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Jazz etiquette (Pt.4) - Admin

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 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 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" fundraising shindig.
You could, of course, fake your own demise...but this tends to mean even fewer gigs.

Stage layout

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 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 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 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 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.

Divvying up

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 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 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 at - where you'll find this article, along with others from the Jazz Etiquette series.

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