March 19, 2013

Jazz Etiquette: The Art of Sitting In

My favorite sitting in moment, Fall 2012 at Hamilton (L-R)
Bucky Pizzarelli, Randy Sandke, Monk Rowe, Peter Appleyard.
A musician’s definition of “sitting in” is to participate in a working group, as a guest, usually to play a couple of songs. This usually occurs at the invitation of someone in the band. I have done my share of sitting in over the years, and more recently have been the inviter. The experience can be a valuable learning tool, requiring a player to demonstrate adaptability as well as performance skills.
We should make a distinction between sitting in and a jam session. Jam sessions are loose gatherings of musicians, probably without a set list, often with no defined leader, basically a group sit in. The situation we are discussing here is when an individual temporarily joins an established musical group. Sitting in should not be a complicated affair, but there are definitely some things to do, and not do, when it comes to functioning as a guest with a working band. I’ve listed some below.
DO listen to a group play a few tunes before you decide that you could make a decent contribution. This listening includes observing the chemistry of the group, their volume, the intensity, and the length of the individual solos the members play. This will serve you well if you end up playing with them, as you can become as close to a member as possible. DON’T assume that any particular group will adjust their performance to your style of playing.
Secondly, find a way to introduce yourself and perhaps facilitate an invitation. For instance, if there’s a fellow saxophone player in the group, you might introduce yourself by saying “I really enjoyed your chorus on [insert relevant name] song,” or “your tone on that ballad was really enjoyable.” You may introduce yourself as a saxophonist and see what transpires from there. Don’t take offense if you broach the subject about sitting in first and receive a “no thanks.” There’s more than one reason that a band would not have people sitting in, and it may not be personal.
DO listen for cues from the person who invites you to come up and play. For instance the leader of the group may say, “we’ll call you up during the next set to play a song” or “to play one or two songs.” This wording is chosen on purpose because it leaves them the option — if they don’t particularly like the way you play — to have it end fairly soon. A band leader or band member will rarely say, “come up and play the whole next set with us.” If they don’t know who you are or how you play that is too large a gamble. Your responsibility in this regard is to not overstay your welcome. If a band leader says “come up and play a tune,” and you do so, at the end of that song you should make the motions of exiting, saying “thanks, that was a real pleasure.” At that point you may be invited to play another. If not, everybody’s comfortable with the situation. DON’T stand there expecting to play more when you were invited to play one song.
This is a really important DO: have five to ten songs ready that you have done your homework on, that you know you can successfully pull off. These songs should be appropriate for the genre, whether they be classic jazz, bebop, or blues, depending on the group you are hoping to join. Upon invitation, DON’T get up to the bandstand and, upon being asked the question “what would you like to play” answer “whatever you want,” or even worse, “I don’t know.” If a bandleader is polite enough to offer you the choice and you turn it down you are missing an opportunity. If the leader then calls a tune you don’t know, you will be in the unenviable position of saying, “I don’t really know that.” This is definitely the wrong way to start the experience of sitting in. With blues groups this is somewhat different. Most blues are based on the twelve-bar form, and sitting in can be an easier process. I have played with blues bands where they call a tune that I don’t know, and the guitar player will simply say “it’s a shuffle in G.” A musician familiar with the genre can usually function pretty well in this circumstance. But jazz gigs are different. There’s a standard group of songs that you should choose from and be able to play without a “Real Book” in front of you.
Watch for cues on the bandstand when you start playing. The members of the group will usually give visual or physical cues about who’s going to take a solo, when it gets passed on, if there’ll be trading four-bar solos with the drums, and all those things that go into the etiquette of a jazz performance. If the band has a singer, make sure you DO NOT COMPETE WITH THEM. Vocalists abhor this. Adding unwanted background licks may terminate your welcome. The only exception is in the blues; in those two-measure spots where blues lyrics end and comments are made by horn players or guitarists.
If you’ve been invited to sit in sometime during the set, especially if you’re a horn player, have your instrument out and ready to go. I recall occasions where I have invited someone to sit in and when I called them up they said, “okay, I’ll go out to my car and get my horn.” There goes the momentum. Conversely, don’t stand next to the stage waiting for your cue. Allow the leader to bring you up when appropriate, but be ready.
After you leave the stage, DON’T immediately depart the club. This is rude. Hang out and speak to the members on their break and try to cement your relationship. At this time, it’s fine to offer your business card to someone in the band. You might preface this with “if you ever need a sub or care to make a referral for a gig you can’t do, I’d be happy to give you my card.” Above all, DON’T take this moment to approach the club owner to suggest that your band be booked at this venue. This is a classic attempt at gig-stealing; a surefire assurance you won’t be welcomed into the circle of local musicians.
Lastly, don’t think of sitting in as a competition. The gunslinger mentality that we read about in jazz history books, such as those heady days of all-night jazz jams in Kansas City is mostly gone. In that era, young players would blow into town and set up a confrontation, trying to make their reputation overnight. The object of sitting in now is to introduce yourself to fellow musicians or gain a bit of onstage experience if you are just starting out. If you are prepared and handle it well, it might lead to a gig. Think of it as being a visitor in someone’s home or a guest at a meeting. Make your contribution. Don’t overdo it. Don’t overstay. And lastly, don’t overplay.