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Article by Dean McNeill

IAJE-Canada Article: Etiquette for sitting in on the bandstand: A topic more important than students might think

Recently I have attended a few jazz jam sessions in clubs across Western Canada. During these jams it has occurred to me that many young people sitting in with professional bands do not know some of the basic musical etiquette commonly observed by professional musicians in such situations. I am hopeful our I.A.J.E.-Canada members will feel comfortable passing this article on to their students who themselves are venturing into the realm of professional music making.

First let me make a few observations regarding the various kinds of jam sessions students will likely encounter. The two extreme ends of the spectrum include the private jam session and the public jam session.

Professor of Mythology Joseph Campbell would have likely referred to the private jam session as the creation of a sacred circle. In such a social situation, no bystanders are generally present and the music is created for personal artistic consumption and/or personal pedagogical reasons (as well as for sheer fun!). This is not the type of jam session I will be focusing on here. Rather, I am referring to the public jam session often found in club/restaurant settings where a group of musicians have been hired and guests are asked to play a few tunes with the band.

In the public jam session, often the intermediate level jazz musician (a person who has been bitten by the jazz bug and is seriously working at honing their jazz skills) is keen to sit in with the professional group. Students in this setting are at times nervous and usually have the very best of intentions in mind, learning on the bandstand from more experience players.

While sitting in is a very important part of the musical mentorship process, knowing the extra-musical 'rules of the game' often helps all parties involved to have a more successful social and musical experience.

Below is a list of suggestions which were politely (and sometimes not so politely) pointed out to me when I was gaining such experience as a student. I have also included some of my own thoughts below as well as some input provided by a few colleagues who are full time professional musicians in large Canadian musical centres.

Pragmatically Speaking: The vast majority of employment opportunities in the jazz realm are awarded on a referral basis system. Establishing a good professional report on and off the bandstand is very important if one wants to work in the music business today. Students should become aware of these musical social graces early on in their career.

Know your stuff musically: All points below are moot if a person has not done their musical homework. It amazes me when people want to sit in yet they do not know any tunes. Although this article focuses on the social graces intrinsic to such musical situations, the importance of the following music-specific items cannot be overstated. Ideally, before students play a tune in public they should learn the melody in at least in 3 keys and be able to play it without the aid of any printed music. Students should know all the chords (and the related scales) of a song, and again be able to play all chords and scales without the aid of printed music. Horn players should learn the tune in the standard key or keys. Vocalists should do their best not to be insistent on a specific key (i.e. If a student likes to sing a tune in F# Major, they should also be prepared to sing the tune in least F or G major as well). All students should listen to various versions of the tune as played by seasoned players (ideally, transcribing some music similar to, or the same as, the tune one is learning). Students should practice improvising over the song often. This entire process will take quite a while when getting started, therefore students will need to be patient with themselves. If an individual wants to have a positive experience (fun!) while sitting in, they need to understand that musical preparation is the key!

Do not take music making in public lightly: (i.e. 'Hey lets just all jam and see what happens'). Remember that the musicians in the band are trying to make a living playing music. By in large the public (our musical patrons) can only hear the (singular) sound coming from the bandstand. If a student is making an otherwise good sounding band sound bad, most of the audience will only hear the band sounding bad. Students should not get discouraged however. More often than not professional musicians and audience members alike will be understanding while a student is still getting their musical vocabulary together. However, students need to be as musically prepared as possible when sitting in and need to realize the real-life ramifications associated with people listening to them and others perform music publicly in a club/restaurant.

Do not select repertoire on the bandstand as a guest unless invited to do so. It is always best to let the bandleader decide what song to play next as it is 'their gig' (the bandleader is always right by the way when it comes to all such musical decisions). That being said, students should be prepared to suggest a song or two if given the opportunity. This includes having a key, style, and tempo selected. It is considered rude to jump on the bandstand, even as an invited guest, and start calling tunes/keys/tempos without checking with the bandleader first.

The above suggestions may seem to put the student in a situation of potential conflict. On the one hand students should be well prepared musically before they walk onto the professional bandstand as a guest. On the other hand students should also be respectful of the bandleader's repertoire choices and their organizational jurisdiction. This then potentially leads to the following scenario: What if a tune is called by the bandleader that the student does not know(!)? Fundamentally, both of the above suggestions are still true and the student should simply acknowledge this irony and deal with it as best they can. One solution again is to be as musically prepared as possible (by learning a lot of standard tunes for one). Another is learning to play by ear and learning how to figure out tunes on the fly. These are two very important skills for jazz musicians to develop. Most professional players will ask students while on the bandstand "do you know tune X". If a student knows the song, they are all set. If the student does not know the song, they have 2 options, both of which I would recommend at one point or another in their musical development:

Option 1: When asked such a question, be honest and say no. Keep discussing repertoire suggestions until all agree upon a tune/key/tempo/time signature that the entire band is comfortable with. Take the time to get it right. As well, different musical communities sometimes consider different jazz standards (and related key(s)) as 'standard'. Check the key of the tune about to be played before starting the tune. This precaution will avoid the occasional train wreck (i.e. When various band members start playing the same tune in different keys!). As well, always talk in concert pitch. When learning standards to sit in on I would suggest knowing the following basic repertoire, virtually all of which professionals will know like the back of their hand. This basic list is by no means complete or definitive. It is rather, a point of departure: Autumn Leaves (G-), Stella By Starlight (Bb), 12 Bar Blues (Bb and F, know some melodies/heads as well), Softly as in a morning's sunrise (C-), Have you met Miss Jones (F), There will never be another you (Eb), Green Dolphin Street (C and/or Eb), I Got Rhythm (Bb, or better yet, a jazz tune based on these chord changes such as Oleo, Moose the Mooch, etc.), Minor Blues (C-, I.e. Mr. P.C.), Bird Blues chord progressions, Just Friends (F and/or C), Solar (C-), and Blue Bossa (C-). Knowing even a few of the above selections will be enough to get a student started.

Option 2: Intentionally put yourself on the spot. The student could say that he/she is willing to play the tune just called by the band leader however they would like someone else in the band to play the melody. This puts the student in a situation where they need to fly by the seat of their pants (and 'fake it') in order to make the musical situation work. This is a risky proposition however I have heard some wonderful musical moments, created by necessity, as a result of individuals (students and professionals alike) who have found themselves in this situation. Again students need to prepare, prepare, prepare. This includes practicing playing by the seat of their pants. As well, in this situation I would let someone else take the first solo. This allows the student more time to hear the song form, bass line, and chord progression before they play an improvised solo. With both options, students should try to develop a fair sense of their own current abilities and limitations while striving to stretch themselves musically. If this seems like a balancing act, it is.

Watch the volume: Remember that jazz music (for better or worse) often serves a function of duality in the club/restaurant setting. As a craft, the professional musicians are creating a 'product' (good music) so people will come/stay in the club and spend their money. As art, the musicians are spontaneously creating a work of art (good music) for themselves and for others who are interested in listening to the band. Seldomly are all individuals in a club interested in listening to the band. This is not a value statement, it is the way it is. As a guest who has been asked to sit in, one needs to be respectful of the craft side of things in these settings as well as (obviously) respecting art side of things. If a guest plays too loud, the band's singular sound will be too loud, patrons might ask for their cheque early and/or might not come into the club in the first place if walking by. When this happens, the club owner will not be inclined to hire that band again. Practice playing soft.

DO NOT PLAY TOO LONG!!! The idea for this article became apparent when I observed some students in a club recently play solo after solo, 2-4 times longer than any solo I would play as a guest musician sitting in. Always leave them wanting more(!) both in terms of the length of the solo and the number of tunes one sits in on as a guest. It can be uncomfortable when a band member invites a guest to come up and play and then, after a few tunes, the band wants to return to their set however the guest has overstayed their welcome and will not get off the bandstand. As well audience members and fellow musicians alike would more often than not, rather hear a student guest play 2-4 choruses of a well-constructed solo rather than listening to 8-12 choruses of a meandering, wandering solo. Again students need to be prepared. They need to work at developing a sense of real time also referred to as 'clock time' while on the bandstand, especially while improvising. If a student finds their inner dialogue to include the conversation 'should I play just one more chorus?"…I would suggest they stop playing.

Wait to be invited up on stage and do not take the horn out of the case until then. Such behavior, often motivated by keenness, is considered rude by most professional musicians; to walk up on stage uninvited and/or to get ones horn out or, worse yet, to play a few notes just off stage before being asked to sit in, is rather presumptuous. I always keep my horn in the case until I have been called up on stage, even when I have been invited down to the club to sit in by a band member earlier in the week. I do this because a lot could have changed between when I was initially invited and the actual gig.

Do not abuse the rhythm section. Generally horn players and vocalists sit in more often than rhythm section players. Remember that there are a number of people on the bandstand already. They are not a play-along rhythm track. Students need to play with the rhythm section. They need to ensure to include all rhythm section players in the musical process. Some obvious options/suggestions include trading 4's, trading choruses, encouraging bass, drum and piano solos, including the rhythm section in tune selection conversations and so on. If a tune is getting too long, remember as well that not every person needs to take an improvised solo on every tune.

The Safe Bet: To avoid train wrecks on the bandstand (i.e. when a student ends up playing a tune poorly for a variety of reasons which could have easily been avoided) students should talk to a band member, preferably the bandleader, at a set break. This is also a good time to find out what tune(s) will be called during the next set. The student can then choose what tune(s) to play and perhaps more importantly, what tune(s) not to play if invited onto the bandstand. As well in such conversations, a person can ascertain the general 'vibe' on the bandstand and decide whether or not it is a good idea to sit in at all. 90-99% of the time, professional musicians will be willing to help out and encourage students (just as others helped them out when they were younger!). The professionals want the entire band sound to sound good… their livelihood in fact depends upon it! More often than not, these professionals will let the student/guest pick a tune/key/tempo and will let the student know when in the set, they should come up to play.

Learn the often-subtle visual and musical cues professionals use while playing: For example, make sure to not cut off another musician's solo by starting ones own solo too soon. The power of observation is very useful in this regard. Students need to learn when to follow others and when to take a leadership role on the bandstand as well. For example when approaching the end of a tune, the person playing the melody (this includes the guest) needs to take a leadership role via deciding how to end the tune.

First impressions are lasting impressions: When going down to a club with the intension of sitting it, students should dress appropriately. Ripped jeans will likely project to the audience and perhaps to the band members, that the student is not taking the opportunity seriously.

Watch the noodling: The ability to play little subtle accompaniment phrases behind another who is playing/singing the main melody can be a beautiful musical moment or, if overdone, downright annoying. Students should be mindful to not over-noodle, to coin a phrase, especially when playing a ballad. Most bands already have an accompanist or more (i.e. the drummer, bassist, pianist and/or guitarist, not to mention the person playing the main melody). When getting started, and for the sake of musical transparency, I would suggest students stick with the idea that 'less is more'. When getting started, stick with playing the main melody and improvising a solo.

In the most general of terms: students must always be respectful of the audience and of the professionals who are giving them this great opportunity to learn and to express themselves musically.

• Do not get discouraged!!! After reading the above a few times, the same idea keeps coming back to me. 'Is this article going to discourage students from taking the plunge and agreeing to sit in?" I sincerely hope not! I, and the vast majority of others I am certain, will continue to encourage younger players to sit in on gigs and do what we can to ensure that the experience will be positive for all. We realize that for most students, it is no small task to take the plunge and agree to sit in publicly with professional musicians. It can be nerve racking and it takes bravery, will power, a great deal of preparation, and a love for the music to overcome this stressful aspect of the musical growth process. It is of course, well worth the effort!

If one prepares for such an encounter and the opportunity to sit in on a given night does not present itself the time spent preparing was not wasted. Each student's time to shine will eventually come!!! I've seen this happen too many times to believe anything else. Be persistent. Keep practicing and keep listening to the music.

It gets easier: As one becomes more and more fluent in the language of jazz, the process of sitting in gets easier and the related social graces seem to flow more naturally.

Sitting in is an important stage of one's musical growth. Such experiences can be a greatly rewarding, even life-altering especially in an ideal situation where a student is invited on stage to play beside one of their musical heroes. I would encourage all to 'go for it' and to take the plunge when these opportunities present themselves!

If students follow the above guidelines, they will likely be invited back as a guest again and again. All parties involved will have a good time and the student will project a confident and professional persona both on and off stage.

I sent this article to a few full time Canadian jazz musician friends of mine whom I have the greatest respect for, both musically and personally. Their input was insightful and valuable however I was not able to incorporate all their suggestions here. I would invite our IAJE-Canada membership to respond via the Jazz Bulletin as they see fit.

Dean McNeill is Head of the Department of Music at the University of Saskatchewan. Canadian trumpeter/composer Dean McNeill holds degrees in jazz studies from the University of North Texas (Masters), McGill University (Undergraduate), and Grant McEwan College (Music Diploma). Currently he plays with the Metro Jazz Ensemble, The Saskatchewan Brass Quintet, and the Saskatoon Symphony. His trumpet teachers include, Bill Dimmer (Edmonton Symphony), Kevin Dean (McGill University), Real Mathew (McGill University), Garry Guthman (British Columbia), and Keith Johnson (University of North Texas).

 

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