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Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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"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.

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