First published in 2014 Melodious Crunk, a keen observer of the scene, explains exactly how you spot a jazz musician
There’s no parking. Lugging in the gear to a stage that’s just a bit too small for a band. Setting up is a bit like pitching a tent in your living room. The keyboard player always the last to get set up, and the front line player who just came from another gig. Some pleasantries, talk of anything else apart from the gig that’s about to happen. Then there’s the music. One of the musicians has scribbled out a chart to a tune that is, at best, vague. Of the two types of worrying charts – too much black on the page, or too much white on the page – this is thankfully the better one with lots of space.
A brief rehearsal of the tune uncovers no clues to the mystery of this new tune. Someone misses the cue for the next section, another consistently plays the wrong chord. That doesn’t bode well for the performance but each of us knows in this situation that we’re all going in blind. Every musician for himself. The idle chit-chat beside the stage before we start to get us into gig mode. Musician X did a rough gig last night – everyone always picks the same first dance at a wedding gig – and Musician Y was doing an equally high paid and low quality music gig. Some jokes, some pints of water, some more brief talking through of the new tune which resembles hieroglyphics.
Someone jokes that they might play it backwards and no one would know. The composer laughs and tries not to take it to heart. The group decision is to get on to the stage and get moving. The count off, the first few notes knowing that the next hour will be a journey we’re all taking together, and each of us getting the opportunity to drive the band to greater musical heights.
‘There’s no place we’d prefer to be than here, in this moment, with these musicians, playing this music’
‘Shall we kick off with a blues?’ Something mellow to get into the gig, get warmed up. No matter how much rehearsal you do the first tune is always a case of seeing how you’re playing that day. It’s laying your cards on the table and hoping you have a good hand. If not, the next hour or two will be constant torture. If so, you’ll be reminded why you do this in the first place. The lead player plays loud and high, his legs bent and his horn angled in the air. The keyboard player plays too many notes with an expression of disgust on nearly every chord. The bassist, eyes closed, swings hard in the corner, locked in with the ever-focused drummer. Everyone takes their own solos, supported unequivocally by the rest of the ensemble. We’re all in this together, so let’s make it as good as we can. A glance here and a nod there provide the only visual clues; the rest is entirely musical dialogue. A sharpened eleventh here and a dotted quarter pattern there give everyone a hook to grab on to, something we can sink our musical teeth into and rip apart like dogs. Nothing needs said as the music reaches a climax. Someone misses a coda. The keyboard is too loud, the bass out of time, the drums skipping a beat during fours. Someone else screws up the form and puts everyone off. There’s a split note here and a wrong note there. Two people talk loudly during the ballad and keep talking between the tunes. There’s a light above the stage shining right into the drummer’s eye and he can’t see the horn player.
And yet, the music swings. None of us are having a perfect journey through this music but we’re all having a fantastic trip. There’s no place we’d prefer to be than here, in this moment, with these musicians, playing this music. Even the tunes that don’t go so well sound convincing. This is jazz, and no matter what happens before the gig and after the gig, this is our music. We’re carrying on a musical tradition that started over a hundred years ago, of music we love and that we’re passionate about. And we wouldn’t rather do anything else. That’s how you spot a jazz musician.”