Monday, January 23, 2006

Tall Jazz

A fine local jazz group is Tall Jazz. This group consists of Dan Presley on bass, Mike Horsfall on piano and vibes, and David Averre on drums. Check them out at

I had the pleasure of watching Dan Presley (and yes, he is tall) doing his bass thing up close on Saturday night at the Fireside jam. He had sent one of his students down to get some practical experience (he was quite good, by the way), and then he decided to sit in for a few numbers himself. It was quite a treat. Dan's playing is strong, fluid, and he's always in control. Plus, his intonation is excellent even in the upper register, which is one of my pet peeves with many string bass players.

That's one of the joys of an open jam -- you never know what's going to happen, or who's going to fall by.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Professionalism on the stand

Here's today's question: What does it take to be a professional musician?

Chops? You bet. You need to practice regularly, listen to those who have gone before and established their voice in the music world, and strive to develop you own voice as a musician.

Good looks? I sure hope not. I am reassured when I look up pictures of Albert Collins, Keith Richards and others. Of course, Chet Baker started off beautiful and ended up looking like 50 miles of bad road. Which brings me to...

Health? It certainly helps if you can stay healthy as long as possible. this may take some effort if you are traveling a lot. Road food and long hours spent on buses and planes do not make for easy good health. If your muse is summoned by ingestion of chemicals, well, that's for you to decide, but I'll say that even though I've met some great musicians that were drug users and alcoholics, I haven't met very many old musicans that were.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about professionalism. I am here to tell you that professionalism is the one trait that can keep you working even if your chops are not the hottest in the county.

I recently met a young bass player whose playing impressed me. I thought I might do a few things to help move his career along -- at least to the limited extent I could. I lined up an audition for him with a working band I knew about that needed a bass player. He showed up for the audition, but failed to bring an amp, assuming that one would be provided for him. Oops - strike one. I also arranged a 3-session gig for him. Not much money, but again, a chance to build his reputation and make valuable contacts. For all three gigs, he showed up late, no call, no apology. Oops - strikes two, three, and four.

The funny thing is that this fellow probably does not even realize what he did. Perhaps he figured, "no money, so no big deal if I blow it off." Later he may wonder why some guy that doesn't play half as well as he does is getting more work.

What is professionalism for a musician? Here are some thoughts. Bear in mind that this comes from the perspective of a bass player:

1. Show up. Plan to arrive at the venue early. Really early, like an hour or two. So, if you get stuck in traffic, or get a flat tire, or can't find parking, or can't find the venue, you'll still have time to get there, load in, tune up, and kick back while you watch the others straggle in.

2. Have your gear together. Do you carry extra strings, reeds, sticks, batteries, picks, cables or whatever your tools are? Why not? These are important components of what you do for a living. Keep your axe and amp in good repair. If you can afford it, have a backup for your axe and amp. If it's a jam or a casual, bring all your fake books, a stand, and a stand light.

3. Learn to read. Yes, many great musicians did not know how to read music. But reading music is like reading in your native language. You will be better for it, and you will work more. If nothing else, learn to read chord charts and rhythmic patterns.

3a. Learn to write. This may sound silly, or even too simple to mention, but you must must MUST bring a pencil with you. Particularly on big-band gigs or commercial gigs where there is sheet music, you will need to mark cues, key changes, imoprtant dynamics, and other things on your page. Of course you should always ask the owner of the music if it's OK to mark it up, and always mark in pencil, not in pen. If the owner says it's OK to use highlighter, go ahead. You did bring a highlighter, didn't you?

4. Pay attention. You are not the only player on the stand. Listen to what the other cats are laying down. Find a way to make the soloists sound good. Involve your ears with their playing, and find where you can fit in. Is the leader or soloist calling for "fours" or "eights" or "stop time?" These things only work if the whole group understands them and responds.

5. Be kind. Not every musician has fully realized their skills and talents yet. You may work with players whose abilities are less than yours. Do your best to help these players do their best. If they are having trouble hearing the chord progression or finding the beat, simplify your playing -- maybe down to quarter or half notes, roots and fifths. Help them find the music going on around them, and they may find the music within themselves. By the way, you will work with musicians who are better than you. I guarantee it. How do you want them to treat you?

6. Know when to shut up. There is a time to make noise with your instrument. That's when the song is being played. And there is a time to be quiet. That's in between songs. Noodling or riffing between songs -- whether on the stand or at rehearsal -- is very unprofessional, and makes for chaos. Don't do it.

7. Don't be a snob. Are you a "jazz player" or a "rock player" or a "bluegrass player?" Do you absolutely HATE some genre of music that is currently popular? Well, it would be to your advantage to get over it. You may love jazz more than anything, but if you're going to be a professional, you need to learn how to play the characteristic styles of many kinds of music, and play them well. There's a reason there are so many genres -- people like different kinds of music. For myself, I HATED disco, and refused to play it. Guess what -- I lost a lot of work.

8. Keep your word. If you say you're going to be there, be there. If you said you'd back up that young singer at her showcase for $10 and a slice of pizza, and then you get an offer of $200 for a corporate gig, what do you do? You keep your word, play the showcase, and enjoy the hell out of that pizza. Because once you get the reputation that your "yes" means "maybe," you won't be first-call anymore. And that young singer -- she might be Diana Krall next year. Wouldn't it be nice to have a friend like that, one you kept your committments to?

I'd be interested to hear how other musicians define professionalism. E-mail me if you'd like to discuss it, or point out how full of baloney I am. That's all for now.