As far as the general public is concerned, a jazz musician's life
consists of but three parts; playing, sleeping and drinking. Such
a notion is certain to cause intense indignation among musicians,
whose sole thought upon reading such a statement is likely to be
"I should be so bloody lucky!".
It cannot be denied that many well-known musicians have achieved
this heady state of Nirvana - some have even managed to achieve
it on stage - but for the rest of us the business of music is a
hard, arduous slog.
And so with this in mind I present another article in the Jazz Etiquette
series, this time devoted to the fripperies that surround the actual
playing - in the hope that it will both provide an insight into
the gruelling life of a musician and serve as a useful guide to
those who wish to better navigate the treacherous waters of 'musical
I have taken the liberty of assuming that the reader is au fait
with the more mundane aspects of the subject, of which there are
many, and have instead focussed on but five issues that are likely
to cause the most consternation. If you find this guide rather too
advanced I can recommend a couple of excellent publications which
I'm sure you will find most illuminating. The first is "The
Idiot's Guide To Getting Up In The Morning" and the second
is "Now I'm Up, What Do I Do?" This latter book is not
to be confused with the similarly-titled "Now It's Up,
What Do I Do?" - which is a rather different book altogether...albeit
useful in a very, very different way.
I shall begin with the issue that seems to be responsible for the
most stress and vexation - the business of finding other musicians
to take one's place at a gig...otherwise known as:
The acceptance of a gig is an honourable bond surpassed only by
the rituals of certain cultures involving the exchange of bodily
fluids (blood, in particular). A true jazzer would sooner sit through
a complete boxed set of Big Brother DVDs or prise their own eyes
out with a salty spoon (whichever is more painful - though I suspect
the former leads to the latter, and makes it less disagreeable)
than miss a booking they'd taken on.
However, life often deal unfair blows - or sometimes a better booking
- and musicians occasionally find themselves genuinely unable to
make a gig. In such cases they may be obliged to find a replacement,
known as a 'dep', to cover the gig.
As with all aspects of the trade there are rules that should be
adhered to, and in this instance they relate to the date at which
the gig was accepted and the subsequent date of 'deppage'. As very
few jazz gigs are ever booked very far in advance (there being only
three long-standing jazz clubs in the entire world, the rest come
and go faster than a bad kebab) the time scale is, naturally, quite
short...generally a mere week or so.
If a booking from a bandleader is accepted and then rejected up
to five days in advance then it is sufficient to offer your apologies
and the real reason for turning the gig down. No ill shall be thought
of you, and should your reason be a better paying gig you may feel
free to bask in the envy. This may seem like an unreasonably short
amount of time for the bandleader to find a replacement, but jazz
gigs are so scarce and out-of-work (or 'woodshedding') jazz musicians
so plentiful that there should be no inconvenience.
From four days in advance it becomes a little trickier. You may
still get away with an apology, but your reason will need to be
rather more pressing than the prospect of an extra fiver at the
end of the evening. Acceptable excuses include the chance to play
with a noted musician, an unsightly ailment or pressing family matters
of the "He will be sorely missed" variety. I would strongly
advise against using the old "I've bumped my head and now I
can't remember how to play" excuse, as this is likely to be
met with the comment "So what's new?".
From three days in advance the onus falls firmly upon you to provide
a dep, but there are some important considerations to take into
By far the biggest risk of providing a dep is that they may be
better than you. Although it's perhaps not the done thing for a
dep to usurp a regular member of a band, it nonetheless happens
- so you'd be wise to take this into account. At this stage your
options are wide open, and you need only find a dep who is merely
capable. This will ensure you retain your honour, make you look
like the better player and give the rest of the band someone to
slag off at the next gig. Smiles all round.
By two days in advance you will have lost this option and will be
expected to find a dep of at least your own prowess - and good manners
dictates that the dep should be very slightly better. In order to
prevent being usurped it is quite acceptable for you to tell the
bandleader that the dep has some sort of social problem - such as
the tendency to burst into tears when Giant Steps is called, or
a history of swearing at punters who make requests.
I strongly recommend against the common practice of telling the
dep the gig starts half an hour later than the actual start time,
or informing them that it's a fancy dress gig and the theme is 'tramps'.
Yes, it works - but it's not at all what can be considered sporting
A day or less in advance of the gig and you will have no options
left. You must find a dep who exceeds your skill, and the standard
will rise by the hour.
You may well know many a finer player, but such musicians may not
be willing to go out for the fee offered - so you will have to make
up the difference.
This is a fine incentive to find a dep as quickly as possible, but
if you fail you may end up having to book (and pay for) a celebrity...which
could mean someone like Wayne Shorter appearing with the Des Desley's
Dixieland Desperados at the local church hall "Save our pews"
You could, of course, fake your own demise...but this tends to mean
even fewer gigs.
Turning up to a gig is undoubtedly important, but the business
of selecting your position on stage is even more so - it simply
isn't sufficient to find the nearest vacant spot and claim it as
your own. There are rules to be observed, and several opportunities
to be taken advantage of.
Large ensembles will follow a standard format and you will have
little choice as to where you're placed - the most important members
of the band are placed centrally, the less important ones towards
the edges of the stage - hence the term 'sidesmen'. This is why
large bands composed entirely of notable musicians tend to play
on vast stages, so as to give the appearance that everyone is in
the middle. The less renowned the band, the smaller the stage -
and in extreme cases the lesser members of the ensemble may not
even be able to fit on the stage at all and will have to play from
the wings. In the late, great Sir Charles Birdlingly-Parker's early
days he often found his band booked in at venues with a stage that
simply could not accommodate all the musicians, but he always approached
the problem with typical fortitude by saying "We'll get by
- on a wing and a player".
Smaller ensembles are rather more complicated, and with as few
as two or three musicians on the stage there's clearly a great deal
of scope for choice.
You must first ascertain whether or not there is a singer. Singers
will always take centre stage. This is not for any artistic reason,
rather it's a more practical one - singers are nearly always drunk,
and if placed too close to the side of the stage will often stumble
off out of sight. Keeping them centre stage ensures they remain
visible, on the basis that should they head for the wings they will
only get halfway towards the side of the stage before they forget
where they're going - and will turn around and stumble the other
way instead. They can keep this up all night - which is just as
well as it will be the only thing they can keep up all night.
The next point of deference will be the bandleader, and you can
tell from their choice of position how the gig will likely go.
If they are playing a lead instrument (wind or strings) and take
a forward stage centre left position, the gig is likely to be a
relaxed one - but you should count your wages carefully at the end.
If a forward stage centre right position is taken you had better
take care not to play any bum notes and keep an eye on whose round
it is at the bar.
If they are not playing a lead instrument and take either of these
positions you will not be getting many solos that evening and you
will probably be paid by cheque (in the post, naturally).
There's little point in asking why this is so, it's simply one of
those things that just 'is' - in the same way that a plumber's "I'll
be right round" means 'sometime after next week'.
Where you stand also has an impact on what you might be required
to deal with during the course of a gig. At the most extreme a front-of-stage
position may mean having to dodge empty beer bottles (at least you
hope they're empty...), but it's rather more likely that it will
mean having to deal with punters - which brings me neatly onto...
Dealing with requests
On the face of it this seems like a perfectly innocent practice;
a member of the audience approaches the bandstand during the course
of the gig and asks if the band will play a particular number.
Why then does it strike terror into the hearts of the stout and
seasoned jazzers across the continents?
In order to answer the question, and perhaps provide some suitable
solutions, we must first examine the dynamics of 'the request'.
The first thing that must be understood is who knows what.
It will be clear that you know you are a jazzer. It will be clear
to the other members of the band that they and you are jazzers (although
there may be some disagreement on this point). It may or may not
be clear to the host that you are jazzers, though this is largely
dependant on the venue. If playing in Billy's Jazz Emporium there's
a fair to even chance that the proprietor knows you're a jazz ensemble
- but if playing at a private function you cannot assume that this
will necessarily be the case.
This is why it's helpful to include the word 'jazz' in your band
name. It's all very fashionable, I'm sure, to be called something
like "Chord Monkeys" or "Ombo Sure", but such
monikers leave tremendous room for misunderstanding. Keep it simple,
and stick to names such as "Baz Quiggly's West Coast Jazz Gathering
- That's Jazz, Like The Stuff You Can't Whistle Along To".
Lengthy, I'll admit - but surely informative.
All of this, however, is to no avail to the average punter - who
may not even know what jazz is. This may lead to your being accosted
by a punter who requests a wholly inappropriate number.
As much as there are rules pertaining to the playing of requests,
there are also rules for punters - and they are as follows:
Should they wish to request a number they should approach the band
while they are halfway through a number.
Their request must be given to the busiest musician - for preference
the one playing a solo or singing.
They are unlikely to be heard over the band playing, so they must
shout into the player's ear.
They must avoid requesting any number that could possibly be played
within the context of the band's musical genre.
To sum up then, you are likely to be accosted eight bars into your
hard bop solo by a punter who shouts in your ear "Can you play
something by Britney Spears?"
This is the point at which your response must be carefully considered.
Should you shake your head and say "No!" you will be ignored.
The punter will merely assume you are unable to play the number
because you do not know it. The fact that you would rather boil
your own head in chip fat than lower your musical standards is of
no consequence, and will only lead to the punter attempting to sing
the number to you. When this fails to work, as it invariably does,
the punter will simply reel off a list of equally inappropriate
numbers - and will not stop until they get to "Hotel California",
which could take quite some time.
From the audience's perspective it now appears that a punter is
having an informal chat with one of the musicians, and this will
encourage others to join them. Not only will you soon be plagued
with yet more requests, you may also be engaged in casual conversation
as punters vie and jostle with each other to tell you what instrument
their granddad played.
Clearly then, an outright refusal is not the way to go.
The best practice is to agree to play anything that's requested,
no matter how bizarre - the immediate effect of which is that the
punter will retire from the bandstand and leave you in peace. You
must now rely on said punter partaking of so many alcoholic beverages
that they forget about the request. This usually happens.
On those rare occasions where it doesn't you may later be faced
with an irate (and now slightly or largely drunk) punter complaining
that you haven't played their request. There are several solutions
to this embarrassing problem, the most common being to assure them
that you will get round to it shortly. This does rather tend to
rely on them getting even more drunk though, and the closer to the
end of the evening you get the more you might be wondering how good
they'd be at fisticuffs.
A slightly better solution is to tell them they you played the request
earlier and that they must have missed it when they left the room.
Very few people can make it through an entire gig without requiring
a visit to the loo, and if the punter appears intoxicated you can
be sure that they will have made several such visits...though if
the punter looks like they might be about to wet themselves then
it's possibly not the best excuse.
A rather neater trick is to announce that the next number is by
the requested artist. It can be any number you like, the more obscure
the better - but you must preface it with an announcement to the
effect that it's a number written by them early in their career
or is from their soon-to-be-released album. It is vitally important
that you thank the punter for requesting the song, inform the audience
that he or she is a huge fan of the artist and get them to stand
up to take a round of applause.
This will ensure the punter never again requests a number at a gig
- or will be so thrilled as to buy the band a round of drinks. You
You may have noticed other bands appearing to play requests, apparently
with some pleasure too.
This is a very advanced technique, known as 'flooding'. The principle
is simplicity itself. Every three or four numbers the bandleader
will announce the next number as a request from a fictitious punter
("This one's for Frank/Betty/Mr & Mrs Sputum/Table 5...").
This allows the band to play through the set list as planned. Any
real requests can be dealt with easily by saying "Sure, we'll
put it on the list...but we have a LOT of requests to get through
tonight". Care must be taken not to play any song requested,
even it if appears on the set list, as this may result in an observant
punter noting that their unplayed request was made some time before
the one you just played.
A variation on this technique is the 'hat trick', and you will
need, unsurprisingly, a hat - with two strips of blank paper in
it. All requests are agreed to, and at some point near the end of
the gig it is announced that as you've had so many requests and
are unable to play them all, you will pull one request out of the
The hat is brought forward and a piece of paper is pulled out. You
must now pick a number so outrageously inappropriate that no-one
could condemn you for not playing it. Something by the Sex Pistols
is usually a good bet, though Beethoven's 5th will usually bring
a round of laughter. This request can be ceremoniously tossed aside
and the other piece of paper drawn out - and any song you like is
announced and dedicated to a fictitious punter. A roll from the
drums will add authenticity to the ploy.
No self-respecting jazz musician needs to read music on stage,
but from time to time (as we have just seen) you may be called upon
to play less well-known tunes and in such instances you will have
to resort to the ubiquitous 'fake book'.
There are many of these books, none of which agree on the keys and
changes for any given tune.
Over the years there have been many attempts to standardise the
genre, or at least publish a universally authoritative collection.
To date no-one has succeeded.
It is not so much that there is no will to do so, rather it is that
there is no way of making any money from such a grand project. You
may not be aware that there exists but one original copy of every
fake book ever published - the rest are photocopies.
There are a currently seven titles in common use: The Fake Book,
The Real Book, The Real Fake Book, The Fake Real Book, The Really
Real Book, The Really Fake Real Book and the rare but highly sought
after The I Can't Believe It's Not The Really Fake Fake Real Fake
If you don't already own one you will have to find someone who will
sell you a photocopy. Such copies are likely to be covered in corrections
and additions, none of which you'll agree with. Look out for the
prized 'First Edition' photocopy, which has no such corrections
It may interest to you to know that there is shortly to be published
a new fake book which takes a rather different and dare I say refreshing
approach to the thorny issue of keys and chord sequences, and also
deals with the problem of photocopying. Its pages are completely
blank save for the song title and 12 staves of bare manuscript -
the idea being that you fill in the notes and changes as you so
It's called "The Do It Yer Faking Self" book.
It is generally sufficient for just one member of the band to have
a copy of a fake book with them on a gig. There are several good
reasons why this is so. First and foremost is that of the contradictions
among the various publications. It clearly makes sense to use a
single copy, lest everyone start in a different key and play over
entirely different changes. This may or may not make a difference,
depending on the aptitude of the band or the genre of jazz being
Another pertinent reason is most jazz gigs take place in very humble
venues, and the lighting on stage may be very poor - if indeed there
is any at all.
Couple this with the fact that most jazz musicians are of 'a certain
age' and it's quite likely that even with good lighting they can
either see the music or see where their horn is - but not both -
and you may begin to see why it's wise to have just one fake book
and have one band member call out the changes as you go along.
The drummer is usually best placed to do this, once you've explained
to them the concept of 'printed music'. And speech.
Once your performance has been completed to the satisfaction of
all concerned, all that remains is for you and your fellow musicians
to be duly compensated in a remuneratory fashion - viz the dosh,
ackers, spondies, oncers, gelt, readies, sheets, beer vouchers,
filthy lucre...and a host of other less than salubrious colloquialisms.
It is a very curious oddity that whilst it is exceedingly bad form
for band members to demand payment in cash, it is equally as uncouth
for the bandleader to proffer payment by cheque or other notes of
promise unless this was agreed when you were booked for the gig.
Although very few forms of physical violence are considered to be
acceptable in terms of respectable social conduct, in this instance
it is quite the done thing to kick a bandleader in the shins until
such times as they offer to find a local automated fiscal token
dispensatory interface (a cashpoint machine) in order to extract
your wages. You are equally entitled to accompany them, whereupon
you may take the opportunity to further kick them in the shins during
the course of the short journey.
It is considered extremely bad practice to discuss your fee with
other members of the band, as much as it is to ask what another
might have been paid. Should you be so asked it is traditional to
say that you got paid half as much again as you were actually paid
- on the basis that the person who asked you is likely to have 'issues'
regarding the sums paid, and your seemingly inflated fee will give
them much gristle to chew over with the bandleader.
In some instances this may result in fisticuffs, and the canny musician
may make a few extra shillings by running an impromptu book on the
Be aware that some bandleaders operate a scale of fines. For example,
a late arrival may cost you five whole pounds - as might missing
a lead intro or completely fluffing a solo. A poor choice of attire
may well warrant a fine, and a particularly bad tie might cost you
as much as half your wages. In extreme cases you might well end
up with no fee at all - if you turn up late in a shabby suit and
play badly you might find you'd have been better off staying at
home. You can either smarten up and practise or purchase some stout
boots - preferably with steel toe-caps.
It is to be noted that very few bandleaders operate in this way
these days - perhaps because the practice of shin-kicking has become
rather more popular.
And so at the end of this short but surely informative guide I
hope I have shown how a little organisation and some forethought
can make the life of the courteous jazzer slightly less fraught.
It is wise to remember that there is more to the job than merely
standing on stage, and that your performance will be judged from
the moment you accept a gig. As the revered Sir Charles Birdlingly-Parker
put it, in one of his more philosophical moments - "It ain't
what your due - it's the way that you're due it".
If you've enjoyed reading this article, you might
like to hear it narrated by Clay Ryder. If so, check out his site
- where you'll find this article, along with others from the Jazz