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!

3 thoughts on “The Case for Vibing”

  1. Nice article. As someone who committed quite a few vibable offences recently while playing as a replacement bassist with a guitarist way above my level, I can speak to the fact that a) getting vibed sucks, and b) it makes it really clear what you need to work on. Always getting a medal for participation feels good, but isn’t very helpful in the long run.

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