2010

By Published: January 1, 2010
Dear Mr. P.C.;

One night during my drum solo the guys in the band walked off and left me all alone. The next set, during the vocalist's song, I walked off and went to the bar for a couple of shots. This seemed to upset her a great deal. Should I have ordered water or pop instead? John

Dear John:

I sincerely doubt it, since most club owners depend on the drinking musician to keep their room afloat. The owner's ideal ensemble is a big band made up completely of alcoholics; they can spend enough on booze to eliminate the need for a paying audience. All those notey arrangements are just an annoyance, anyway; a drunk big band can shed the pretense of "nailing" the charts and get down to what's important: seeing which guy in the trumpet section can play highest and loudest. Shit-faced lead trumpeters are the life of the party; besides their ear-piercing screeches, they can make horse whinnies and wet kissy-kissy sounds. I love them: they've kept so well in touch with their inborn sense of play, like very large, very loud, slobbery children.

So what was your singer upset about? Needing to keep the owner happy, she probably wanted you to drink more than just two shots, or to order a couple for her, or to stop cheaping out on well drinks. I can't be sure, but that really doesn't matter compared to the larger, more penetrating issue: Why, exactly, are you asking me instead of her?

You know perfectly well she's the only one who can answer your question. Yet for some reason you're afraid to approach her. The Freudian in me (though, believe me, I see him for the chauvinistic cokehead he was) suggests you were probably psychologically damaged by a vocalist during your formative years. It may be time to reopen that wound, under the clinical supervision of a caring professional, so that this time it can heal correctly. Maybe your singer would even take part in the process, abusing you like your earlier vocal tormentor, tweaking your vulnerabilities, exposing your raw nerves. It would be a great way for the two of you to bond on the deepest level! At the very least, it's time for you to stop drinking—except, of course, on gigs—and take an honest, unflinching look within.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I play a lot of solo gigs around Christmas—like, way too many—and my holiday cheer fades fast. You can only play "Let It Snow" and "Silent Night" so many times, so I try to find other Christmas tunes I can use. Maybe something actually worth blowing on, right? So yesterday I was in a department store playing "A Child is Born," and the manager came up to me and ripped me a new one because he said it wasn't holiday music. When I told him the title, he said it doesn't matter, because no one in the audience would recognize it, no matter what it might be about. Needless to say, I think that's a pile of crap. Help me out, okay? Billy P., Boston

Dear Billy:

Oh, what has jazz done to us? Holiday music that once brought us such joy is now an insufferable burden, the song of innocence lost. As I write this, my head fills with J.J. Johnson's "Lament," a requiem to the death of our inner child. Still, would I play "Lament" at a funeral? Yours, maybe, but surely not for a grieving assemblage of non-musicians who couldn't tell it from "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

Like your rendition of "A Child is Born," so much of what we do in the jazz world turns out to be just for ourselves and our fellow musicians. Think about it: Quoting bop heads in the middle of a solo, working out a special lick that turns the diminished scale inside out, composing a new tune based on the changes of a jazz standard, telling jokes about constipated violinists... They're all wonderful self-affirming exercises that bring us together and empower us as a community. But throw one of us into a roomful of non-jazzers for a solo gig, and everything changes. Torn from our brethren, stripped of our special language, we're helpless, naked, unable to communicate; we might as well be on another planet. And still we try, our special Thad Jones/Roland Hanna Christmas reference tragically eluding the holiday shoppers, falling on deaf ears.

My own reality check in these situations is to ask myself: If a tree falls on Phil Woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound? And I'm sorry to say that, generally speaking, it doesn't. Unless he happens to playing in altissimo range, and really loud.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I just finished a gig, and something happened at the end that seems to happen to me a lot. One of the other guys in the band, a good player, said, "You sounded great, man." Well, I happen to have played my ass off, so why is he saying I sounded great? Not I was great, or I played great? Is that some sort of veiled insult, like he thinks I "sounded" great even though I didn't really play that well? Like maybe my tone was good, but my note choices or my time sucked? I can't figure out why people say that, or what I should say back to them. - John, Los Angeles

Dear John:

You're right, they probably don't think much of your playing. Which is a real shame, because you seem like such a pleasant cat. I'll bet you'd be getting all the calls if you could just play worth a shit.

Dear Mr. P.C:

Why do so many jazz musicians dress in black? a puzzled audience member

Dear Puzzled:

Like jazz music itself, the answer is complex and not easily put into words. But I can at least distill it into a few of the most common scenarios:

1) Funereal: Many jazz artists are still mourning the death of John Coltrane (the other J.C.; in their world it's currently 42 a.d.). Others are mourning the rumored demise of jazz itself, or the music's aging audience members, who by now are dropping like beats at a vocal jam. Artists in tuxedos are also mourning the loss of their personal dignity.

2) Sartorial: Dressing in black can be a defensive fashion maneuver—being more attuned to sound than sight, jazz musicians pick a safe color that doesn't risk clashing.

3) Economical: Some of the scrappier players buy stained designer clothes at thrift shops and spray paint them black.

4) Functional: Musicians dressed in black make better backdrops for singers.

5) Nocturnal: As creatures of the night, jazz artists find comfort and safety by blending into their darkened surroundings: unlit streets, back alleys, and seamy nightclubs. Imagine this: A man in tennis whites, preening before a mirror. The morning sun streams in through a side window, and his reflected image shines brilliantly, his skin radiant, his hair gleaming. This is a jazz musician's vision of Hell.

Great observation, by the way! Next time, just for fun, close your eyes, forget about what the artists are wearing, and focus on the music. Jazz players usually sound a lot better than they look.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

My friends and I love your column. But what we can't figure out is why you seem to always wind up going off on tangents instead of answering the questions. Are you maybe a little ADD? Jenni

Dear Jenni:

How lucky you are to have friends who share your passions! And for me to be the object of your shared affection—well, I'm blushing; what more can I say?

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Disruption from crowd noise is often an issue at club gigs. I can usually take care of it with some eye contact or asking management to do something about it. However, what do you do when the OWNER of the club is the worst offender? Stan, Kansas City

Dear Stan:

It's easy for jazz players to get lost in their little jazz bubble. Life is so beautiful when you can just close your eyes, focus on the sounds of the instruments, and immerse yourself in spontaneous musical conversation. But outside that bubble is something much greater: humanity itself, with all the beauty, joy, sorrow, striving, and yearning that make man/womyn such a complex and passionate denizen of our wondrous planet.

Your dismissing the conversations beyond bandstand's edge as "crowd noise" saddens me. I wonder if you've lost touch with your more sensitive side, the yang without which your artistic yin becomes shallow and self-serving. Consider the possibilities: A couple finally reconciling after a string of rocky days, a clutch of philosophers closing in on life's greater meaning, an allergen-sensitive support group discussing air purifiers.... Is our music really more important than interpersonal communication itself, with all its power to advance civility and civilization? I think not. Although I value a rapt, attentive audience just as much as you do, my more evolved side tells me this may be just a tad selfish.

Can you really hear the club owner, beyond what you perceive to be his "noise"? What if he's just asking you to turn down, to afford the spoken word the space it needs and deserves in the special home he built? Stan, how about putting your musical ego aside and embracing this guiding rule: If you can't make out what people are saying, you're playing too loud. Someday, with the onstage volume down, and your ears attuned to every word in the house, maybe the audience's conversation and the band's instrumental dialog can be woven into one interactive whole, an integrative work of performance art whose narrative takes you places you'd never dreamed of.

Have a question for Mr. P.C.? Ask him.

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