February 2010

Mr. P.C. By

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Dear Mr. P.C.:

So, like, sometimes I hang out with my friends and listen to jazz at this happy hour thing where the waiters are really cute, and my friends can, you know, come up with all these cool songs to call out when the band asks for requests.

I feel so totally insecure and stuff 'cause I can never request anything that will impress the band AND the cute waiters. I mean, come on, when you listen to real music, it has words and stuff so you can figure out what the title is, but at this club, it's only instruments, so the title is like something they just slapped on and doesn't really have anything to do with anything, but it's the way the musicians remember what they're playing, I guess.

Anyway, I have a couple of songs I learned the title to, but I always seem to request them at the wrong time. I mean, I yelled out "Linus and Lucy" to a guitarist and the cutest waiter laughed at me. And then inside I'm all like, hello, Schroeder, he totally played the organ or piano or whatever, right? Wow, was that humiliating! I felt so bad about myself that the next time I went there I wore my red 4-inch heels. I look really hot in those, LOL.

So, I was wondering, since you're so old and wise and all, if you could give me some song titles AND the instrument they've got to have in the band to play it and stuff. Theater Girl, Atlanta

Dear Theater Girl:

So these waiters are "cute," and that makes you wear red four-inch heels to look "hot" to them. But Theater Girl: Why are you trying to please the very people who laugh at you? That seems so sad to me, like you're buying into the most toxic messages of our superficial culture. Have you considered broadening your standards to include men who actually like you the way you are? Maybe they're not as cute on the outside, but spiritually speaking, they're plenty hot inside. The kind of guys who would rather see you in sensible shoeware than risking a fall from ill-advised heights. Guys who would console you, rather than laugh at you, if you were to inelegantly topple and be impaled by those spiky heels. And here's the best news, Theater Girl: I'll bet you could find one of those guys—a sensitive artist—right there on the bandstand. Up until now he may have just served as incidental soundtrack music for your shallow life story, but he'd happily be your personal escort to a more meaningful and nuanced existence.

With all that in mind, if you really prefer the view from four inches up, consider z-coil shoes like these: zcoil.com. They absorb shock, reduce pain, and protect your spine. More importantly, when you wear them you show that you really care about yourself —not as a sexual object, but in a more holistic way. Seeing your self-respect, the kind of man you really deserve will be uncontrollably attracted to you. That's assuming you really are at least a little bit "hot," of course. Height and weight proportional, a few curves in strategic places and a reasonably flat midriff would do, I'm sure.

If the stars align, you might even pair up with another zcoil fan, and—suffice to say—enjoy recreational pogo-enhanced activities unknown to earthbound couples.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

What's with the joke, "More cowbell?" I got to watch a jazz recording session, and the musicians kept saying it to the engineer, then everyone would laugh. Does jazz even use a cowbell? David T., New Orleans

Dear David:

Not all jazz is bucolic, but certainly much of the music on the ECM label fits that description. So, while you might not hear a cowbell in the music of, say, John Coltrane's Impulse years, it would be entirely appropriate in the more pastoral music of Keith Jarrett. For me, his standards trio often evokes imagery of a cow leisurely chewing its cud on a lush green field, its bell gently tolling with the mastication. I've often wondered why Jack DeJohnette doesn't lay down a cowbell groove on some of their tunes, or why Jarrett doesn't expand the group to a quartet, with a dedicated cowbellist. Or cowbeller. Or whatever. He probably just hasn't thought of it, so I'll bet he'd love it if you brought a cowbell to one of his concerts and started jamming along with his solos.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Does it worry the band when the audience applauds wildly when the band STOPS playing? I'm only 13 years old... please explain this to me! Alicia Nordal

Dear Alicia:

What an amazing insight for a 13-year-old, already able to put yourself in the shoes of grown-up, professional performers! But, really, it's not so surprising that an adolescent can empathize. Many jazz musicians never successfully negotiated puberty, and jazz has provided them a means to continue the fight through their adult life.

Because, as you've guessed, although their voices have changed and they long ago sprouted facial hair, these jazz musicians are juvenile, insecure, and self-involved, and will seize any opportunity to feel slighted. Wild applause at the end of a tune might lead an artist to wonder why his own solo didn't get a comparable ovation, or—as you suggest—if perhaps the audience is just thrilled that the tune is over.

But more evolved artists—and there are some out there—would forgo self-questioning in favor of compassion for their listeners. Pity the poor audience members, Alicia: They want to participate, join the celebration, but they live in fear of making a mistake. Many have sought refuge in jazz after clapping between movements at the symphony, where they were belittled by haughty glares and condescending "tsk- tsk"s from the uppity people surrounding them.

So they go to a jazz club, thinking a less highbrow room might be safer, but to their horror the humiliation continues. Suddenly—though no one warns them in advance—they're SUPPOSED to clap in mid-song, when the saxophonist stops squishing up his beet-red face and the pianist starts to squirm on his bench, and again when the pianist comes to a rest, the band gets quiet and the bassist becomes suddenly audible. How can they be expected to know what these cues mean? Then, later in the tune, the drums begin to intermittently play even louder and busier than usual, but in short spurts; only after the last of these convulsions is the audience supposed to applaud, but who is to say which will be the final one?

And, if that's not enough, even if they clap for all the solos just as they're supposed to, there's a danger of clapping TOO loud. The band members, briefly unable to hear one another, get separated, and the once- driving pulse disintegrates from a unified, joyous exclamation into an awkward, sputtering question. There's no greater embarrassment in jazz, and the devastated players head straight for the bar as soon as the tune reaches its ramshackle ending. Heads hanging, they avoid eye contact with one another and with the audience that unknowingly created this trauma.

So, really, the end of the song should be the audience members' safe place, the one time they can clap without being hated for it. If only the musicians had their own safe place, where they could bask in the applause and leave self-recrimination behind! But, no, they're slaves to a dysfunction rooted in their debilitating adolescence, when no bright young teenaged girl ever recognized their musical genius and gave them the encouragement and admiration they craved. Well, it's never too late, Alicia—and who better than you to help them shed these demons from their past?

Dear Mr.PC:

I took a legit gig—the music arrived and it really sucks. I am a Canadian jazz singer with health insurance and don't really need the gig. What should I do? Jen S.

Dear Jen:

So great to hear from our friendly northern neighbor! Is it true that even your free jazz has no anger in it?

But from the sound of your note, Canadians aren't entirely without issues. Let's start with your second sentence, whose meatiness appeals even to a vegetarian like myself. While I try to avoid all things carnivorous, I can't help but think that Canadian animals are slaughtered with more compassion—after all, you're not a warring people—and are less hopped up on antibiotics, your virtuous farmers resisting the temptation of low-priced Canadian meds.

Here's the crux of it: Consider your sister singers to the South. Theirs is a road fraught with hazards, which I'm sure you've shared: Thrown objects, vocal nodes, and psychological abuse from misogynistic sidemen, for starters. But unlike you, they may not be able to afford proper medical care when tragedy strikes, and their untreated problems may leave them physically or emotionally scarred for life. You say you don't "need the gig" because of your free health care, when in fact that very health care enables you as a vocalist. I'm sure you think globally, so look at it this way: In a world where there isn't enough health care coverage to go around, shouldn't you—as one of the lucky few—be leading the charge, drawing the fire? Take all the slings and arrows, Jen, let even the critics savage you. You've got an impermeable safety net; you'll be just fine.

Now let's go back to your first sentence, where you describe classical music as "legit," though you say this "legit" gig you took "really sucks." Does that mean you consider jazz "illegitimate"? And that you like this bastard art form even less than the purebred classical music you despise? It certainly sounds like it, and still you choose to call yourself a "jazz singer!" The implied self-loathing troubles me, to say the least. But here's the good news: A trained holistic counselor should be able to help you start loving yourself, and your music, again. And for you, it's free!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

What happens when you play a gig, a crappy one that you only take because you need the work, and the leader turns and smiles at you? A leader that totally sucks, but wants you to smile back like he's playing something worthwhile. Here's how I see it: he can afford to hire me, and I have the skills to make his music sound the way he likes. Isn't that enough? Do I also have to make him feel good about himself? A prostitute would probably say, "That was great, honey," or some such crap, but is that part of my job description, too? I'm fine with playing however a leader wants me to, and I'm able to hide my pain even when I'm miserable, but I don't want to pretend to be having a good time when I'm not. Chris S., Seattle

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Sometimes at the end of a gig as I'm packing up to leave, one of the guys will turn to me and compliment the way I played. More often than not, it's the worst player in the band, and I'd be lying if I returned the compliment. I pride myself on being an honest guy, but I also don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. What am I supposed to do? Anthony

Dear Chris and Anthony:

Imagine this: Mr. P.C. is in a funk. Maybe he's been receiving letters more troubling than entertaining, giving him a major-seven-on-a-dominant-seventh-chord type of headache. He goes for a walk to clear his mind. From the first person he passes, a friendly smile; Mr. P.C. smiles back. From the next, a warm greeting, which Mr. P.C. returns with all the good grace he can muster. Why? Because even on a bad day, Mr. P.C., by his very charter, is all about love, harmony and good will toward man/womyn.

"But this is different!" you cry, in voices just far enough from unison to set my head throbbing. Make no mistake, guys—I do understand where you're coming from. You've taken the jazz vow, a path to enlightenment that involves selfless dedication and constant sacrifice. You offer your music to the world as a gift, and in exchange you ask only that you might live unsullied by the petty indignities and personal compromises that plague more earthly lifestyles.

Well, it's a wonderful journey you're taking, but when you finally reach the lofty heights you aspire to, and you look back down that path, do you want to see it strewn with the discarded carcasses of lesser musicians? Is music really more important than your fellow artists? And if you've outgrown compromise, why are you taking gigs with players so far behind you in their musical evolution? Money appears to trump your artistic ideals. Let's see: Music over humanity, money over music... We can use the Transitivity of Inequalities to come up with your personal values hierarchy: Money at the top, music in the middle, humanity dead last. That suggests to me that there's still plenty of room for growth in your spiritual quest; what better way to kick-start it than with a detoxifying Master Cleanse?

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


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