The most frequently asked question non-musicians ask of jazz artists is how do they know what to play when they improvise. I think the second-most-asked question is how do they know where they are in the song and how do they all come out together at the end. It’s not really such a mysterious thing, but there are messages being sent between band members that audience members might not realize.
The question boils down to how musicians function as a band. How do they know when to stop? How do they know who’s turn it is in the improvisation spotlight? A lot of this negotiation is done nonverbally. Occasionally you hear a verbal command: “take it out,” or counting off the tempo. More often than not, bandstand etiquette for creating a spontaneous performance or an arrangement is done with eye contact and hand signals.
If there are music stands on stage and the musicians are getting up charts to read, you are less likely to see physical gesturing, hand signals, motioning, and spontaneity with instruments. Because the band members are reading charts, order and length of solos will be more scripted. But it’s not unheard of for jazz musicians to literally meet on the bandstand. Typically in today’s market a jazz musician lands a gig and then assembles a band for the date. Some players they may know well, some they may not. The latter is a situation when bandstand signals are more likely to come into play.
Some information we could call defaults: things that are understood unless indicated otherwise. For instance, there’s a collection of standard songs most jazz musicians know. In those songs, standard keys are expected. When someone calls “Misty” or “There Will Never Be Another You,” the musicians expect to play them in the standard key of E flat (the leader may hold up three fingers to indicate three flats). The exception might be if you have a singer on the bandstand, especially a female singer, as most standards were not written in friendly keys for women. So unless you say different, i.e. “let’s do ‘Misty’ in G” (which will get you some raised eyebrows, scrambling for music or some other reaction), you’re going to play in the standard key.
It’s rare that the feel of a song is changed. If you call “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” it’s expected you’re going to play it as a swing/shuffle with a medium tempo groove. In the case of “A Day in the Life of a Fool” or “Girl from Ipanema,” bossa novas is the understood groove. If you want to play “Girl from Ipanema” as a swing tune, you’d better be sure you announce it to the band. (Actually I’m not sure whether that’s ever been done before in music history.)
Other defaults depend on the band’s make-up, but if you have a quartet of piano, bass, drums and a horn, the roles are pretty well defined. The horn (saxophone or trumpet), in addition to usually leading the group, is going to take care of the melody. If the sax player wants the piano player to take the melody at the bridge, he probably will mention it beforehand. After the melody is stated, usually once, it’s time for people to solo over the form, and again it’s expected that the leader, or the wind player, is going to solo first. There’s no particular reason for this, it’s just the way things are normally done. The first soloist is free to play around the form as many times as he wants, and the audience members well might ask how do the other players know how long this is going to be? In fact they usually don’t. But the soloists have a number of things they can do. Most obvious is when they get to the last couple of measures of the form, they play something that indicates they’re done with their statement — perhaps a downward melodic line or a decrease in intensity. It’s hard to describe what this is, but it’s obvious when you hear it. That’s an example of an audio cue. In addition, there’s the physical cue: typically pointing your horn or nodding at the next soloist. It could be something subtle, such as making direct eye contact with the next soloist, or turning towards that person. It’s a handing off of the baton. This is something that experienced band members anticipate.
As a particular solo is coming to an end and the form is ready to loop again, hip rhythm section players are attuned for a change, and they adjust their playing accordingly. A good drummer will probably move his basic cymbal beat somewhere else, to give the music a different flavor as the next soloist starts out. For a piano or bass solo, the rhythm section may come down in volume so as to match that particular instrument. It behooves all the musicians on stage to be aware when this is happening.
Not every tune on a jazz gig will include a bass and/or drum solo, depending on the bassist or drummer of course. (It may be their gig, and if so they may be determined they are going to get solo spots on every tune.) Ordinarily, an extra hand signal/gesture to the drummer is required for a drum solo. After getting the attention of the rest of the musicians, the leader might hold up four fingers and point to the drummer. The translation is: drum solo, but we’re going to trade four measures back and forth. The wind instrument and/or piano gets the first four measures of the form then the drummer gets the next four. It’s a back and forth pattern and the form remains intact. It usually works out because most often you’re playing a 12-measure form. If you go around twice, you’re back at the top where the melody comes back in. If you’re playing 32-bars, something different may happen. Sometimes you trade fours with the drums, and then the drummer may get the whole eight bars of the bridge. That’s another hand signal to the band. It’s similar with the bass although the bass may solo over the whole form.
After everybody’s had their say, the leader may point to his head, indicating to all a return to the head (the melody). They might also point to their head and hold up one finger: we’re going to play the melody one time. If you get to the end of that one time and the band leader then decides it should be extended, you may see a circular motion with his hand — let’s go around again.
And then there’s the tag. A tag is usually the last four bars played three times. The tag can be cued by simply lifting the horn up, or by altering the melody notes, something to indicate we’re adding the tag. There’s a specific chord pattern the rhythm section plays during this tag that musicians call a turnaround.
Most of these things are just ingrained. You don’t go to a book to learn this, you learn it on the bandstand after a couple of times of fumbling — what the heck did that mean — you’re expected to absorb it.
There are some words and signals that are almost becoming a lost art, that I’ve only seen a couple of times from an older generation of musicians. One that really caught my ear on the bandstand is when the then-89-year-old violinist Claude “Fiddler” Williams decided to tweak the form of an A-A-B-A song. It’s typical way to shorten the whole length of the performance. After going through the form a couple of times, instead of going back to the A, you can take a shortcut back to the bridge. So you’d play the form A-A-B-A; B-A. But you have to let the band members know that this is going to happen. So as we were approaching the end of the third A, he said “channel.” I was caught off guard, what is a channel? It didn’t take me long to figure out that “channel” was Claude’s preferred word for “bridge.” Architecturally a channel is not a bridge, but I understood what he meant. If you were lucky enough to have played with Lester Young, you would have heard “George Washington.” That was his preferred word for “bridge.” It’s tweaking the form on the fly.
The more guys on the bandstand, and the more loose the session, the more nonverbal communication you’re likely to see if you look closely. One of the things I was lucky enough to witness over the years with the jazz archive were jazz parties. Veteran musicians are grouped together by promoters to play sets. There is a designated leader, but it’s still a loose organization of guys who may or may not have shared the bandstand before. Here is when nonverbal signals really come in handy.
I saw clarinetist Kenny Davern make a gesture in a jam session with three or four wind players — something I only saw once. When one of the horn players was soloing and the bridge was coming, Kenny, as leader, subtly lifted his right hand, looked at the other horn players, and made what looked to be an “okay” sign with his thumb and forefinger. Three or four measures later the bridge arrived, and all the horn players lifted their horns and started playing long sustained tones — beautiful harmony — as if they were reading music that some hip arranger had written out for them. It then became clear to me what he had signaled. He was telling his fellow wind players to choose appropriate notes from the chord and play long tones softly behind the soloist. As a wind player, if you land on a note that someone else is on, one of you has to make the decision to go somewhere else. If you hit the note that the leader is on, it would be etiquette for you to be the one to move. When the bridge came to the end you would stop and the soloist goes on. Afterwards I told Kenny that I’d never seen that before. He said “oh you mean footballs.” So not only was it a nonverbal communication to play whole notes, it even had its own non-musical phraseology, “footballs.” They were whole notes, but who wants to call them whole notes? “Footballs” was far more hip. I have yet to see anybody else do that, and it’s probably a fossil of a hand signal and if used nowadays on the bandstand, your fellow band members would probably think you were just giving them encouragement (i.e. you guys are doing fine).
Footballs could be called a riff, although a riff is usually a little melodic phrase that’s going to be played behind a soloist. There are two ways to do this. Sometimes you’ll see one of the horn players, while someone else is playing they’ll whisper something in their bandmate’s ear. You might wonder what is being said. It’s possible the musician is singing a phrase (a riff) in the other guy’s ear, indicating that everyone will play this riff behind the soloist when the next section arrives. A decent musician will be able to play it the first time, because they hear it within the context of the song and the chord structure. Or, the leader can play it softly one time to their bandmates, and it is expected that everybody is going to get it, hopefully the first time. That riff then becomes a background figure, almost like an arranger had written it for them, but it happens spontaneously on the bandstand. I had the luck of doing this with Clark Terry on a gig one time. He just turned to us and played the absolute coolest riff you could imagine, expecting us to get it. I remember I didn’t get it the first time, it took two attempts. It was a perfect riff, but not all that simple, because I was playing with a guy who’d been doing this for about sixty years.
Though well known by jazz players, jazz code is not a common vernacular for musicians of all genres. By its very nature, much of jazz music is unscripted. Jazz code enables a professional and polished performance.