Spotting a jazzer

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 …

Published: 8 Dec 2019. Updated: 2 years.

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.”

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The Melodious Crunk column

First published in 2014. In his latest column Melodious Crunk finds waiting around creative, if exasperating. Waiting. It’s one of the things jazz musicians are both very good at, and completely hopeless at. The life of everyone either on their …

Published: 8 Dec 2019. Updated: 2 years.

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First published in 2014. In his latest column Melodious Crunk finds waiting around creative, if exasperating.

Waiting. It’s one of the things jazz musicians are both very good at, and completely hopeless at. The life of everyone either on their first gig or their thousandth revolves around a lot of hanging about. For the novice, wide eyed and innocent to the ways of the gig, the waiting is usually filled with terror. Do I have the right set picked? Does the horn player know where the key change is? You can usually spot them at a gig because they’ll be looking over charts or practising a tricky lick without making a sound. They simultaneously can’t wait for the gig to start and dread the start of the gig. At least when the gig is happening you’ll be closer to the end.

For the more seasoned (read: cynical) jazz musician, waiting is managed. The waiting around is filled with complete disassociation from the gig, in the same way that an athlete will sit around before the start of a race telling jokes or listening to some music. Anything to while away the time before the event. Usually it’ll be a case of catching up with other musicians or the week’s events, something in the news. Watercooler talk…and anything apart from the music about to occur.

Then, at the very top, there’s still waiting but this time in hotel rooms, quiet bars, or in the car being transported to the gig. Musicians of this calibre on tour will have a minder or manager who’ll look after their schedules and insist that the venue works to the musicians’ schedule, not the other way around. But still, there’s waiting.

During the tune, the wait continues. It’s not your solo yet, so just keep waiting, and keep comping. But you’re still waiting for the previous solo to finish so that you can wind your way through the same changes as everyone else in a completely different way. Or perhaps you’re waiting for your turn to call the tunes, or your own composition.

‘What could be better than getting paid to play this music you’ve heard on all those Miles records you have?’

This is, of course, a microcosm of the very nature of a career in jazz. You spend your formative years working away at your craft, taking on every gig you can because you love the music and want to learn. I mean, what could be better than getting paid to play this music you’ve heard on all those Miles records you have? But as your career develops, you’re waiting. Waiting for that next big gig. You’re waiting for the phone to ring and for it to be someone new, someone big who will give you your big break into the A-listers. The heavy hitters. The big guns.

For some, the wait is their entire life. The phone doesn’t ring. The big gigs don’t happen, no matter how good you are or how many Lydian dominant scales you practised for five years. But for others, there is no waiting. There’s going out and getting it. Having the bravery to just call musicians better than you and asking if they can do a gig with you. For these people, there’s no waiting. There’s just ascendancy, to the top of their craft. There’s no downtime, because there’s always something to learn, whether it’s practising a tricky run in your mind in the car or reading, listening, studying. For these people, it’s not a question of if, but how soon.

All jazz musicians are moving, and yet waiting. We’re all in transition, and yet hanging around. There’s always something to be learnt from downtime, and the trick is managing it. Waiting is an essential part of being a jazz musician, but a valuable one. For as long as you’re waiting around, you’re still creating, promoting, working in some way or another. And that’s why being a jazz musician is never, ever boring.