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Melodious Crunk: Gigs from hell

From 2014. Mr Bojangles, you say… Melodious Crunk consults the Robbie Williams songbook There’s a joke in jazz communities that most jazz tunes should replace the word ‘you’ in the title with ‘I’, as jazz musicians can be so self-absorbed. This …

Published: 28 Jan 2020. Updated: 19 days.

From 2014. Mr Bojangles, you say… Melodious Crunk consults the Robbie Williams songbook

There’s a joke in jazz communities that most jazz tunes should replace the word ‘you’ in the title with ‘I’, as jazz musicians can be so self-absorbed. This leads to some great song titles: ‘I Stepped Out of a Dream’. ‘All The Things I Am’. That sort of thing. Jazz groups can even be competitive within the band, with everyone wanting to play a better solo than the last person, or be the one guy that plays the best solo all night. It’s almost like we’re playing this music for ourselves, to prove to ourselves that we can do this, or playing it for other musicians, to prove to them that we can do this and they can’t. Ultimately, jazz is about showing off. And really, we want to show off to other musicians. Joe Bloggs in the street just doesn’t get those altered dominant runs or that really hip Lydian line we just played. It just sounds like noise to non-musicians, but that’s OK, because we really want to impress other musicians.

This puts the jazz audience in an awkward place. The musician needs them there to play for them and pay the rent. But will they really understand all these great melodic minor runs over the sharpened fifth he’s been working on? Really, he wants a huge crowd of people to tell him he’s great, but also for them to be musically literate. That’s not always the case with jazz audiences, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it’s great when someone comes up and says they really enjoyed your chords or your drum fill, but when a member of the public whose sole interest in jazz is an appreciation says they liked your playing…well, that’s cool too. And always appreciated.

The audience needs the musician there to listen to, to latch onto, to tell them a musical story or lead them on a journey. They might not understand every little nuance from the horn and the significance of that D instead of a D sharp, but broadly, they’re there because they like the music and want to hear more of it. The musically illiterate folks in the audience might just like the vibe of the music, or the overall timbre, but the artist on stage isn’t playing for them. He’s playing for the ones who will really understand it.

And then there are the others. These are the people who appear to stumble into jazz gigs and aren’t quite sure what to expect. All of the anecdotes you’re about to read are, unfortunately, 100 per cent accurate reproductions of actual events.

It was a quiet gig because the World Cup was on. The musicians were sitting around at the time the gig was supposed to start but no one was in yet. Talking about this and that, and football and other musicians. A man walks in and sits himself down beside the musicians. We all got the sense that he wasn’t quite all there – the numerous plastic bags and stilted speech were basically giant flags – but he didn’t mean any harm. He made small talk and then said: “do you have a CD player?” We were taken aback by this. A member of the public has walked in to a gathering of musicians about to perform music and he wants to play his own music? “I have a song I really want you all to hear,” he said. None of us had ever seen this guy at any jazz gigs so we weren’t expecting this. When we replied to the negative he tried telling us about this song his friend had written. And then he walked over to the bar and asked them if they had a CD player. The answer was still no.

He left, looking slightly disappointed. Maybe we missed out on hearing the world’s greatest song for the first time!

It was a quiet gig because… well, it’s a jazz gig. At the 8pm start there was no one in the audience. We ran a few tunes, rehearsed a few tricky passages, and mostly played for ourselves. We were having fun, playing the music we wanted to play and chatting between tunes. No pressure on this gig as we were pretty sure we weren’t getting paid in the first place. A man walked in and looked around as if he was expecting to see a friend there. There was still no one there. “Is this the jazz gig?” he asked. “Yep,” we replied “and you’re the first one here!” The response was a dejected “Ah…” at which point he turned around and left. And no one else came for the rest of the gig.

A house party gig – the musician’s worst nightmare and best friend. Good money, maybe some food, a chance to just play away in the background. But also you could be stuck there until 2am, no food, and getting endless requests for ‘Mr Bojangles’. We were between sets and getting a bite to eat, and the gig was going OK. A woman, who was slightly inebriated shouted out: “Do ye’s know any Elvis? He was the king!” Uh oh, here was trouble. “No, we’re a jazz band,” was our polite yet firm response. “But Elvis was the king of rock and roll,” she insisted. Yes, that’s true, he was. And we’re still a jazz band. “And he was king of jazz too!” No, I’m afraid he wasn’t the king of jazz. “Elvis was the king of everything,” she slurred, heading off with another bottle of wine.” Sometimes the general public just don’t get it, but it’s part of being a jazz player.

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Melodious Crunk: You don’t know what jazz is

From 2014. The Melodious Crunk column. On creative humming If you asked Joseph Public what the word jazz meant, they would probably suggest men in hats, stroking beards to music that sounds at best like noise. Or perhaps they’d think a cool …

Published: 28 Jan 2020. Updated: 19 days.

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From 2014. The Melodious Crunk column. On creative humming If you asked Joseph Public what the word jazz meant, they would probably suggest men in hats, stroking beards to music that sounds at best like noise. Or perhaps they’d think a cool saxophone and extremely understated music. Or perhaps the jazz age of the 1920s and 30s, and dixieland. Either way, if you asked them to hum something jazz, they’d probably hum something fairly tuneless, or if asked to identify from a set of videos which one was jazz, they’d figure it out fairly quickly.

These are the commonly accepted forms of jazz.

To the jazz musician, this is a highly contested issue that goes right to the very core of every musician attempting (or succeeding) to play this music. All jazz musicians have their own personal pasts and futures of what jazz is to them, and it’s not always the same as what the other musicians on the bandstand are thinking of jazz. Let’s picture a common jazz quintet:

First, there’s the trumpet player. It’s his band. But why is it a quintet with saxophone and not a quartet where he gets all the glory? Ah, he’s been listening to a load of late-50s Miles quintet. He wants to go for that cool Miles sound, long, legato fluid lines over bebop tunes and old standards. He’s a trumpet player, so of course he’s influenced by Miles. This is what he wants to hear, and what he wants to play.

The saxophone player knows it’s not his band, but that’s cool, he’s enjoying this band. They play some cool tunes, but he’s coming from a slightly different tradition. Coltrane is great, but really he loves Joe Henderson. That ballsy tone, the rapid-fire flurries of repeated notes and the intricate playing over changes. He wants to play a lot more complicated lines than the laidback lines of the trumpet player, but that’s why they have such different styles and that makes it OK, right?

The piano player comes from a different tradition entirely. He loves old standards that swing, and still feels they’re relevant today. He doesn’t really connect with ‘Juju’ or ‘Impressions’, or most of the trumpet player’s choices of material but that’s OK, he’s just the piano player. He really likes George Shearing, or Red Garland. He likes his music just to sit there and swing and not catch fire. He’d be much more content playing ‘You Stepped Out of a Dream’ – after all, he spends most of his time accompanying singers.

The bass player has no say. He loves the fusion guys like Marcus Miller, early John Patitucci, and of course, his all-time hero, Jaco. What he would really like to play is ‘Three Views of a Secret’, a beautiful ballad. But there are too many chords for the trumpeter, the saxophonist can’t relate to it, and the pianist would rather play ‘But Beautiful’. And so, he has to content himself with playing bebop tunes.

The drummer is more interested in exploring free improvisation. He’d love to start every tune with an extended drum intro, or perhaps a dialogue between the drums and the saxophone. He doesn’t like to be constrained by playing time, and in particular, 4/4. Why can’t we play this one in 7/4, he suggests, to universal disdain. Being a good member of the rhythm section, he keeps his free playing to a minimum.

Here are five completely different approaches to jazz, from five completely different players. Each of them connects with the very basic traditions of jazz, but from there, their interests in jazz develop in completely separate ways.

Some of them prefer to stay rooted in tradition, and some can’t think of anything worse. For the amateur and semi-professional ensemble where players are limited by who is around, this poses an interesting dilemma to the bandleader: who to pick for what ensemble? For the professional ensemble (i.e. those at the very top of the jazz ladder), it’s easy to work towards a common goal, but it takes a lot of work to get there.

For the rest of us, who have been thrown together, it’s always a compromise. Someone wants to take the tune in one direction, and someone wants to take it in a completely different direction.

These different approaches can make a gig fascinating, eye and ear opening, and a revelation… or a complete disaster, with musicians so far apart they can’t bear to work together. And to think that some people find jazz boring!