Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer's Guide

Bill Anschell By

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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.

And then you realize that this is not musician versus musician. This is musician versus clubowner. Artist versus cynical businessman. Art versus commerce. And it goes deeper still, a playing-out of the grandest archetypal battle. Repressed employee versus miserly employer. Tiny Tim (sans ukulele) versus Scrooge. The proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. There is only one side you can take, Limbaugh be damned.

You look the clubowner in the eye. "You, sir, SUCK," you say dramatically. You quickly make your way to the bandstand, grabbing the microphone that still bears traces of the singer's designer lipstick. "I said, YOU SUCK!" you yell over the house system. A hush falls over the Yuppies. The bartender turns off the blender. Someone turns off the CD player. You point at the clubowner and repeat, more gently, "He sucks."


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