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Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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"Not a real talkative bunch, are you?" she asks rhetorically, then turns to the band. "Well, I guess we'd better give them something to talk about." She winks at the saxophonist, who almost spits. "Do you fellas know 'Summertime'?" There is a collective shudder. "What key?" the pianist asks, knowing she won't have an answer. Her veneer momentarily fades; she is in trouble. She did not prepare for the session by practicing or figuring out her keys. She prepared for it by buying a new outfit and having her hair coiffed.

But then she has an idea. With studied nonchalance, she says: "You, know. The regular key." There is a collective snort. "Regular?" asks the pianist. Not decaf?" The others join in. "Not unleaded?" asks the saxophonist. "Not minty fresh?" asks the drummer. "Not extra wide?" asks the trombonist. "Not the special prescription-strength formula with possible side effects including nausea, headaches, and dry-mouth?" asks the bassist. All turn and stare at him in amazement. The trumpet player shouldn't have left so soon. This is too much fun.

Now she is near tears. All she can do is start singing, and she lands half-way between two keys. "Lovely," the pianist mutters. "Quarter-tone explorations on 'Summertime.' B minor-and-a-half. C minor-minus. John Cage meets Liza Minelli. Ravi Shankar meets Barbara Streisand. Here, lady, I'll help you—forgive me, guys. Just because I'm brilliant doesn't mean I'm heartless. Let's put it in C minor, and here's your melody note. Now sing, or act, or whatever it is you do."

The band joins in, and she works her way through the song's two choruses. Her voice is pleasant, but barely discernable beneath a haphazard dungheap of inflections that are her "jazz bag." She approaches the end of the melody. "PLEASE DON'T SCAT! PLEASE, PLEASE!" the musicans silently implore. She scats. There are shooby-doos. There are piercing wails. There are throaty moans. There is writhing and grimacing. There are photo ops. She is smiling at the band, inviting them to feel the spirit. They return blank stares. Finally the saxophonist can take no more. He begins soloing loudly, pointing his horn right at her. The band launches into 20 minutes of improvisation, and the music is good. They have, once again, found a common enemy. Again there is great joy and sorrow and anger. This time, they are not angry at you.

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...)

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