One might assume that to play jazz all you need is an instrument,
a certain amount of technical ability on that instrument and a head
full of ideas.
For the most part this is true - but like a skilled striker in football
you're nothing without the ability to work within a team.
Thus, for the jazzer, there's a requirement to be able to co-exist
with fellow musicians in a performance setting - and your behaviour
can do much to make or break your rise to stardom (or a least a
For most other social occasions there are manuals that can teach
the novice much about protocol - and for various games and sports
that utilise the team structure there are often coaches on hand
to guide the newcomer in the accepted codes of conduct.
I have even seen small pamphlets detailing acceptable social practice
for the use of 'recreational pharmaceuticals', where one is informed
that Bogarting a joint is akin to greeting Her Majesty The Queen
with a shifty wink, a surreptitious goosing
and a "Wotcha Maj!"
But I have never seen any articles that deal with the complex interactions
of the jazz ensemble.
Why should it be necessary?
Well, in most other musical ensembles there's a code of conduct
already built in by virtue of using printed music - you simply can't
break off halfway through the 1812 overture to indulge in a little
free-form improv, it just wouldn't be the done thing - especially
if you were the person in charge of the cannons...
But where the basis of the music is the very notion of improvisation,
clearly there's room for chaos and anarchy if there aren't at least
a few ground rules. You might suggest that other forms of music,
such as rock and blues etc. might benefit from such rules, but these
genres tend to benefit from a degree of unpredictability - and in
the event of matters descending into disorder any such disagreements
can be resolved with a healthy punch-up, more often than not on
stage. This often improves the performance from the audience's point
And so I present a guide to the etiquette pertaining to the jazz
soloist for the benefit of those who possess the wherewithal to
stand on stage and blow over a chorus or two, but lack the subtle
understanding of the social mores that are largely unspoken.
The order of solos:
It must not be forgotten that whilst good manners are to be encouraged
for all musicians, it is sometimes impractical and undesirable to
transplant codes of conduct to this idiom that were developed for
other social aspects.
Consider the act of 'voluntary precedence', by which I refer to
the practice of allowing another person to 'go first' - whether
it be through a door, or to partake in some or other activity (the
'after you' principle).
This matter really only concerns those in the higher echelons (1st
alto and tenor, for example) - those lower down the ranks (2nd alto
etc. and any member of the rhythm section...and baritone players)
are deemed to be 'on the nod'.
Thus, on the advent of a solo it would be unwise to adopt voluntary
precedence on the grounds that it may well result in the first 16
bars being composed of little more than two musicians saying "After
you" - "No, after you, I insist" - "Not at all,
I defer to your good self with pleasure"...and so on ad infinitum.
Clearly this is not at all productive, nor entertaining - and so
a different means of communication is required.
This is known as the aforementioned 'nod'.
Nods, or 'noddies' aren't always nods. Indeed, more often than
not the eyes are used - and a universally accepted code, known as
the Enhanced International Eye Indicatory Overview (the E.I.E.I.O)
is the standard that's followed.
There are many examples, most of which are beyond the remit of this
humble guide - but here are a few of the most common (all codes
are given in the last four bars of the head, or the last two bars
of any solo):
Head down, no eye contact: I am not about to take a
Head down, one eye in contact: I will take a solo unless you
Head down, both eyes in contact: I cannot take this solo, and
will not whatever happens
Head up, no eye contact: I will not take a solo unless yours
Head up, one eye in contact: Your last solo was awful, I'll do
Head up, both eyes in contact: Keep playing, you fool!
Head up or down - eyes shut: Don't stop me now, I'm on a roll!
If you wish to use these codes it's imperative that you study them
thoroughly - the slightest error could have very unfortunate consequences
and cause much embarrassment. For example, the last code mentioned
can be used with eyebrows raised - which means "I cannot play
subtones today, my piles are giving me gyp". You have been
For those of you working 'on the nod' it is sufficient to know that
a single nod entitles you to one chorus of soloing only. You should
only continue for another chorus if given a subsequent nod in your
last two bars. If the subsequent nod is directed at another player
then you have been 'noddied out' and should stop playing.
The musician who is currently entitled to give the nod is usually
the last primary player to have played a solo, and is known as the
Some notes on form relating to solos:
The object of a solo is to enhance the overall piece, whilst at
the same time acting as a vehicle for demonstrating your technical
and artistic prowess.
To this end it's important that the one does not overshadow the
other. Thus, playing a rapid succession of staccato whole tone riffs
to the backing of a deathly-slow ballad, such as "Stardust",
might well do your ego a power of good but will almost certainly
sound like Fats Domino in a tumble dryer to everyone else.
Quoting is a popular pastime, by which snippets of notable solos
or tunes are inserted into your own lines. Do not overdo it.
As a general rule of thumb two quotes per 32 bars is deemed acceptable
provided neither quote is longer than two bars.
A Charlie Parker quote may only be used once in any gig, after which
time the gig has been 'Birded' and no further Parker quotes can
be made. The only exception to this rule is when the same quote
is repeated immediately, though up a third or a fifth. This does
not have to be by the player who made the first quote, though I
should caution you that any such player who jumps in and echoes
a Parker phrase is often known as a 'Birdy Putz'.
Sarcasm is another useful tool, though can tend towards being rather
depressing if not done with caution.
Common riffs include excerpts from "The Star Spangled Banner",
"Rule Britannia", "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and
"Theme From a Summer Place".
In each case the riff should be preceded by a minimum of two beats
rest and followed by a blue note.
Everyone makes mistakes - not to do so is inhuman - and we all
learn, and thus improve, from such errors.
There are various degrees of mistake, ranging from the single error
of playing a wrong (or 'bum') note, through to messing up an entire
change (a fluff) and ending with the complete failure to play convincingly
over chorus (a "dog's breakfast").
How one deals with mistakes is largely down to personal preference,
but it should be remembered that good jazz is based on the build-up
and release of tension - and that an adverse reaction on your part
runs the risk of frightening and embarrassing the audience.
Thus, throwing your horn to the ground and jumping up and down on
it is likely to bring the gig to a complete halt and empty the venue
faster than an announcement over the PA that free sex and beer is
available in the foyer (avant-garde gigs excepted, where such displays
may well elicit a polite round of applause).
'Play it like you mean it' is perhaps the best advice that can
Should you hit a bum note, don't emphasise your mistake by fumbling
around in an effort to correct it - hold onto it, play it long,
play it loud, on the basis that sooner or later the chords are bound
to change behind it and bring it back into harmonic play.
This, of course, might not happen - in which case one should immediately
adopt an expression of pain (thus matching that of the rest of the
band) which indicates to the audience that you are merely suffering
for your art.
A fluff is a little more difficult to recover from, comprising,
as it typically does, a lot of wrong notes over a two or four bar
break. On no account should you stop - to do so is a grave faux-pas,
and in the ensuing silence you are quite likely to hear audible
The best remedy here is repetition, but care should be taken that
such repetition is deadly accurate...and no more in harmony than
the original fluff (you might have to transpose up or down an interval).
Some musicians find this remarkably easy to do, often repeating
the technique throughout an entire solo.
A complete and utter failure to make any changes whatsoever is
perhaps the hardest mistake to recover from - and you had best resort
to irony in the closing bars if you are in any hope of rescuing
This is why it's as well to practice not only your regular patterns
(cycle of fifths, pentatonic riffs, whole tone step ups etc.) but
also a selection of 'ditties' in all keys.
Many an appalling solo has been saved by the timely addition of
the 'Laurel & Hardy' theme or the 'Looney Tunes' playout.
Note that in order to differentiate these riffs from the aforementioned
sarcastic riffs, there should be no rest preceding them and you
should perform a small dance to accompany them (bending one's knees
a la 'comedy British Bobby' in time is often sufficient). If you
are wearing a hat, raise it at the end of the solo.
Should you be lucky enough to receive it, applause should be handled
with grace and dignity.
Holding one's horn aloft and punching the air whilst whooping with
delight is not polite.
The correct response is a small, swift bow of the head - but beware...if
you're a primary player you'll be the Noddy Holder, and a misplaced
nod at this time could result in the baritone player taking a chorus.
Worse still is the practice of 'Muppetting', whereby rapid multiple
nods are taken. This often results in the whole horn section breaking
out in solos, and sometimes the drummer too if you're very unlucky.
In order to avoid this, you should take one step backwards before
nodding - having first nodded in the next soloist.
Following an applauded solo can be tricky - your first four bars
might well not be heard at all over the noise, so don't throw away
all your best riffs at this point.
That said, the crafty musician can pull off what's known as a ride
- whereby a sufficiently dazzling phrase (typically a rapidly repeating
riff in the upper register) can prompt the audience to continue
applauding, switching their focus from the last soloist onto you.
You need to be very brave to pull this off - and go for it with
carefree abandon. If you ride without caution you'll surely get
Tricks, tips and traps:
There are many ways to make your performance as an ensemble more
entertaining, and quite a few ways to even the score when playing
with musicians with whom you may have had previous disagreements.
One of the most popular is the game of 'fours' in which soloists
share four bar breaks with one another.
At its best such a display can be thrilling, as each soloist 'bounces'
off the other's last phrase.
Fours are scored along the same lines as poker (with the last player
to make or break a phrase scoring or losing the points) and the
same terms are used - thus:
A pair - One phrase, repeated exactly
Two pairs - As above, twice, with different phrases
Three of a kind - One phrase repeated twice, octaves apart
Four of a kind - One phrase, repeated three times - a semitone
higher each time
A flush - Consecutive phrases over an entire chorus that the
other player cannot match
A run or a straight - Each phrase beginning on the end note of
A Royal flush - Consecutive identical phrases up an interval,
the last being too high to play
Playing fours provides an excellent way to trap a player.
I spoke earlier about 'fluffs', and the canny musician will have
noted the chord sequence which caused a particular soloist much
difficulty. Should the same sequence come up again (as it invariably
does) in another number, you can call 'fours' - being mindful of
where the iffy sequence comes. By taking or passing over the first
four you can ensure that the other soloist always gets the sequence
they fluffed last time - and much amusement shall be forthcoming.
There's always a place for a spot of 'showbiz' on the stand, and
there are a few techniques that can add to the entertainment factor
on a gig.
One of the most popular is the 'James Brown'. At the end of a particular
number, Mr. Brown would feign weariness and an assistant would rush
onto the stage, drape him with a cape and escort the apparently
frail artist off the stage...at which point he'd throw off the cape
and return to the mic. This is repeated several times.
You too can use this technique - though bear in mind it does require
the assistance of a stage hand (or the baritone player).
It also requires a cape - and as it's unlikely that a jazzer will
have such an article to hand you can use a pork-pie hat.
You may also use a cravat, though I should point out that your assistant
will need to be remarkably adept at tying one very briskly indeed.
The 'Monk' is a technique whereby a single note is played, after
which you should leave your instrument and walk to the side of the
stage. Your return to the instrument (and another single note being
played) should be studied and thoughtful.
You will need a stage of generous proportions; moving a mere few
feet away will give the appearance of your simply having forgotten
where you are in geographic terms and what it is you're supposed
to be doing.
Naturally you will have to make use of an instrument stand, and
it is critical that you do not misjudge the placement of your horn
on it lest it fall to the floor - which somewhat spoils the overall
effect and makes you look like a plonker.
You could, at a pinch, ask another band member to hold your horn
for you - but they might not wholly approve of your actions, and
upon your return may well refuse to relinquish your horn. An embarrassing
struggle often ensues (not good).
Finally there is the 'Kenny G', in which a single note is held,
uninterrupted, for the entire length of your solo.
In order to do this you will need to be proficient in the technique
of circular breathing - but it is (just) possible for the average
jazzer (assuming a 40 a day habit and no more than three pre-gig
pints consumed) to hold a note for a chorus without the use of this
technique provided the chorus is no longer than 16 bars and is faster
Misjudging this trick can have very unfortunate consequences. For
a start you must pick the right note otherwise what started off
as a good note will become a bum, and then you'll be forced to grimace
- which will affect how long you can maintain the note. Dropping
out before the end of the chorus is known as a 'Kenny F'.
Don't be surprised to hear the other musicians swapping bets during
your 'Kenny' - these will be based on the pallor of your face in
the last bar; Salmon pink gets a quid, crimson gets a fiver and
any shade of blue wins £20. If you cough at the end of your
solo you will be expected to stand the entire band a round of doubles.
That concludes this guide to etiquette for the soloist - and I
leave you with the words of perhaps that most influential exponent
of the fine traditions of the courteous jazzer, the inestimable
Sir Charles Birdingley-Parker - "May your solos never go square,
and rot at the edges".
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