"How Jazz Works"
by Bill Anschell
Bill is a fellow pianist and also
a unique humorist. Visit his site for more information and for
his other writings!
List of Characters:
Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied
theory, harmony and composition in college. Most are
riddled with self-doubt. They are usually balding. They should
have big hands, but often don't. They were social rejects
as adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy
soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with
singers. If you talk to the piano player during a break, he
Bassists are usually not terribly smart. The best bassists come
terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and
rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist
will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass
players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are
always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during
a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not
Drummers are radical. Specific personalities vary, but are
always extreme. A drummer might be the funniest person in
the world, or the most psychotic, or the smelliest. Drummers
are uneasy because of the many jokes about them, most of which
stem from the fact that they aren't really musicians. Pianists
are particularly successful at making drummers feel bad. Most
drummers are highly excitable; when excited, they play louder.
If you decide to talk to the drummer during a break, always be
careful not to sneak up on him.
Saxophonists think they are the most important players on
stage. Consequently, they are temperamental and territorial.
They know all the Coltrane and Bird licks but have their own
sound, a mixture of Coltrane and Bird. They take exceptionally
long solos, which reach a peak half way through and then just
don't stop. They practice quietly but audibly while other
people are trying to play. They are obsessed. Saxophonists
sleep with their instruments, forget to shower, and are
mangy. If you talk to a saxophonist during a break, you will
hear a lot of excuses about his reeds.
Trumpet players are image-conscious and walk with a swagger.
They are often former college linebackers. Trumpet players
are very attractive to women, despite the strange indentation
on their lips. Many of them sing; misguided critics then compare
them to either Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker depending whether
they're black or white.
Arrive at the session early, and you may get to witness the
special trumpet game. The rules are: play as loud and as high
as possible. The winner is the one who plays loudest and highest.
If you talk to a trumpet player during a break, he might confess
that his favorite player is Maynard Ferguson, the merciless god
of loud-high trumpeting.
Jazz guitarists are never very happy. Deep inside they want to
be rock stars, but they're probably too old and overweight. In protest,
may wear their hair long, prowl for groupies, drink a lot, and play
too loud. Guitarists hate piano players because they can hit
ten notes at once, but guitarists make up for it by playing as
fast as they can. The more a guitarist drinks, the higher he
turns his amp. Then the drummer starts to play harder, and the
trumpeter dips into his loud/high arsenal. Suddenly, the
saxophonist's universe crumbles, because he is no longer the most
important player on stage. He packs up his horn, nicks his best
reed in haste, and storms out of the room. The pianist struggles
to suppress a laugh. If you talk to a guitarist during the break
he'll ask intimate questions about your 14-year-old sister.
Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods.
They are placed in sessions to test musicians' capacity for
suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it
surreptitiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles
in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper
critic describes her singing as "...jazzy."
Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns "My
"Summertime," and "Route 66." Her training complete,
on a campaign of musical terrorism. Musicians flee from the
bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full
fury of the jazz universe.
The vocalist will try to seduce you -- and the rest of the audience--
by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking
you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP!
make your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you
during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during
a break, she will introduce you to her "manager."
Picking the Tune
Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one. That's a
fundamental concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with jazz
group processes. Tune selection makes a huge difference to the
musicians. They love to show off on tunes that feel comfortable,
and they tremble at the threat of the unknown. But to pick a tune
is to invite close scrutiny: "So this is how you sound at your
Hmm..." It's a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes
no one wants to pick a tune, and sometimes everyone wants to pick
a tune. The resulting disagreements lead to faction-building and
under extreme conditions _ even impromptu elections. The politics
of tune selection makes for some of the session's best entertainment.
Example 1: No one wants to pick a tune (previous tune ends)
Trumpet player: "What the hell? Is someone gonna to pick a
Trumpet player: "This crap is so lame. I'm outta here."
(Storms out of room, forgetting to pay tab). Rest of band
(in unison): "Yes!!!" (Band takes extended break, puts
drinks on trumpet player's tab).
Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election and
eventual tune selection (previous tune ends)
(Pianist and guitarist simultaneously): "Beautiful Love!"
Guitarist to pianist: "You just want to play your fat, stupid
Pianist to guitarist: "You just want to play a lot of notes
Saxophonist: "'Giant Steps'?" (a treacherous
Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.)
Guitarist and pianist (together): "Go ahead,
Trumpet player: "This crap is lame. 'Night
in Tunisia'!" (a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities
for loud, high playing.)
Saxophonist: "Sorry, forgot my earplugs,
Maynard." (long, awkward silence)
Pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player
all turn to drummer: "Your turn, Skinhead."
(Drummer pauses to think of hardest possible
tune; a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play
Trumpet player: Screw this! I'm outta here."
(Storms out of room. Bartender chases after him.)
Trombonist: "Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?"
Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions
that will last all through the night.
(As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart
diagramming the shifting alliances. You can also keep statistics
on individual tune-calling. Under no circumstances, though, should
you take sides or yell out song titles. Things are complicated enough
already with jazz musicians.)
© 2001, Bill Anschell. Used by permisssion
of the author
©1998 -2006 JAN STEVENS
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