August 2010

Mr. P.C. BY

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Dear Mr. P.C.:

There is a certain scenario that continues to present itself when I am playing at a nightclub. I'll be sitting at a table before the gig or on a break, looking at charts or maybe just trying to cool out for a minute. One of the waiters will approach me and say something like, "Excuse me, could you move? We need this table for people."

Beyond just getting me to move, what is the larger message being given here? Richard Cole, Brier, WA

Dear Richard:

POW!!! The waiter implies you're not a person.

BAMMM!!! You assume he thinks you're jazz scum.

UNGHHH!!! Wrongo, Richard.

KABLAMM!!! What he really sees you as is...



Yes, Richard, you've been blessed with a superpower: the ability to spontaneously create music, seemingly from nothing. And that's no less awe-inspiring to an ordinary being than spidey sense; flying faster than a speeding bullet; or baring your midriff, folding your arms, blinking your eyes, and changing your master from astronaut to avocado.

So when the waiter asks you to move, it's because he assumes you'd be happier slinging between buildings on a web, changing clothes in a phone booth, or relaxing in an ancient bottle. Not at all like workaday "people," who can merely sit at crowded tables, marveling at your public display of super prowess.

If you don't believe me, consider this: I'll bet the manager of that very same venue has never offered you a meal. Surprise—I'm right!!! How did I know? Because he has no idea what superhumans eat, and he doesn't want to risk insulting you with the food of mortals.

But why waste your time worrying about the waiter's preoccupation with mundane matters like table seating? There's a much more appropriate place for you anyway, of course: the Green Room. Which, in this case, happens to be next to the dumpster behind the kitchen, eating scraps with your fellow superhumans. OOOOF!!!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I'm having trouble focusing on my playing. It's like there's a war going on in my head between the musician and the other parts.

We'll be in the middle of a tune, and I'll be playing fine until my mind drifts and then I'm all pissed off thinking about the gig not paying enough, or maybe remembering an argument I had with my kid at dinner. Then a sensible voice, the musician, gently reminds me that jazz is all about being immersed in the music, in the moment, the Zen thing.

So I get back into it, then in the middle of my solo suddenly I'm like, "Whoa!!! Did you hear that shit I just played? It was totally smoking!" And soon I'm all pissed off again, wondering why I don't get better gigs and why I'm not famous, when nobody else can play nearly that good. And the voice comes back, pats me on the head, and reminds me that I can't be focused on the music if I'm ego-tripping.

That gets me back to playing along again just fine until a part of me realizes—hey, wait a minute—at least I've got a voice telling me to focus! That's more than most guys have, but they're still getting all the calls for the good gigs. Totally unfair! So once again I'm pissed off, and the voice comes back again gently scolding, and it just seems to go on like that all night.

I know this isn't where my head should be. What can I do? Zenless in Chicago

Dear Zenless:

How I love to be the bearer of good news! And here's some for you: You're just fine; trust me. Almost all jazz musicians are tormented by voices in their head. The lucky ones who—like you—only have a single voice, often give it a name, so they can reason with it. They're the guys whose lips move while they play ("Goddammit, Frank. You can't TELL me that wasn't a brilliant reharmonization!").

Count your blessings. The fact is, if you were to get rid of all that inner turmoil, you'd no longer have a jazz personality, so you'd have to play some other kind of music. Something simple, soothing and shallow, like New Age or Smooth Jazz.

Do you really want to change your very essence? It's a pretty deep subject, Zenless; food for thought the next time you're in the middle of a solo.

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.

Once the outpouring is complete and catharsis achieved, the artists then conclude, more soberly, with a restatement of the dead composer's melody; a final heartfelt tribute. It's all really very simple, if a bit morbid.

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