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

Best of 2010

By Published: December 6, 2010
I mean, what are my choices? I can extend my hand in the generic white guy way, but then I feel like "The Man," like I'm making them play by the stupid rules of our dominant white corporate culture. But, on the other hand, if I try to celebrate their way, I feel like a poser, like I'm pretending to be a "bro," and I wonder if maybe that's even worse. Plus, they keep changing the code. I mean, I'll go for the curled-finger-grab-into-simultaneous-finger-snap move, and they'll be waiting to bump shoulders. Then I try to bump shoulders and they're expecting the fist bump. It's totally embarrassing, and sometimes I even lose my balance.

It's reached the point where I'm faking bathroom emergencies just to duck the issue. Help! Vanilla Shake >

Dear Vanilla:

H-U-U-T-T! What would you do if I told you there's already a model of racial unity that could be easily adapted to the jazz world? Well, there is! And it's right in front of you—broadcast nationally all day Sunday and every Monday night! Better yet, it's rendered with impeccable camera work that zooms in on every nuance, all the better for you to study. Of course I'm speaking about the world of football, where team camaraderie totally transcends racial division.

What are the jazz etiquette lessons of football, reinforced by instructional instant replays and slow motion highlights? They're surprisingly simple, and totally applicable: After each tune, you can celebrate with a band mate by swatting him on the butt, jumping in the air and bumping his chest, or simply headbutting him. Following an especially athletic lick, you can tackle him and roll around the stage in shared ecstasy. And at the end of a successful gig, the entire band can writhe around on stage together.

If you're not a sports fan, you might consider the more passive European model—a light kiss on each cheek. But neither solution will work unless you're completely free of intimacy issues. That's another area where you could take your lead from football players—they're just as comfortable in tight-quarter group showers as they are in televised embraces. How do they do it? I give a lot of the credit to their coaches, and you might consider hiring one to work with your group. Under his caring guidance, you and your bandmates—like your gridiron counterparts—can overcome personal boundaries and become more emotionally available to one another. Hey, maybe he'll even tell you where you can get matching, skin-tight uniforms. H-U-U-T-T-T!!!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Why do drummers play so loud? Can't we have them tested for steroids? John, Philadelphia

Dear John:

Drummers have to play loud to hear themselves over the din of their own cymbals, which can be deafening. It's a vicious cycle and—yes—I've seen some drummers resort to steroids, but only out of desperation.

It gets worse: The louder drummers play, the faster they lose their hearing, making them play even louder, which in turn deafens them faster still. That's why they yell all the time and have dysfunctional families: their wives cover their ears and shriek, their children hide under the furniture, and their pets lose control of their bowels.

I'm sure you mean well, John, but when you talk about a drummer's volume problems, you're just blaming the victim. Fortunately, he can't hear you.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I can't figure out what jazz artists are thinking when they play a piece by one of the Great American Songbook composers like Gershwin or Porter. It sounds to me like they play it correctly, then they go crazy for five or ten minutes, then they play it correctly again. That's two minutes of good music surrounding a much longer bout of insanity, and for me it's really not worth it. Am I missing something? Melody, Please!

Dear Melody:

Imagine you were invited to deliver the eulogy at a famous poet's funeral. You might open by reading one of his or her poems, then extemporize on your own experiences with his or her poetry, then conclude with another of his or her poems.

Well, like that poet, composers of the Great American Songbook are all—for lack of a better word—dead. And jazz artists happen to be a highly reverential lot. Each performance of a "standard" is, in fact, a musical eulogy. The musicians start with a solemn reading, interpreting the dead composer's melody, sticking respectfully close to it. Then they improvise, spinning original lines within the dead composer's form and harmony. This "insanity," as you call it, is actually the jazz artists' genius, and there could be no deeper, more heartfelt testimonial to the dead composer. Some jazz musicians are so moved by the dead composer's death that they solo for twenty minutes or longer, screeching and honking with animal noises from deep within, channeling the bereft widow's heart-wrenching wail as the dead composer's casket was lowered into the earth many years ago.

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