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Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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The tune ends. Before anyone can make a move, the vocalist launches into "Route 66." It is a pre-emptive strike on her part, a brilliant tactical maneuver. The band has no choice but to play along—it's too late to call up the next artist. Even their emergency bail-out plan—leaving the stage for a premature break—has been disabled. Six musicians crushed by one singer in a single, clean surgical strike. Having won the upper hand, she assumes the role of benevolent dictator. She does not scat. She demands that the audience applaud for each soloist (IH: Go ahead). The musicians, in turn, take short polite solos. A new world order has been established.

But the regime will prove a short one. Like any leader buoyed by new-found power, she feels compelled to test the limits. She dips deep into her Star Search bag, pulling out the secret weapon she's been saving for just such a moment. Ammo that will blast the blender, tv, cash register, and roaring Yuppies into stunned silence. All will stand in awe. She will, at last, be discovered. "Get your kicks," she belts, "on Route...Sixty..." She throws her arms laterally, telling the band with great passion that she, alone, will take it from here. It is going to be the word "Six," and it is going to take a very long time.

Sssssiiiii... (the histrionics commence. She drops to one knee. She plumbs the bottom of her range, then her voice begins a slow ascent. Her eyes are shut, chin tucked against chest. She is bent forward, cleavage showing mightily)

...ii... (her voice is in mid-register, still climbing, now wrapped in a wide, swooping vibrato. She rises from her knee to an upright position).

...iii... (she approaches her upper register and begins a series of blues clich's. Her fingers wiggle on the microphone as if she is playing an instrument—first trumpet, then trombone, then saxophone. She has not taken a breath yet.)

...iiii... (as she nears the top of her range, her free hand begins to rise. She is preparing to land on a note that will startle all with its power and beauty. At the exact moment she hits it, her finger will...)

"F#@* this!" says the saxophonist. "Let's take a break." The musicians quickly scramble off-stage, order—as they know it—restored. The singer is still peaking, now in piercing soprano range, pointing dramatically off-stage, eyes closed. Sensing that change is afoot, she sneaks a glance. Quickly at first, eyes barely open. Then longer, eyes agog. The truth sets in, the sheer horror of it. An outright coup d'etat, and she's been rendered powerless, impotent, ludicrous. She cuts off in mid-note, suddenly slumping. Quietly, resignedly, she concludes, ..."ix."

But it's okay—no one except you was listening anyway. And you'd best not clap, if you want to be a part of...

The Break

The house musicians are seated at the crowded bar. Actually, two are sitting, and three are standing behind, jutting into the flow of traffic. They are flanked by drunk Yuppies on either side. Other drunk Yuppies periodically bump them from behind.

Despite their nominal victory, the battle with the vocalist has left them in poor spirits. They have felt the wrath of the jazz universe. Their capacity for suffering has been tested and found wanting. They wonder why. Life itself seems without reason. A solution cannot be found in words, only in drink.

You try to help. You explain that evil must exist in the jazz world so they might better appreciate the good. Blessings should be counted. For example, tonight there have been no violinists or accordion players. No harmonica player has sat in and called "Stormy Monday." No beer has been spilled on the keyboard. And there is still much music to be played.

"Wait a minute," says the saxophonist. "Aren't you that asshole that was trying to run the session?" You see anger gathering in his face. He is moving toward you threateningly when a passing Yuppie taps him on the shoulder. "Excuse me. You're the saxophonist, right?" The saxophonist's face lightens. He has been recognized. He nods his head. "Do you play here often?" the Yuppie asks. The saxophonist shrugs with newfound humility. The Yuppie continues: "Good. Perfect. Can you tell me where the bathroom is?"

"AAAIIIIIIIEEEEEE!" screams the saxophonist, reeling from the sucker punch. Then he thrusts his middle finger Yuppieward, yelling, "It's right HERE, s%!*head!" The Yuppie stares at the finger in stunned silence. Quickly, the trombonist leaps in, hands wringing. "Restrooms are over there, Sir," he says, politely. "Hope you don't mind the smell of vomit. And Sir, permit me one personal question: Is your loved one provided for in the event that something, God forbid, should happen to you?"

Other Yuppies see the dialogue, but miss the finger and the insurance pitch. They decide it is acceptable to talk to musicians, despite the obvious class differences. Several more approach the group. "Dudes, you know any Skynyrd?" asks a pony-tailed businessman. The guitarist looks away, lest his eyes betray him. "How about some Kenny G?" asks a well-dressed young woman. The pianist and drummer quickly grab the saxophonist, restraining him from further violence. There are also requests for "Pennsylvania Polka," "something we can dance to" and "could you just leave the CD player on?"

Across the bar, you see the newcomer and the vocalist talking intently. You walk over to introduce yourself, but they don't even notice. They are forming a band. They're going to figure out the vocalist's keys and record accompaniment parts on a sequencer. Fake drums, fake bass, fake orchestra, state-of-the-art digital deception. Then they're going to look for gigs as duo. They'll start in this very room, seeking out the clubowner, offering to play for half of what tonight's band is making. They are no longer traumatized by their bandstand humiliation; they are vengeful. Justice must be served.

There's no place for you in this conversation, so you head back to the house musicians. Coincidentally, the clubowner is talking with them. More precisely, he's yelling at them. He has each arm over the shoulder of a rebuilt Yuppie bimbo, with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other. He's screaming about the fact that the last set was only 30 minutes long and had just two tunes in it. He's reminding them that vocalists are good for business and look great on stage. He's letting them know that they cannot, under any circumstances, scream hari-kari screams and thrust middle fingers Yuppieward. He's delivering an ultimatum that if they screw up one more time he's going to find a sequenced duo and save some money. Then he and the silicone Valley Girls disappear into his office. He needs to go over some figures.

Suddenly, this wretched gig becomes very important to the six musicians. They stare at their drinks dejectedly. They can already picture the glaring, aching white space on their calendars every Tuesday. They can hear the painful silence of phones no longer ringing; they're not wanted, not needed. Rejection hurts; even rejection from Yuppie hell. And now, their world turned upside down, they at last see the good in one another: A saxophonist who so desperately loves the music; a pianist with a brilliant grasp of harmony; a drummer who throws himself headlong into the musical moment; a bassist who selflessly lays down the pulse; a trombonist striving to overcome the handicap of a useless instrument. Surely this magical unit can't be so easily undone. There is an uncomfortable silence among them, the noises of the bar echoing about like a bad dream. You dare not speak. What could you possibly say?

A few minutes later, the clubowner emerges from his office. He is alone now, drink still in hand, cigar left behind. He has more demands: An earlier start time, a dress code, a maximum of two drinks per musician. The musicians continue to stare silently at their glasses; those seated slump closer to the bar. Meanwhile, the vocalist and the newcomer have spotted the clubowner. They circle around the bar to approach him from behind. They tap his shoulder to get his attention, then quietly talk to him just out of earshot. The musicians don't need to hear it, anyway. They know exactly what's going on.

Now the clubowner draws the singer and newcomer into the group. It's time for a discussion. "Look," he says to the band. "Can you give me one good reason I shouldn't book this duo for next Tuesday?" The band is silent. "Okay, fine." He turns to the duo triumphantly. "Give me a reason or two why I might want to try something different." He is having fun now. He's pitting the musicians against one another, Chapter One in the Clubowner Playbook. He's tapping into the clubowners' collective unconscious, the seamy underbelly of the jazz universe. He's drawing strength from the awesome, evil karma of clubowners around the world and throughout time. Disdain for musicians seeps from his every pore.

But he has underestimated the sacred tie that binds all jazz artists, even those momentarily blinded by vengeance. The singer and newcomer purse their lips and refuse to speak. Now the clubowner is getting irritated. "C'mon, you two," he says. "The same s%!* you said in my ear two minutes ago. What's the difference?" Still they are silent, and the clubowner becomes angry. He turns suddenly to you. "You," he says. "You decide. You, the impartial observer. You, all serious holding that crappy 'Jazz Jam Session' primer. You tell me who to book next week."

You frantically thumb through the primer, only to realize that this section is still being written. It's time to take the lead now, reach deep inside yourself and improvise. You look at the house musicians, still staring silently at their drinks. No question, they screwed up. They were blatantly rude to the newcomer and the singer. Just five minutes ago, the saxophonist almost slugged you. No audience will ever like them. But they really do love music; that much you know for sure. And they need the gig.

You turn to the singer and the newcomer. They came to the club wanting simply to make music. They gave it their best effort, and in return received only ridicule and scorn. But now they're trying to undercut the band and steal its gig. They want to pollute the already acrid air with carcenogenic Musak.

You need guidance. What would Dr. Laura say? Or Rush? What would Jesus do? What would Journey do? Help, sadly, is not forthcoming; not from radio personalities, nor from spiritual models. (IH: Don't look at me—you're on your own now, pal.) You run it over and over in your mind, wheels spinning. You look from the clubowner to the six musicians to the duo. The clubowner is furious, returning your glance with a burning glare. All eight musicians are avoiding your eyes, staring at their drinks, or their shoes, or the sticky, stinking floor.
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