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Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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IH: There's much more on these players' minds than just melody, harmony, and rhythm. Let's see what they're REALLY thinking, captured in mid-tune:

saxophonist: S%!*! Another sad-ass, no-playing student: Improv 101, licks-to-go, play-by-number, your name here. Who needs ears? Who needs history? I need a drink.

guitarist: Holy s%!*—this cat's got licks from hell! Burning it up! (looks around; sees saxophonist scowling) But I gotta be careful—these guys already think I'm some kinda Van Halen chops freak, like I got no soul, like I didn't pay dues in Motown cover bands for eight years. They won't cut me any slack, the arrogant bastards. Now if I hook up with this new cat, they'll just laugh about it. F#@* them! I should call "Dock of the Bay" and see how they do. I don't know. Maybe I'll just go get a beer (leaves stage).

drummer: Man, this cat is swinging! Here, baby, take THIS (plays a complicated rhythmic figure against the newcomer's lines, loud). Are we going somewhere? We might be going somewhere. I FEEL LIKE WE'RE GOING SOMEWHERE! Yeah, baby. This is for you! (catches newcomers rhythms with his high-hat). We could be hooking up now. WE'RE HOOKING UP NOW! GO, BABY!

bassist (digging in): Grrrhh. Gnmnt. Glppnt.

pianist: I'm so sick of this crap. Yeah, I can play the same twelve bars over and over while you jerk off ad nauseum, you little s%!*. You and all your friends. Then we get to my solo 25 minutes later and no one even notices all the s%!* I'm playing. Put the tune out of its misery already, for chrissake. But wait, what's that? Whoa, hang on! This cat's playing some serious lines—maybe better than my lines? My God, what if I'm not really that great? But, s%!*, I mean I've heard Herbie (IH: Hancock, legendary jazz pianist) play lines worse than this, too. So maybe this cat's great, and I still could be really good. Or, maybe he's really good, and I'm just pretty good. Or maybe he's barely decent, and I suck. Why won't anyone just tell me? I hate this asshole.

trombonist: Oh, God, Help!!! Two guys dig him. Two guys don't. The guitarist left. They're all looking at me. Think, man, think: The pianist was maybe gonna use me on a gig next Sunday; can't piss him off. But I was working the insurance thing with the drummer—no, that was the guitarist. Wait: who was about to buy an amp from me? The bassist—hell, that don't matter. But this new cat, he sounds pretty damn good—maybe he'll get some gigs I can play on. The saxophonist's never gonna use me for anything, anyway. But everybody seems to respect the crusty bastard. I don't know. I guess this new guy sucks, kinda.

(house musicians, exchanging glances, begin rolling their eyes. Pianist starts hitting ugly chords. Drummer succumbs to the group will and forces a yawn. Bassist is oblivious.)

(newcomer ends solo. No response. He is not invited to play another tune. He leaves the stage dejected, head hanging. Boys can be so cruel...)

2) Acceptance

newcomer: "How about a ballad?"

saxophonist: "Are you crazy? LISTEN!"

(blender blends, tv blares, cash register rings, Yuppies roar, room echoes cavernously)

newcomer (pointing at you): "But HE told me I could call whatever I want."

all musicians (turning to you): "Who the hell are YOU? Who put YOU in charge?"

IH: Shut your mouth. NOW.

newcomer: "Aw, forget that asshole. Let's just play 'Cherokee.'"

("Cherokee" begins. The musicians all bond in the face of a common enemy—you. In their newfound brotherhood, they drop their defenses and enjoy the music. They are pointing their horns at you and playing with great emotion. It is the sound of jazz: Joy, sorrow and anger. You should take the anger personally. You should leave while it is safe.)

(But, no, there's still so much to be learned. Take a chance: Order a round of drinks for everyone. Hope they'll forgive you. As it turns out, you're suddenly the hero. They need the drinks, in a big way, because approaching the bandstand now is...)


The Vocalist

She's wearing a tight-fitting dress. Her hair is a sculpture. She glides to the bandstand like a model on a runway, ignoring the drink stains and cigarette burns peppering the floor. Her posture is perfect, her arms move just so. She picks up the mike and balances it between three arched fingers. She turns to the audience, a stagey, far-away look in her eyes. "Oh Jesus, here we go," the saxophonist says under his breath.

"How about a hand for these hard-working guys," she says, just like she is supposed to. There is no applause. She laughs a stage laugh and tries again. "Where are you all from? Anyone here from New York?" Silence. The crowd is captivated—not by her, but by a racy rock video blasting over the television. Still, she tries. "How many of you are in love?" she asks, giggling a little girl giggle. She's looking right at you, because you're the only one paying attention. The musicians are looking at you, too. "You're NOT from New York, and you're NOT in love," their dark eyes say.

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