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

February 2014

February 2014
By Published: February 3, 2014
Dear Mr. P.C.:

What's up with singers who count off tunes so quietly that not all the guys in the band can even hear it? Then half the band starts up and the other guys kind of flail their way in. It amazes me because it would be so easy to fix, but they act like the numbers are some dirty little secret or something.

— Singers Have Hard Heads


Dear SHHH:

Okay, let's say you're a vocalist—do you know what the hardest part of your job is? The fact that everyone in the audience is a singer too! Maybe they only sing in the shower or in their car, but in their hearts, they're singers all right! So you have to constantly prove that you deserve to be on stage more than they do.

That's why you need some mystery and intrigue. And counting off a tune out loud is the exact opposite of that. Think about it: "One, two, three, four"—it's just so obvious! Far better, then, to let the audience imagine that you're invoking a sacred rite by which—voila!—the band magically starts, perhaps raggedy, but quite mysteriously.

Also, SHHH, don't forget that a lot of singers have trouble remembering lyrics. "One, two, three, four" is a set of numbers, but it's also a set of words. And screwing them up out loud would be totally embarrassing!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

If I play a great solo to an empty jazz club, did it really happen?

— Gregg B.C.
   

Dear Gregg:

If a tree falls on Phil Woods and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Does he?

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I know some great improvisers who can't read a note of music. That's fine, but why do they brag about it? Wouldn't they be even better if they learned how to read? It's never too late, is it?

— Reader
   

Dear Reader:

But what if they learned to read, and they didn't get any better? Right now they're great players in spite of the fact that they can't read. Take away their disadvantage and—voila!—they're instantly less amazing.

We all need to do what we do in spite of something. That's called establishing a narrative; it adds drama, even heroism to our short time on this planet. Look at me—I'm beset by a fearsome array of allergies that would cripple a lesser man: wheat, nuts, lactose, perfume, hairspray, pets, air fresheners; even certain types of unenlightened humans. And, in spite of these allergies, I'm able to post this column on time, month after month!

Don't get me wrong—I'm not trying to equate myself with players who can't read music; I would never be so presumptuous. Still, there are moments when I could "pass": When I'm on the bandstand with guys who wear deodorant, my eyes tear up, and the music dissolves into incomprehensible, watery hieroglyphics. At those moments, I feel a surge of raw musicianship, uncompromised by schooling or privilege.

Of course I could go all in—full-time reading impairment— by wearing deodorant myself. Don't think I'm not tempted! But then, blinded, how would I write this column? Can I really, in good conscience, abandon my devoted following? Never! Better I should be enveloped by my own funk, 24/7.

Typing this right now, emanating my natural odor—a rank bouquet of garlic, soy milk, kimchee, mildew and, inexplicably, tainted meat—I think of the people around me, hoping they find the scent at least bearable. If not, I take consolation in the fact that when we suffer for our art, we seldom suffer alone.


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