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

April 2010

By Published: April 1, 2010
Dear Mr. P.C.:

What is the bassist trying to tell the rest of the band when he sits on the tonic for, like, three choruses in a row? Is it oh-so-clever "I'm so on top of the harmony, nobody but me knows what's going on," or "I'm bored, please stop taking those extra choruses"? (Or maybe "I'm lost but can get away with it cuz I'm the bassist" or "OK, time for a drum solo"?) - Steve, Middletown CT

Dear Steve:

Have you thought about getting a pet? My dog and I can stare in each other's eyes for hours, connecting not as master and subject, but as fellow creative spirits, each striving to live a life unleashed. And there's a lot of shared knowledge in that connection. I can tell you, for example, that she's thrilled to be included in this column, and that she prefers jazz to country music, but not to Meaty Bones.

Learning to commune with your pet helps you get inside the minds of other animals, too. That's how I've become intimate, over time, with the mule. Mules have an undeserved bad rap; they're actually generous beings who selflessly bear heavy loads so that others can move more freely about. Of course, if you had a pet, you'd already know that, and you'd also better understand the bassist—jazz music's own beast of burden.

Bassists do the musical heavy lifting, taking on an unglamorous supportive role so that others may soar. Their "reward"? Suffering all the mulish stereotypes—they're considered not only dull and plodding, but also unimaginative and unintelligent. So you shouldn't be surprised that sometimes they need to remind the rest of the players what happens without their support. Like a pack mule who decides he's worked enough, the bassist simply stops walking. Then he sits stubbornly on the tonic or dominant until he gets what he wants.

If you'd watched closely at the end of the third chorus, you would have seen the saxophonist discretely slip him a sugar cube. Or the group's designated bass whisperer—every band should have one—may have petted him on the head while quietly speaking loving words of encouragement. Then—"Atta boy!"—the bassist pricked his ears, lowered his eyes, and dutifully shuffled on.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I saw my doctor for a physical today, and when she found out I'm married to a jazz musician, she recommended extra testing. I was totally offended! I cut her off, and she dropped the subject. But isn't that discrimination? Lisa G., Boston

Dear Lisa:

Your doctor is being ridiculous! Here's a close analogy: Let's say scientists wanted to identify the health effects on people who live near a toxic waste site. Would they simply call them in for testing? Of course not! Sure, they might find some tumors and collapsed lungs, but they'd have no way of knowing whether those ailments were actually caused by proximity to the site. Similarly, your doctor might find that you have character issues like instability and bad judgment, but without having assessed you beforehand, there's no way she could say the problems were caused by your marriage to a jazz musician. In fact, those very traits may explain why you were drawn to a jazz musician.

For the test to be meaningful you would need to be measured not only beforehand, but also regularly throughout your marriage. Then your doctor might get an understanding of your baseline personality, the initial shock of marrying a jazz musician, your subsequent attempts to adjust to and cope with marriage to a jazz musician, and the long-term effects of the relationship. Ideally, you'd be part of a large population of jazz spouses being studied, so the findings could have broad significance.

An isolated set of tests means nothing, Lisa. But it's not discriminatory. True science is unprejudiced and non-judgmental; in its always objective eyes, jazz musician and toxic waste are one in the same.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

What do you do when a stranger comes up to you on your gig and introduces himself as a "Classical Musician?" I usually react with a polite but dismissive, "Oh, that's nice!" or "Wow, that's cool!" while inside I'm thinking, "So what... Big deal... I bet you can't even play a single chorus of Blues to save your life!"

This has happened to me on more than a few occasions. What are your thoughts on the situation? - So Seattle

Dear So Seattle:

My thoughts? They're hardly the issue here. What matters is whether you can transcend your defensiveness and recognize a clear, desperate cry for help. Did you really miss the anguish in his voice, the deference in his averted gaze? This stranger bravely confessed to being a member of a terribly dysfunctional, albeit mightily privileged, family. He knows he's led a monkish life, from the cloistered conservatory to the insular symphony hall; he wants a taste of your worldliness and reckless abandon. He recognizes that his performances are ruled by fear (the conductor's baton already bouncing up, the downbeat come and gone, before he dares to play a note), while yours are full of joy. And he's owning up to his morbid obsession with dead composers; he watches in wonder as you give birth to new music, in the moment, every time you play.

More than anything, though, he feels guilty about being given so much more money—and adoration—than you. It wrenches him to know he's a darling of the same high society types who book you below scale and make you load in through the kitchen. He considers himself unworthy, and he turns to you for redemption.

So please don't add to his suffering by questioning how much soul he has; instead, why not share some of yours? Let him know that you respect and forgive him, and teach him a few of your most cherished blues licks. He'll be the hit of the next Symphony Benefactors Ball! It's good karma for you, too; with any luck he might just hire you as a sideman and throw a few scraps your way.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

So I'm subbing for another jazz pianist on his solo restaurant gig, where he gets to play pretty much whatever he wants. His only instruction to me is that I should NOT play any Andrew Lloyd Weber. He's afraid if I do, the patrons will love it and the management will make him do it too. Of course, that's an instruction I'm happy to obey. But then, wouldn't you know it, a patron asks: "Do you know anything from Phantom?" I'm pretty sure I bungled it; I'll spare you the details. But for next time, what can I do or say that isn't an outright lie? Karen, Omaha

Dear Karen:

Do you know why I write this column? Mr. P.C.'s mission is to promote equality, inclusiveness, all things sustainable (except, of course, dissonant chords), and above all, happiness throughout the land. And—face it—if we shed our musical elitism, leave the comforting darkness of our jazz clubs, embrace the light, and seek out the common man or woman, we'll find ourselves confronted by the fact that Andrew Lloyd Weber makes a lot of people happy. Very, very happy.

That's why it rips me apart to have to give you this answer, the only sensible solution to your problem, but one that goes completely against everything I stand for. Play Phantom, Karen, but play it so horribly that you completely ruin it for everyone listening. Butcher it beyond recognition; totally suck! You'll have to use a blunt knife, too, because Andrew Lloyd Weber fans aren't exactly musical sophisticates. Switch all the major and minor chords, and add the wrong sevenths. Drop beats at will. Take a couple of Cecil Taylor-esque choruses in the middle. Above all, destroy the melody, especially if there's any threat of the audience singing along. Stop and start over, more than once, making the same mistakes every time. Beat that piece to a bloody pulp, Karen. Make the diners choke on their overpriced food, spit up their overpriced drinks, and flee for the safety of their homes, only to have nightmares reliving your senseless, brutal mauling of "Music of the Night."

Whew—that was a some serious negative energy, wasn't it? I did it for you, Karen, and at no small cost to myself. I'm shaking; I think I may be feeling faint. Please, someone: Toss me a softball. Ask me about accessorizing tuxes for the holiday season, or defining "business casual." We're all in this together, aren't we?

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

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