December 22, 2011

Musical Baggage

Jazz and blues groups who are able to play every gig with the same set of members are rare today. Most musicians play with multiple working groups, and band leaders need to have a roster of accomplished musicians who can fill key spots when their preferred member is not available. When opening the book to decide who to call for any given gig, some factors are more important than others. The finest musician in the area might not get the call if he/she brings with him what I call “musical baggage.”

“Subbing” is taking the place of someone on a combo or big band gig without the benefit of a rehearsal. The musician will want to make a good impression whenever the call comes in. There are obvious requirements for being a good sub, including accurate sight reading, soloing ability, having suitable gear to do the gig (an electronic keyboard and appropriate amp come to mind) and playing in a style that fits the given ensemble. Having a respectable number of tunes memorized is a plus. (When was the last time you saw a blues band on stage with music stands?) It’s important to find your place in the ensemble, especially if you are not the lead player in the section. Often when band leaders are looking for musicians to play in the short- or long-term they have a choice of players who can fill the bill on any given instrument. What makes a band leader choose one musician over another? There are issues that go beyond excellent musicianship and technical skills.

Assuming a choice of four different but equal players on an instrument, why does player B get my first call while players A, C and D might not? For me it comes down to being free of baggage on the gig. Baggage may refer to frequent tardiness which puts the band leader on edge before the start wondering where the person is and hoping there is enough set up time. Excessive gabbing with fellow musicians in between songs is also baggage. It’s more commonly seen at rehearsals, but sometimes it’s demonstrated on actual gigs when as soon as the song ends it’s time to converse with whoever happens to be in proximity. Do they bring inappropriate volume baggage? Players should have the ability to match their volume not only with the rest of the band but also play at a volume appropriate for the room. It’s unpleasant when a band leader has to face a complaint from the club owner at night’s end that the band was too loud. Is the musician versatile enough to play within the context of the music, and does he take care to play in a manner that befits the style? For example, if the player is a progressive jazz drummer who has accepted a rock & roll gig, he should play simply and with a strong groove and not feel compelled to fill every space. The music should be allowed to breathe. Baggage also includes the player with the need to fuss with equipment after every song. There is nothing more annoying than having to wait to count off a tune because the sub on second tenor is clamping on his third reed of the set, in search of the perfect sound. Especially as a sub, the player should be attentive to the band leader, or a subsequent call may not materialize.

A sub might keep in mind that it’s important to know the appropriate attire for the gig, what time it starts, and what the pay will be so as to avoid any awkward situations at night’s end. Though it’s a good time to network and subs may want to have business cards ready, they should be aware of the distinction between making connections and looking like they’re out to steal the gig.

When it comes to subbing, leave the musical baggage in the closet.

December 9, 2011

Nice Guys Finish First

I am not a huge fan of Christmas music (see my posting “Christmas Time is Here,” 11/30/09) but there is no lack of hip holiday jazz. This past Wednesday I decided to spin two hours worth on my weekly WHCL radio show and I received an unexpected gift in the form of some memories.

The Jazz Archive interviewing has focused mostly on older musicians for obvious reasons. These jazz veterans invariably offered wisdom and humor via their stories and a wonderful aura of class. As the years progressed we met with artists from the middle generation. Some were already established, others were paying their dues (a process that rarely ends). Their experiences are surely worth documenting but I found that often the wisdom/class thing had yet to emerge. When I played selections from John Pizzarelli’s CD Let’s Share Christmas and Jingle All the Way by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, I recalled two real-life stories that were not documented in their interviews but are now worth sharing.

My older daughter, Alanna, did her student teaching in New York City in 2002. She’s an instrumental music teacher now, and it’s her personal mission to make music in school memorable for her junior high students. One day she called me from New York City and said “Dad, the John Pizzarelli Trio is playing the Blue Note tonight. Can you get me in?” My kids have this notion that I’m a much bigger fish than I am, but nevertheless I figured the least I could do was try. Not wanting to waste any time, I went right to the top and called Ruth Pizzarelli (John’s mother and Bucky’s wife, who we had met numerous times at Hamilton). Ruth quickly took action and asked for the details about what Alanna wanted (number of guests, time) and said she’d call me back. About ten minutes later she did return the call and said it was all set up, that Alanna and a friend would be guests of the band, and thus not have to pay the $50 per set cover charge.

When Alanna got to the door and gave her name, she was taken to a table where John’s sister was sitting. In addition to the free cover charge, it was also insisted upon that Alanna and her guest receive a free steak dinner, and stay the whole night, not just for one set. Before the gig started, John approached the table dressed as a waiter complete with apron, pen and pad, and pretended nobody at the table knew who he was. Everybody got a good laugh out of it, and John joined his sister and Alanna for a few minutes of conversation before taking the stage with his trio.

After a while, Alanna went into the ladies’ room and called me on her cell phone, breathlessly explaining what John had done, and how she thought it was so cool. So there you go — John made a fan for life and it’s a great story for the kid and me too.

The second story involves my younger daughter Janine, who was fortunate to attend Hamilton at a time when the Archive was actively engaged in the interview process. One day she called and said “Dad, Béla Fleck’s coming to campus. I think you should interview him.” I thought it was a good idea but rather a long shot, as often the more success a performer has received, the less likely it is to be able to get through his “people” (i.e. manager, agent) to get a yes or no. It’s interesting to note that when younger artists come to perform at Hamilton, certain Young Lions feel it is not worth their time to sit for an interview, in stark contrast to the majority of the above-mentioned veterans. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to obtain a “yes” to Béla’s interview once the appropriate contacts were made. All-in-all, the interview itself was a memorable one. Béla seemed to enjoy it, and he provided some welcome insights from a performer who plays — of all unusual things — jazz banjo.

The story here, however, is my daughter’s interaction with Béla that day. She scored the job of escorting Béla from his sound check on campus, to the location where the interview was to occur. It was a long walk across campus, and I was pleased she was going to have some private time talking to him, as it was a job many of her classmates would envy.

The surprising thing about this walk was that Béla didn’t talk about himself at all. He asked questions of my daughter, such as what her plans were upon graduation. Being undecided at that time, Janine discussed her ambitions with Béla. He gave her this piece of advice: “be very careful what you decide to do from here, because that decision will influence the rest of your life.” Janine took this as sage advice. She hadn’t previously considered that her choice for master’s education needed to be judiciously considered, as that decision is close to irrevocable.

Though I doubt Béla remembers the incident, it stuck with Janine in a big way. What he said was practical advice, which every parent appreciates. Janine was happy about her one-on-one time with Béla, and he made a fan for life.

So there are two examples of nice guys finishing first, and deservedly so. The stories speak for themselves. It is nice to know that jazz class is being carried on as more and more veterans leave us.

Béla and John belong to a small circle of accomplished musicians who appeal to multiple generations. They’re among the artists that everyone in our family enjoys, other examples being Nik Kershaw, Eric Clapton and Moxy Früvous.

By the way, if you want some hip Christmas tunes the above mentioned CD’s will fill the bill. John Pizzarelli sings and plays beautifully over superb arrangements by Johnny Mandel, Don Sebesky and other top arrangers while the Flecktones take your well-worn holiday tunes to places where no band has ever gone before. The opening version of “Jingle Bells” is worth the price of admission, and their take on “The 12 Days of Christmas” has a new surprise every four bars, perfect for listeners with a short attention span, like yours truly.

And by the way, Béla, if you’re reading this, I hope you gets lots of residuals off your tunes that NPR so frequently employs as bumper music.