Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Newcomers Guide to Jazz

A must read for anyone interested in jazz, this instructional essay has been bouncing around the Internet for some years, and is just too good not to repost. For more, see Bill Anschell's website)

There’s much more to jazz music - and to the "session" in particular - than meets the eye. This primer will help you better appreciate the intense psychodrama being played out on stage. Special "Insider’s Hints" ("I.H.") highlighted throughout the text will help you make the most of your maiden voyage.

I.H.: Although your food and drink dollars are the lifeblood of the jazz economy, remember that to the musicians, you’re irrelevant. Don’t make requests. Don’t start dancing. And don’t try to sing along. The last thing the session needs is another ego. Things are complicated enough already.

1) The Room

Session venues fall into two distinct categories:

Yuppie jazz dives

Yuppies don’t generally like dives, but jazz, to a Yuppie, is a daring adventure. There may be no valet parking, but caution be damned!

The club will be located in a "transitional" part of town. Walking hurriedly from parking space to venue will raise the courageous Yuppie’s heartbeat past Stairmaster level. All the more gratifying, then, to finally feel the club’s warm embrace. Home at last among the expensive cigars and fancy martinis.

The food will be overpriced and lousy. There will be at least one fake Cajun dish on the menu. There will be an abstract painting of a saxophonist. There will be a state-of-the-art ventilation system that makes the thick cigar smoke swirl around in impressionistic patterns. In the restrooms, a fresh coat of Lysol won’t fully supress the smell of vomit.

There will be no piano, or there will be a Samick. "Samick," translated from Korean, means "looks like a Steinway but sounds like a Hyundai." (I.H.: an actual piano; can Yugo be far behind?) The room itself will be an acoustical nightmare. In the absence of carpeting or drapery, sounds will reverberate and distort like a bad LSD trip. Feeding this psychedelic nightmare will the the bar’s blender, a cash register, a big-screen television, and a CD player cranking out music that bears no resemblance to jazz. When the band starts, somebody will forget to turn the CD off. Yuppie conversation, to compete with these sounds, is elevated to a roar. Somewhere, in the background, a jam session takes place.

Non-Yuppie jazz dives

Same as Yuppie jazz dives, but without the Lysol.

I.H.: Sit as close to the band as possible. Stare intensely at each musician during his solo, and move your mouth along with his lines. Don’t smile. Now watch - each will assume that: a) you play his instrument, and b) you think he sucks. You are "vibing" them, and they’ll come undone. All jazz players, regardless of age, instrument, or ability, are deeply insecure. Have fun with this.

2) The Musicians

While a jazz artist may claim to have a "unique voice" on his instrument, sociological analysis tells us otherwise. In reality, jazz players are simply the embodiment of instrumental archetypes. Jam sessions, then, are the playing-out of archetypal conflicts. Jazz "standards" performed at the sessions make up the script. Over time, an epic play is realized. Here are the characters:

Piano: Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied theory, harmony and composition in college. Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald. They should have big hands, but often don’t. They were social rejects as adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers. If you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.

Bass: Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not he’s listening.

Drums: Drummers are radical. Specific personalities vary, but are always extreme. A drummer might be the funniest person in the world, or the most psychotic, or the smelliest. Drummers are uneasy because of the many jokes about them, most of which stem from the fact that they aren’t really musicians. Pianists are particularly successful at making drummers feel bad. Most drummers are highly excitable; when excited, they play louder. If you decide to talk to the drummer during a break, be careful not to sneak up on him.

Saxophone: Saxophonists think they are the most important players on stage. Consequently, they are temperamental and territorial. They know all the Coltrane and Bird licks but have their own sound, a mixture of Coltrane and Bird. They take exceptionally long solos, which reach a peak half way through and then just don’t stop. They practice quietly but audibly while other people are trying to play. They are obsessed. Saxophonists sleep with their instruments, forget to shower, and are mangy. If you talk to a saxophonist during a break, you will hear a lot of excuses about his reeds.

Trumpet: Trumpet players are image-conscious and walk with a swagger. They are often former college linebackers. Trumpet players are very attractive to women, despite the strange indentation on their lips. Many of them sing; misguided critics then compare them to either Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker depending whether they’re black or white. (I.H.: Arrive at the session early, and you may get to witness the special trumpet game. The rules are: play as loud and as high as possible. The winner is the one who plays loudest and highest. Caution: It is loud and high.) If you talk to a trumpet player during a break, he might confess that his favorite player is Maynard Ferguson, the merciless God of loud-high trumpeting.

Guitar: Jazz guitarists are never very happy. Deep inside they want to be rock stars, but they’re old and overweight. In protest, they wear their hair long, prowl for groupies, drink a lot, and play too loud. Guitarists hate piano players because they can hit ten notes at once, but guitarists make up for it by playing as fast as they can. The more a guitarist drinks, the higher he turns his amp. Then the drummer starts to play harder, and the trumpeter dips into his loud/high arsenal. Suddenly, the saxophonist’s universe crumbles, because he is no longer the most important player on stage. He packs up his horn, nicks his best reed in haste, and storms out of the room. The pianist struggles to suppress a laugh. If you talk to a guitarist during the break he’ll ask intimate questions about your 14-year-old sister.

Vocals: Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as "...jazzy." Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns "My Funny Valentine," "Summertime," and "Route 66." Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see "The Vocalist" below). I.H.: The vocalist will try to seduce you - and the rest of the audience - by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her "manager."

Trombone: The trombone is known for its pleading, voice-like quality. "Listen," it seems to say in the male tenor range, "Why won’t anybody hire me for a gig?" Trombonists like to play fast, because their notes become indistinguishable and thus immune to criticism. Most trombonists played trumpet in their early years, then decided they didn’t want to walk around with a strange indentation on their lips. Now they hate trumpet players, who somehow get all the women despite this disfigurement. Trombonists are usually tall and lean, with forlorn faces. They don’t eat much. They have to be very friendly, because nobody really needs a trombonist. Talk to a trombonist during a break and he’ll ask you for a gig, try to sell you insurance, or offer to mow your lawn.

3) The Music

Now that you know a little bit about the room and the players, it’s time to turn your attention to the music. Your new-found knowledge will give you astonishing insights. Let’s look at some typical session landmarks:

Picking the Tune

Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one. That’s a fundamental concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with jam session group processes.

Tune selection makes a huge difference to the musicians. They love to show off on tunes that feel comfortable, and they tremble at the threat of the unknown. But to pick a tune is to invite close scrutiny: "So this is how you sound at your best. Hmm..." It’s a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes no one wants to pick a tune, and sometimes everyone wants to pick a tune.

The resulting disagreements lead to faction-building and - under extreme conditions - even impromptu elections. The politics of tune selection makes for some of the session’s best entertainment.

Example 1: No one wants to pick a tune

(previous tune ends)

(silence)

trumpet player: "What the f#@*? Is someone gonna to pick a tune?"

(silence)

trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. I’m outa here." (Storms out of room, forgetting to pay tab).

rest of band (in unison): "Yes!!!" (Band takes extended break, puts drinks on trumpet player’s tab).

Example 2: Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election and eventual tune selection

(previous tune ends)

(pianist and guitarist simultaneously): "Beautiful Love!"/"Donna Lee!"

guitarist to pianist: "You just want to play your fat, stupid ten-note chords!"

pianist to guitarist: "You just want to play a lot of notes really fast!"

saxophonist: "Giant Steps’." (I.H.: a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.)

guitarist and pianist (together): "Go ahead, asshole."

trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. 'Night in Tunisia'." (I.H.: a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for loud, high playing.)

saxophonist: "Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard."

(long, awkward silence)

pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn to drummer: "Your turn, Skin-head."

(drummer pauses to think of hardest possible tune) I.H.: a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play actual notes

drummer: "Stablemates."

trumpet player: F#@* this! I’m outa here." (Storms out of room. Bartender chases after him.)

("Stablemates")

trombonist: "Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?"

Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions that will last all through the night. I.H.: As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart diagramming the shifting alliances. You can also keep statistics on individual tune-calling. Under no circumstances, though, should you take sides or yell out song titles. Things are complicated enough already.

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