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

October 2013

October 2013
By Published: October 3, 2013
Dear Mr. P.C.:

What do musicians mean when they say they're "using space" in their solos?

—John H.


Dear John:

Obviously if they're "using" space, they're doing something to it. And in music, pretty much the only thing you can do to space is fill it with a bunch of notes. Of course, space is infinite, and even Coltrane's "sheets of sound" approach couldn't fill it completely. Defeated, Trane devoted his later years to an interstellar approach that celebrated space as his worthy adversary. Coltrane's early space-filling efforts have been heavily imitated by his devotees, but in lesser hands using space is just as disrespectful as using sex slaves, sweatshop labor or underpaid sidemen.

When the late Sun Ra made "Space is the Place" his incantation, he took a strong stand against space exploitation. Space had no greater friend than Mr. Ra, and over the years he was able to claim it as his own. All space became his "personal space," which today is fiercely guarded by the faithful, road-hardened Arkestra that survived him. Any attempt to use space can provoke the Arkestra's loud and dissonant retribution.

The next time you hear musicians threaten to use space, please let them know that it's far wiser—and safer—to simply leave space alone.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

There's a certain drummer in my town who always has to play the final note of every song. Even at the end of a ballad, he does a little snare drum roll and a thump thing with his bass drum.

Either he thinks the audience needs help figuring out when a song is over, or he's got such a huge ego that he always has to have the final say. Which is it?

—Drums Undoing My Patience


Dear DUMP:

A drummer is like a NASCAR driver on steroids—he's supposed to drive the band, full throttle, and with all four limbs working independently. The end of the tune is, of course, the finish line, where NASCAR drivers have the luxury of slowing their cars gradually. But somehow the poor drummer, limbs chaotically flailing away, is supposed to stop seamlessly on a dime. Can you really blame him if a few extra hits tumble over the final barline?

A ballad, on the surface, might seem to change the calculus. But drummers are powerful machines, geared high to swing big bands. Playing a ballad is an exercise in suppression, swishy little brush sounds belying the beast inside. If a bit of pent-up rage spills over at the end, should we be surprised?

Drumming is a thankless task, and attitudes like yours only make things worse. What can the poor drummer do to retaliate? If he leads a band or a session, he can make the other musicians play songs with impossible chord changes, whether of his own devising or from the Coltrane book. As a sideman, though, his options are less nuanced: Speed up, slow down, or bury you in volume.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

When he counts off a tune, the bandleader/pianist/vocalist in this band snaps his fingers to the one and three instead of the two and four. As a drummer, this drives me insane. Please tell me how to cope. Thanks.

—John


Dear John:

There's a place where everyone snaps on one and three, and no one minds a bit! You've read about it in fairy tales—all across the land there are unicorns, rainbows, and smiling, happy people! Life there is simple, and—okay, if you must—a little square, unhip, maybe they can't swing. But it doesn't bother them at all! They just snap away, oblivious to your disapproval.

Honestly, John, I think there's a lot more happiness in one and three than you're willing or able to admit. Why fight it? Summon up your courage and step away from the dark side for a while. Let's see if you don't come back a little less critical of those who dare to be uncool—that is, if you come back at all!

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


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