Tag Archives: jazz

Vibing, Part II: Vibable Offenses

michelle_stink_eyeWhile I’m in my “not here to make friends” mode (see my previous post, The Case for Vibing), I thought it would be helpful to elaborate by sharing a few examples of behaviors I (and many of my fellow musicians) consider to be deserving of a serious vibe-down. Context (open jam session vs. regular gig with guests vs. sideman gig, etc.) is important, and not all are equally vibe-worthy, but if you engage in any of these actions there’s a really good chance you’ll find yourself on the midnight train to Vibeville. Let’s begin!

  • Losing the form on a blues (bad as a soloist, worse as an accompanist)
  • Losing the form of a tune while reading the chord changes off your phone
  • Texting/sexting on the bandstand
  • Acting like a bandleader while sitting in (e.g. trying to dictate solo order, trading, or other similar micromanagement–this is worse when sitting in on someone else’s gig than on a more chaotic jam session)
  • Not knowing what key you sing a song in
  • Fumbling through the melody of a tune before the tune has started (Either you know it or you don’t. Don’t give it away. Especially don’t do this before the band has agreed on the tune)
  • Noodling behind someone else’s solo (I’m not talking about purposeful accompaniment, although you probably shouldn’t do that either unless you know the person soloing well and know they don’t mind that). Everyone can hear you, especially the soloist, and they will drop a vibe bomb on you when they’re done like you wouldn’t believe
  • Calling any of the following tunes: My Funny Valentine, Summertime, The Girl from Ipanema, My Way, Chameleon, Take Five, Freddie Freeloader (unless it’s your gig, in which case knock yourself out but be sure to get some tips)
  • Calling a tune which the band finished playing less than 30 minutes ago
  • Asking someone in the band “What tune is this?” while they’re playing and you are not (goes double for when you are playing)
  • Calling a tune with a very notey bebop head but then not playing the melody yourself  (piano players, looking at you)
  • Calling an obscure tune (not a problem in itself) but having no backup choice if the band doesn’t know it
  • Cutting off someone’s solo on someone else’s gig
  • Requesting something be played as a funk tune (unless it’s a band which regularly plays funk)
  • Calling the same one or two tunes every time you sit in on every gig (and making the same mistakes every time)
  • Playing many choruses on a tune you obviously don’t know either the changes or the form to, hoping you’ll eventually get it (which usually results in ending your final chorus in the wrong place).  As your high school band director said, practice at home!

But just for fun and in the interest of running the Vibe-o-rail in both directions, here are some poorly-executed vibing behaviors which may result in a serious counter-vibe:

  • Vibing the house band on a gig you’re being invited to sit in on (for pretty much any reason!)
  • Vibing the bandleader on a gig he/she hired you for (sometimes this is indeed necessary, but you better be prepared to never get called again)
  • Vibing someone in the band for not knowing that difficult tune (26-2, Slings and Arrows, Countdown, something by Kurt Rosenwinkel) that you really want to show off on–come on, you can show off on something everybody knows (unless your licks are all for that particular tune! Vibe alert!)
  • Vibing someone for not wanting to play in 7/4 or a weird key at a jam session (unless those are a normal expectation of said session)
  • Vibing someone who’s got a good attitude and is looking for pointers (save your vibes for the truly deserving!)
  • Vibing someone for playing the Miles version of “Well You Needn’t” instead of the Monk version, or vice-versa
  • Vibing your fellow-sufferers on an already awful gig
  • Vibing the band by introducing yourself and saying, “I usually play more modern stuff than you guys” (true story!)
  • Vibing the entire band for not being on your level (maybe that is not the right band for you to be playing with?)
  • Vibing someone for vibing you over your excessive vibing

Got more? Throw ’em in the comments!

The Case for Vibing

Today the jazz musician and blogger Camden Hughes has a post (“Why Vibing is Bad for Jazz“) arguing that “vibing”–the longstanding practice favored by jazz musicians of giving another musician the stinkeye or worse if he or she isn’t making it in one way or another–is never good.

I disagree.

First: I do agree that generally, yes, it’s not good to be an nasty person, and there is definitely a kind of defensive vibing that is unrelated to anyone’s performance and springs from a musician’s own insecurities. This kind of vibing is bad. Being respectful and having a sense of humility about your place in the musical continuum is always a good goal regardless of the situation.

Eye-2But the fact is that some judiciously applied instructional vibing can fulfill the very important purpose of teaching people that this music is challenging and demanding and deserves a level of competence. To elaborate:

Often young players, hobbyists, or even professional musicians from other genres will come into a jazz sit-in or gig situation thinking they are fairly hot stuff due to previous adoring crowds in schools or karaoke bars or their success in non-jazz settings. It is in the best interest of both these musicians and the music in general to disabuse them of this notion (if in fact they are making rookie mistakes) as soon as possible. Why? So they can either a) realize they really need to improve, and do the work necessary to get there, or b) realize they don’t have the  interest or time to improve and would be better off spending their energy elsewhere.

Because you know what’s more bad for jazz than vibing? Bad jazz. I’ve said this before, but the music is ill-served by putting out a poor example to represent the product–when people hear a bad rock band they think, “this band is lousy,” whereas when they hear a bad jazz band they think, “I don’t like jazz.”

So by reinforcing the seriousness required of this music to these players, the overall quality of the product improves and fewer fans are turned off by lousy performances. It can be unpleasant, I get it! I was definitely one of those youngsters with a too-high opinion of myself and have been on the receiving end of vibing many times, much of it well-deserved. But it also served two purposes that made me a better musician: it inspired me to get my ass in gear and get to work; and it helped me get used to the idea that this is just a thing that happens in life and not to lose sleep over it. (This is especially true of the defensive vibing I mentioned earlier–you’re going to run into that. Better to learn to get over it and on with your own work.) It’s also been my experience that a musician coming from the humble/respectful place I mentioned before who screws up will get a kinder variety of vibe than one coming from a place of arrogance.

Now, to preemptively address some objections: “What about when they smashed Ornette Coleman’s horn? Was that good for the music?” Of course not, violence is bad and no, they shouldn’t have smashed his horn. But imagine how Ornette must’ve sounded to those early bands he sat in with–what he was doing was in another world stylistically, so of course it wouldn’t have fit, so it makes sense in the context of the music of that time that he would be treated like someone who couldn’t play. So how did he respond? He found a group of players who could appreciate his vision and started a revolution.

And obviously vibing is not appropriate in all circumstances. In an educational setting, for example, the teacher could accomplish the same goal by just telling the student what he/she needs to work on. But in an age when jazz clubs fill up half their calendar with middle and high school bands, it is worth emphasizing that we as representatives of the hundred-plus year tradition of this music have (in my opinion anyway) a duty to put forth serious, well-executed music (in whatever style we happen to be playing at the moment). Half-assing it should be inexusable for the pro as well as the student.

One more thought: to the idea of “we’re all in this together,” I would say, yes we are, but that doesn’t mean we get to phone it in. It’s nice to say “Anyone can play jazz” but it needs the caveat “if you work your ass off at it.”

In other words: it’s nothing personal, man! You just need to practice! And then come back and try it again.

Don’t miss Vibing, Part II: Vibable Offenses!

Hey, This Is Nice!

DB1408-62_risingstar_tptI am under no illusions that the Down Beat Critics Poll is an absolutely objective affair where artistic merit is the only factor (how would you even do that?)—so I absolutely am not getting the idea that I am in the “top” (whatever that means) 20 non-famous (“jazz famous,” that is) trumpeters out there (since I can think of several even within a few square miles of here who regularly kick my butt all over the bandstand), but still—this is nice!

What I take it to mean is that at least a few people (somewhere between 5 and 27) who know this music very well remembered who I am, and that they enjoyed my playing, when filling out their polls—which in this day of hundreds of jazz records released every month is not something I take for granted.

However, I have to say that I’m pretty sure two very big factors contributing to my cracking this list for the first time were:

  • I released two albums in two years; and
  • I hired a very good publicist to promote them.

I know there are many outstanding trumpeters out there who either didn’t release as frequently, or weren’t able to hire someone to bug reviewers to seek them out in the deluge, and they’re at a disadvantage. The whole publicity discussion is one for another time, but I’ve made my peace with the fact that even though a good publicist can encourage a reviewer to dig through his or her overflowing inbox and give a particular album a spin, it doesn’t guarantee the reviewer will like it.  (As a few reviews I could’ve done without can demonstrate.)

That said, I’m absolutely glad the critics remembered me (even though my last record came out way back in February—practically the stone age!), and I’m especially glad to see so many deserving friends, teachers & colleagues—Evan Francis! Dayna Stephens! Maria Schneider! Reggie Workman! Satoko Fujii! Donny McCaslin! Ben Goldberg! Howard Wiley! Kirk Knuffke! Jacob Garchik! Mike McGinnis!—showing up elsewhere in the poll.  I hope we all get more gigs!

(P.S. For an interesting and very detailed breakdown on how one voter approached the ballot, read this.)

What They Taught Me: Bill Kirchner

Reading Ethan Iverson’s long, detailed interview (does he do any other kind?) with saxophonist-composer-arranger-author Bill Kirchner got me thinking about the valuable things I got out of the arranging class I took with Kirchner, which in turn got me thinking about all the myriad lessons I’ve learned from many teachers/players/friends over the years, and BOOM! A new blog feature idea was born.

So I hereby inaugurate a new semi-regular gig in which I’ll talk about some lessons I’ve learned from a variety of people–some of whom I studied with directly, some I shared the bandstand with, some I hassled for a few minutes in a club, and probably even some who died before I was born. Partly I want to do this to pay tribute to these people and give credit where it’s due, but also I think it’ll be a good way of thinking about my own development, how I got here (wherever “here” is), and maybe reminding myself of advice I may have forgotten, and which might be worth a second look.

So I’ll go with Bill first since he indirectly gave me the idea.

Lesson #1: There Is Some Very Happening Music Out There You Don’t Know About
It is shocking to me to realize, but there was a time I didn’t know who Jimmy Giuffre was. He was just one of the musicians and writers whose records later became touchstones in my development which I was introduced to in Bill’s class. I heard Denny Zeitlin, Johnny Mandel (Bill played us a version of “The Song is You” which felt like the musical equivalent of falling in love with a beautiful woman who then punches you in the brain), Bill Holman, Bill Russo, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, and many others for the first time, and I remember he really got us beyond “Wow, man” and into thinking about how they did what they did. Continue reading What They Taught Me: Bill Kirchner

16 Easy Ways for Jazz to Build Its Audience and Remain Relevant

Stuff like this can really help.

Once again, the Jazz/BAM internet is abuzz–abuzz, I tell you!–with opinions on how the music can grow its audience and remain a culturally relevant art form in the 21st Century. Well, I’m happy to say they’re all wrong! Musicians and fans, just follow these few simple steps, and before you know it, Jazz will be partying like it’s 1959!

  • Provide iPods at every gig so audience members can listen to their own choice of music during the show
  • Bring contemporary audiences in by covering tunes by hot new pop bands like like N’SYNC, The BeeGees, and Scott Joplin
  • Have the band begin the set naked, and offer to put on one piece of clothing each time someone claps
  • Play more standards
  • Take advantage of social media platforms by limiting your solos to 140 notes or less
  • Build a “Jazzyland” theme park in Orlando, featuring thrilling attractions like Sun Ra’s ArKoaster, the GraviTrane, the Tilt-A-Wayne, Jazz Argument! (with Animatronic WyntonBot), Keith Jarrett’s FLIP-OUT! and the Bitches Brew Album Cover House of Horrors, plus exclusive shopping at The Ahmad JaMall and a hot dog stand run by Anthony Braxton
  • Reinvigorate jazz by incorporating elements of rock, hiphop, Salsa, polka, Bluegrass, Tango, Death Metal, Tibetan throat-singing, New Wave, Death Bluegrass, Drum and Bass, Drum and Bass and Mariachi, Thrash Electro-Industrial Housegrass, anything with tubas, the “Dukes of Hazzard” Theme, jazz, and Paul Anka
  • Get every jazz group in the world to play nothing but “Misty” for the next year, over and over, just to cure people of wanting to hear that $@#*%! song (Next year: “When the Saints”)
  • Accrue thousands of dollars in debt getting a degree in jazz from an accredited educational institution–once people learn how qualified you are, they’ll have no choice but to buy your CDs!
  • Book non-jazz acts to headline every major jazz festival in the U.S. for several years, until audiences forget what jazz is–just kidding, that would never happen!
  • Play fewer standards
  • Make the music more palatable to a wide audience by avoiding unpopular elements like improvisation, swing, acoustic instruments, “blue notes,” syncopation, harmony, melody, and rhythm
  • Save yourself the time and effort of practicing by just running “Kind of Blue” through the house speakers while your band pretends to play
  • Start an island colony to raise a new jazz audience from childhood in isolation, exposing them solely to the highest quality of musical influences; watch them grow into passionate and knowledgeable listeners, only to see it all go to hell when a crate of Justin Bieber CDs washes up on shore
  • Stop playing all that noodly stuff–people hate that.

How Not to Become a Bitter White Jazz Musician

UPDATE, 2016: I originally wrote the piece below in response to the specific flare-up which followed Nicholas Payton’s public rejection of the word “jazz,” but the fact that it’s still the most visited page on this site by a long shot, even three years later, tells me these questions are still being thought about, which is good to know (whether you agree with me or not). 

By now you’re aware that there was another jazz blogo-Twitter-Facebook-sphere conflagration this week (they seem to crop up every few months or so like drug-resistant bacteria)–this one in response to a post by accomplished trumpeter and opinionator Nicholas Payton (who is always a good read, whether you agree with him or not). The post that set it off, “Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” is a collection of thoughts covering Payton’s problems with “jazz” as a word and marketing concept and its place in the history of racism in the music, plus a varety of other stuff including silence and whether it’s romantic to be poor (his take: no). It’s all interesting and debatable, but that’s not what prompted me to write today–my problem is the kinds of reactions these sorts of discussions tend to bring up from some white musicians and fans. (There’s that voice in my head telling me to close the laptop and walk away. No? Shit, here we go.)

On the list of topics most white jazz musicians would rather not be talking about, I think issues of race in jazz fall right behind their parents’ sex lives or when the biopsy results are due back. It’s uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons, which is why most of us choose to avoid getting into it if at all possible. It tends to explode the happy illusion that the jazz scene is a harmonious colorblind family where musical achievement is the only metric that matters. If it is discussed, it’s usually among friends in a non-public setting where good faith can be assumed and people can accept some basic facts as givens:

  • that jazz is a music that came out of the African-American community and is a deep part of that culture’s historical identity;
  • that great respect is due to the black masters who shaped it;
  • that those masters were on the receiving end of vicious racial animosity for much of the music’s history;
  • that white musicians unfairly profited from discrimination against black musicians by audiences and the music industry;* but
  • that white musicians also played a role in the development of the music; and
  • that America isn’t yet over these wounds, and people, especially musicians, ignore this to their own detriment.

[*To be clear, this usually wasn’t the musician’s fault! By all accounts Paul Whiteman was actually a pretty decent guy who cared about his musicians, and Chet Baker openly acknowledged that winning a trumpet poll while Clifford Brown was still alive was ridiculous (and I love Chet, but c’mon). But the fact that nobody calls Paul Whiteman the King of Jazz anymore, or thinks the ODJB was acutally “original” is a good sign that history is a better judge than short-term marketing hype.]

But on the internet, in public, things are very different. Anybody with a Twitter or Facebook account can instantly jump into the fray with thoughts ranging from well-thought-out arguments to idiotic name-calling–so after a brief honeymoon (ten minutes? 15?) of respectful disagreement with Payton, sure enough, out of the woodwork came (mostly white) people calling him a racist, accusing him of calling them thieves, etc. This is par for the course in American discourse (see here) but disappointing, since I like to think jazz musicians are a little more attuned to how loaded these issues can be.

But as I said in one Facebook thread which I couldn’t stop myself from getting sucked into (after it followed the standard devolution from reasoned debate to incoherent jazz Fight Club), it’s unfortunately easy for white jazz players to fall into the trap of walking around in a haze of proactive defensiveness, ready to drop Bill Evans on anyone who brings up racism in the music’s past or present.

But to those white players who feel themselves veering toward that defensiveness, I would say the following:

  • The fact is, you are occasionally going to run into people who think you probably shouldn’t be playing this music, or think white people are generally bad for jazz. Some of them may be your friends. Some of them may be your heroes. Some of them may be German tourists who think jazz can only be played in sunglasses. Some of them may know much less about the music than you do. This is just a fact of life and a natural result of the history covered above.
  • This is indeed a drag. Trust me, I get it. It’s a drag to spend your life learning to play a form of music you love, only to know there are people who think you’ll never be authentic because of who your parents are. But:
  • Compared to what the black architects of this music went through over the first century of its existence, this is a pretty minor price to pay. No one is throwing you in jail. No one is making you walk in the back door or use a separate water fountain. There is no vast population of white jazz musicians being deprived of work by inferior black jazz musicians. Being called a thief is a hell of a lot nicer than some of the names I’m sure those pioneers heard on a regular basis.
  • In case you’ve forgotten, being white is an advantage in just about every other area of your life, short of the cost of sunscreen. (In case you need a refresher: see here.)
  • This doesn’t mean you should never respond to a dumb argument or defend yourself, just try to have some perspective and be grateful that you live in a relatively peaceful country and can study music and (God forbid) occasionally get paid to play it.
  • But if it still bothers you and you really want to change peoples’ minds, take a cue from that Bill Evans guy you’re always mentioning and win them over by being a nice and respectful person and playing your ass off.

… WHILE YOU’RE HERE, some other posts to check out:

New York: Jazz Mecca, Economic Hell, Talent Sap?

Over at Mostly Music, bassist Ronan Guilfoyle has some really insightful thoughts about the joys and challenges of the New York jazz scene, its impact on players there, and the repercussions on the US jazz scene as a whole of having such an overwhelming percentage of the country’s best musicians in one place. Since I agree with pretty much all of it, I’m going to just present a big excerpt:

On the one hand there’s an extraordinary concentration of great musicians in a very small area, making for a hothouse creative atmosphere and an abundance of players on every instrument who play on a very high level… On the minus side it has to be said there are just far too many musicians in New York for it to make any sense on an economic level. … The abundance and availability of musicians and the lack of places to play drives the price musicians can charge for NY gigs down to below subsistence levels. … A lot of the New York musicians I know work in (often menial) day jobs that have nothing to do with music, and the reality for them is that they’re not going to get out of that situation anytime soon.

Been there, done that. It’s the biggest reason I left after 8 years–it was painful to be surrounded by so much creativity and yet be so burnt out by a demoralizing but necessary day job that I had very little time or energy left for the music. But that’s not the only problem:

As a jazz scene New York reminds me of one of those huge edge of town malls that arrives in an area and sucks all the economic life out of the high streets of any town within 50 miles of it. Nearly the entire US scene is based there, and this ‘gotta go to New York’ mentality means that it’s almost impossible for a regional scene to hold on to its good players. They in turn all arrive in New York where they have to scuffle and jostle for financial crumbs. … Let’s imagine that say 30 players of every instrument were to leave NY tomorrow and go back to their home cities and expend their energy there and develop their own scenes there, how much healthier would both those regional scenes be and how much better economically would the New York scene be for giving the musicians there a little more economic room to breathe?

I think this does happen to an extent–here in the Bay Area, for example, there are players coming and going from New York all the time, largely for the reasons he mentions above: going there to learn and test their mettle, coming back to have more time for music and feel like a human being again. But as much as I like it here, and know there are great players, how are we supposed to keep good musicians in town when all the clubs are closed and DJs have most of the gigs? Jam sessions are fun (here, I mean–New York, not so much) but they don’t pay, not even for the house band.

I also think he has a point about a higher level of musicians creating a better scene–I firmly believe that having bad jazz played in public is bad for jazz (since any given performance a passerby witnesses is likely to be his only exposure to jazz that year, and if it’s bad, that person will be lost as a potential fan). Of course, you have to play bad jazz before you can play good jazz, and I wouldn’t suggest developing players not be out there working through their shit–just that if there isn’t plenty of good stuff to show people the music’s potential (because most of the best players have already left for NYC, for example), then locals won’t be inclined to go to jazz shows and the scene will wither.

Anyway, lots of food for thought. Anyone agree/disagree? Ideas to rectify this other than (as Guilfoyle jokes) “forced repatriation”?