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 admin'.
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
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 account.
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 behaviour.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 they 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
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 cannot lose.
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 hat.
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
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 Book.
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 written in.
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 desire.
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 played.
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
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
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 outcome.
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
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 - its the way that you're due it".