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Shame on the Bandstand: Rites of Passage -- What They Don

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Every jam session has a set of unspoken, unwritten Rules, which are essentially the same whether the jam session is in New York or Los Angeles or any small town in between.
We know how long it takes to become a musician, even a mediocre one. But the real test of talent doesn’t come until we hit the bandstand. Eventually, every young (or at least inexperienced) musician playing traditional jazz — in this case, the one type that has survived for decades: bebop or bip-bop — hits the infamous “Jam Session” to test his or her musical prowess. No matter how much practice or training a musician has had, the unwitting instrumentalist may not be prepared for what’s about to take place when they hit the bandstand.

Every jam session has a set of unspoken, unwritten Rules, which are essentially the same whether the jam session is in New York or Los Angeles or any small town in between.

Understand, you won’t be told about The Rules because you are expected to know them before you step foot on stage. If it’s your first time sitting in, my suggestion is to be as humble as you possibly can be. This serves to confuse “The Men” who are ready to test you. They will think one of two things about your humility. Either (a) you are a total genius — perhaps Charlie Parker returned in the flesh — or, (b) you are completely lame. Remember, confusion is the ultimate goal.

You should also know that there are many questions awaiting you on the bandstand. For example: Do you know any standards? Saxophonists, do you know any heads? Rhythm section players, do you know by heart the changes we use? Or are you going to make this scene uncool by sticking your nose in a fake book that may have the wrong changes in it? Understand, we have no time to waste because of your lack of knowledge. And by the way, we take long choruses at lightning speed on rhythm changes, and it’s too bad if you don’t have the chops to keep the tempo where we count it, let alone the chops to play this tempo for 15 minutes.

What are rhythm changes, you ask?

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a neophyte!

This is the bandstand.

The question that no one asks but everyone wonders, the question that hangs in the air with swirls of smoke is this: Are you man enough to hang with The Men? This was actually asked of a fellow bassist friend: “Are you ready to hang with The Men?”

Quite a friendly welcome for the inexperienced player — not! Welcome to the dynamic of shame on the bandstand — the single biggest performance rite of passage a musician experiences in his or her career.

The attempts at humiliation only get tougher when the playing begins. Your test of fire begins with the insanely fast count off of a tune you have never heard before in your life. Grab hold of something and stop looking at the drummer. It’s time to sink or swim.

Once the head has been played, and depending on the depth of the shaming factor, the new player is often the first soloist. Sometimes the leader of the gig plays first. Sometimes the leader of the gig plays first and has the ability to master this particular tune, then gives you a look as if to say, “You’re on! Good luck, punk, AND you had better play your ass off. You are not welcome to come up here and waste The Men’s time...”

You likely have the picture by now: On the bandstand, it’s win or lose. If you stumble even once, if you look to the other players for affirmation or an ounce of support, you lose. And if you lose, it’s best to finish the tune with a smile on your face and leave the venue as quickly as possible. Evaluate what just happened and what went wrong on your way home to practice for a month. If you’re lucky, they either won’t remember you the next time, or there will be an entirely new house band on stage and you can take the Shame Test again.

On the other hand, if you play like you have a pack of wild dogs running after you, with twists and turns in your melodies that make even the hard core veterans step back and close their mouths, you will know you have been victorious. You have passed the test! You have made the vets remember their own victories, or made them wish they had been as victorious as you. Overcoming shame, you’ve squashed their arrogance. They are humbled. They listened, approved, and you are now given The Mens’ Stamp of Approval. Congratulations!

All that’s left now is to live up to these expectations every single time you pick up your instrument. Don’t lose the hunger in your playing, don’t forget that you’ve already passed the test, and remember to play like it’s the last time you will ever touch this instrument in your lifetime.

Now go ahead and teach this in Theory class — I dare you!


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