January 2011

Mr. P.C. By

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Dear Mr. P.C:

What do you call a trombonist whose girlfriend breaks up with him? Evan Holmes

Dear Evan:

Ha, ha—I love a good joke! People accuse my P.C. brethren, sisters and me of being humorless, but it couldn't be further from the truth. I totally know the "punch line" to this: "Homeless!" Right?!!! But really, Evan, must we single out an oppressed minority? Consider:

1) Trombonists are already the butt of countless jokes, even though their so-called "instrument" is pretty harmless, and their intentions are generally good;

2) Your very premise—"calling" a trombonist—isn't credible;

3) Homeless people have it tough enough already without being compared to any jazz musicians, much less trombonists;

4) Imagine where trombonists might be today if their instrument hadn't become the jazz world's whoopee cushion.

But, anyway, girlfriends come and go, even for guys who play more viable instruments. What I want to know—because I'm a man of compassion—is how this trombonist lost his own home to begin with. I'm guessing he took out a subprime mortgage on the strength of his day job, then got laid off when the recession forced Pizza Hut to downsize.

Not so funny when you see the big picture, is it, Evan? Frankly, it makes your little joke seem a tad insensitive. Aristotle taught us that there's a thin line between comedy and tragedy, and no one knows that better than trombonists, jazz music's eternal philosophers.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I'm the pianist at a weekly vocal showcase. A lot of times the beginners will accidentally add a beat or two, switch keys, or even completely skip the bridge of a tune. I've got two choices: I can smooth everything over by leaping around with them; or I can gently but insistently stick to the correct form and harmony. I've always believed that the form is sacred, and I need to hold true to it. But one of the singers who doesn't agree told me I should ask you, so here it is. (P.S. please don't use my name and city; I need these gigs) xxx, xxx

Dear xxx:

Why not follow the lead of vocalists who play and sing, accompanying themselves? No paired instrumentalist and vocalist could work with as much sensitivity, empathy and understanding toward one other as the single vocalist/accompanist offers to him/herself. Much as the rare auto-fertilizing hermaphrodite is uniquely clued into how to best pleasure itself.

So what would, say, Diana Krall do if, in the middle of singing a tune, she skipped a beat or changed keys? Would her hands angrily pound out the chords, insisting on correcting her voice? Would her voice fight back, ratcheting up the volume, turning the stage into a sonic battlefield, the bassist and drummer reduced to frightened spectators? Of course not! Voice and accompaniment would move together, and the rest of the band would seamlessly follow suit.

If Diana can do it, so can you, xxx. Make it your goal to become one with the singers, no matter how desperately they try to elude you.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I've recently become aware of an alarming situation. A good friend of mine, who is otherwise a fine musician, appears to have become trapped inside his saxophone. His solos have become a series of fast technical flourishes followed by a high screeching sound, tune after tune, night after night. Unfortunately, he seems to be surrounded by a fairly large crowd of enablers, which only aggravates the problem.

I've tried to talk him out, but I think he's been in there too long and is now wedged in pretty good. I feel terrible for not having noticed this sooner and done something about it. Is there anything that can be done at this point? R.U. Happ'nin, Detroit

Dear R.U.:

What a great friend you are! So many saxophonists get stuck inside their horns and all too few have caring people like you eager to rescue them.

Let's start with the essentials: First, make sure the pads aren't closed. If your friend got stuck honking a low Bb, his air supply is drastically limited, and you need to immediately change the fingering. Also, be sure to lower him food and water at mealtimes. While this compounds the urination/defecation issue, it's nonetheless critical to his survival.

The next step is to lure him out of the horn, and although it takes some planning, it couldn't be simpler. All you need to do is organize a party with your city's best sax players, and have them bring along their favorite mouthpieces. The mouthpieces alone might not be enough to retrieve your friend, but the chance to talk about them with other saxophonists will be irresistible!

Now comes the intervention. Fortunately, a city the size of Detroit should have a twelve-step program tailored to recovering musicians, and your job is to get him to a meeting as quickly as possible. Drive your car up to the front door of the party, and yell from your window, "1953 Selmer Super Balanced!" He'll come running, along with all the other saxophonists, but of course you'll have already told them the plan. Once they push him inside, just slam the door shut, roll up the windows, and whisk him off.

The twelve-step program itself is quite simple. Each day, the facilitator plays one note of the chromatic scale, and the entire session is devoted to the note's intrinsic beauty and spirituality. The recovering saxophonist learns that glossing over the note in a fast run, or shrieking it out as if mortally wounded, is disrespecting a deity. By the end of the twelfth day, the saxophonist will be fully reverent of all twelve chromatic tones, and thus of music itself.

Of course, like methadone to a heroin addict, the treatment that is the saxophonist's salvation may become its own addiction. You're likely to find a recovering saxophonist cloistered in a small practice room, misty-eyed, working on "long tones." This morbid exercise replicates the life cycle of a solitary note: The saxophonist gently births the note, lovingly raises it to maturity, sustains it as long as possible, then—now clinging to it protectively, breath running short—brings it to a soft landing, only to sadly acknowledge its mortality. Should your friend go this route after treatment, there is nothing more you can do; rest easy knowing you've at least brought him to a better place.

P.S. Saxophonists in smaller cities, who lack direct access to a suitable twelve-step program, should be directed to Overplayers Anonymous.

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