July 21, 2009

Interchangeable Parts

Fortunately it’s been a busy summer gig-wise, with my own band, various sideman gigs, and the occasional stopping in to hear other local summer concerts and club dates. The last couple of weeks a phrase popped into my head that has to date back to junior high social studies, “interchangeable parts.” The phrase was first coined in the late 1700’s when some enterprising inventors figured out how to create firearms, muskets more specifically, using all the same interchangeable parts in case one part broke. Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame played some role in this invention. Somehow the phrase seems to apply both to my own work and what I see from my fellow musicians.

In this area, and I suspect in most music communities, you first get a gig, then you get a band. Unless you have a working group where you can afford to keep the same musicians employed almost full time, a leader is often required to fill in spots with various players. It all works out in the mix: the parts — whether they be drummers, bassists, guitarists or saxophonists — usually will fill the bill and the gig will go more or less as planned. Every musician, especially a leader, has his A list, his B list, and a C list (that hopefully he doesn’t have utilize). Once they get a gig they start making the phones work seeing if they can line up the best possible quartet, quintet, or big band to fill the date. A common exchange between local musicians might go as follows: “Hey I saw Steve the other night at Tiny’s.” “Oh yeah? Who’d he have with him?” There is mild curiosity as to how it would have sounded, and an underlying question as to what list am I on of Steve’s, as obviously I did not get the call.

Non-musicians may wonder how all this works out. If you think of a sports analogy it might make sense. You certainly could put a basketball team together and play a competitive game if you chose a good center, point guard, power forward, etc. They know how the game works. It may not be a championship team but they’ll be able to make a good showing. But unlike machine parts, the level of filling the spot in the mix will of course vary from athlete to athlete and musician to musician.

What gets people on my A list is not only how well they play. It’s almost a given that they don’t make any list unless they play competently. What determines the designated list is often what they don’t bring to the gig. I call it baggage: failure to be punctual, failure to understand what volume level is appropriate for the job, failure to play the appropriate style. If it’s a Rock & Roll date, playing in a progressive jazz style may impress the particular person who’s playing it (they may be self-impressed) but it will not fit the music. So a lot of things go into why you call a certain person, and obviously the player who plays well and does not carry baggage are those who are hardest to get because they’re on everyone’s A list

This process of filling holes for a gig happens at every level. If you’re an avid reader of LP liner notes, as I used to be and still am, you’ll sometimes notice an odd name in the listing for bands like Count Basie or the Duke Ellington Orchestra. If you knew the band you’d say “what’s that saxophone player doing on this LP?” It could be that the second alto player had a dentist appointment when they made the recording session and he couldn’t get there and they had to call a sub. I recall one memorable exchange with saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who was recently quoted in another blog entry (June 7, “The Power of the Eighth Note”). I noticed Jerry’s name on a Count Basie record, “Hollywood Basie’s Way,” recorded in 1966. There was Jerry Dodgion playing second alto on this recording. Now Jerry Dodgion was never a full time member of the Count Basie Orchestra and I asked him about that. Here is the exchange:

MR: You played on this particular record with Basie [“Hollywood Basie’s Way”].

JD: Oh, that one.

MR: Yeah. Remember that one?

JD: Sure I do.

MR: Nice record. And how did that come about?

JD: Well I knew almost everybody in the band because I’d gone to hear the band so much in those years. And one day Billy Mitchell called me and he said “what are you doing Thursday?” I said “I’m not doing anything, why” He said “well would you like to make a recording date with Count Basie?” I said “that’s why I’m alive.” I mean that’s the dream, I mean unbelievable, I thought that’s never going to happen. Well he said Bobby Plater had to take off, because he was writing a date for Lockjaw that was scheduled at the exact same time so he couldn’t be there, so would I come in and play. I said great. So I got to play with Marshall Royal, with Basie, and that was always a dream too, you know, because [he was] the consummate lead alto player for that band. As Thad used to say, “tailor made lead alto.” That was really a thrill. Wonderful.

I’m positive Jerry did his utmost to act as an interchangeable part, filling the role seamlessly and making sure he stayed on Basie’s list.

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