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
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 repeat booking).
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 of view.
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
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 solo
Head down, one eye in contact: I will take a solo unless you indicate
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 is rubbish
Head up, one eye in contact: Your last solo was awful, I'll do this
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 warned!
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 'Noddy
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
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 be given.
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
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 laughter.
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 your reputation.
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 the clap.
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
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 the
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 than 120bpm.
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 at jazzstreams.org
- where you'll find this article, along with others from the Jazz Etiquette