Jazz Etiquette in the 21st Century

(from the March/April issue of Chicago Jazz Magazine)

One of my first lessons in socialization as a young jazz musician came when I was around fifteen years old. After work one evening my mentor/employer who was twenty years my senior (a gentleman named Weldon Irvine) offered to take me to a jazz club to show me how to “sit in”. That being my first time hearing the expression, I had no idea what he meant, but trusting him led me to believe I needed to find out. So I called my parents, got their permission and off we went through New York City.

It seemed as though he knew exactly where he was taking me and we wound up at a jazz club/restaurant on the East Side. A piano player was playing there with his trio—a guy named Al Haig. I’d heard of him before. He had played in the groups of the great Charlie Parker. I’d listened to him on records and read about him in the album liner notes. During a set break, Weldon approached the bandstand and had a brief conversation with Mr. Haig. Weldon had planned for us both to join in and had brought along his melodica (the hand-held keyboard with an attached mouthpiece that’s blown into to produce its sound).

Well, apparently Al didn’t like the melodica but approved of the guitar, and the message was sent through Weldon to send me up to the bandstand on cue. I really don’t remember many details about my musical experience that night. I guess I felt welcomed and relatively comfortable—as comfortable as a fledgling jazz musician could feel playing alongside a veteran with a legendary connection. I played well enough, however, that he invited me to sit in with him on a nightly basis and shortly after that he offered me some paying gigs.

So I learned very early on about the procedures and protocol involved in this common behavior that takes place among jazz musicians. For the student or aspiring musician, the experience can bring about opportunities to observe, to learn by doing and to experience rites of passage; but most of all, sitting in should offer all participants the chance to enjoy jazz’s unique musical and social dynamics.

It has always been the case that jazz serves to provide a mix of social functions, being all at once an art form, entertainment and a reason for gathering in fellowship among its players and followers. There has always been a hearty social aspect attached to jazz music that has allowed it to soar far beyond the boundaries of the provincial to reach its international status. Great music has the power to traverse great distances, aided by word-of-mouth and press about its players and their special qualities and contributions. This is what inspired the motion and evolution of ragtime, the earliest form of jazz, moving it far beyond its small heartland towns, like Sedalia, Missouri, to become a national phenomenon. This grass roots form of communication is still a most important way for jazz musicians to establish their reputations amongst themselves.

The art of jazz, even in its earliest times, was one that was inspired by public displays of skill, personal and interpersonal challenges and healthy competition. The stories about “cutting contests” in which early twentieth century jazz musicians used their instruments to debase one another and defend themselves is more than likely folklore, preserved as such more for dramatic effect than factual data, and misses altogether the feeling and spirit that was probably prevalent on the bandstand. In my thirty years as a jazz musician, my observation has been that during “jam sessions” the feeling of camaraderie, fraternity and community far outweighs any ego-based, fear-driven behavior. And among the upper echelon of musicians, a good musical workout, social enjoyment and respect for and validation of each other’s artistry and accomplishments are among the chief purposes of sitting-in on someone’s set. The audience fortunate enough to witness one of these stellar occasions is usually thrilled by the excitement in the air and in the music.

In this era of diminished opportunities in jazz, “manufactured” jazz status and every other detrimental affect that a corporate mindset can possibly create, it stands to reason that the camaraderie, fraternity and community among jazz musicians could be threatened. However, there is nothing positive that can come from giving in to a fear-based mentality. If musicians’ reactions to the talents of their musical brethren are guided by fear and jealousy rather than by respect and admiration, then the spirit of that musician is in trouble. Similarly, if its musicians are primarily motivated by personal aggrandizement rather than by the quality of the music with which they associate, then I believe that the jazz that they make will suffer.

Although it’s difficult to separate the ego from the idea of performing, it is necessary to do so if one seeks to give a most honest performance. To attain the greatest truths in art, other, more subtle and important aspects of creativity must be our inspiration. There is something at work in jazz that is more important than individuals or personalities—even (especially) our own. In order to maintain the best in jazz, I think that the measures needed are, in large part, to simply continue doing what the best before us have done: honor jazz’s past; within that framework and one’s current environment, develop as much musical skill, vision and imagination as possible; be humble and brutally and dispassionately honest about our musical capabilities and of our place in music, and apply those same standards to our peers. Our honesty with one another is needed where quality in jazz is concerned, so that the deception that has already begun to riddle our art, coupled with the all-inclusive, mealy-mouthed fear that we as musicians and jazz lovers pass off as political correctness doesn’t render our beloved art unrecognizable.

The bandstand, the domain of the musicians, is where the young jazz musician cuts his teeth. Hopefully for a young musician, eventually the invitation to sit in comes at the behest of more skilled, experienced or accomplished musicians. An offer such as this on the more elite bandstands means valuable lessons, or further entry into, and solidified establishment as a respected member of jazz society. There is simply no greater compliment, endorsement, or encouragement than to have “graduated” to and through these experiences in the real world of music. Careers are launched, personnel discovered and relationships formed by musicians sharing the music and their bandstands with one another.

The bandstand is often the most precious offering that a musician can make to a fellow musician. Under normal circumstances, a jazz musician should consider it a compliment and an honor when asked—especially by those that they respect or admire—to join or be joined on their bandstand. Ultimately, it is the bandleader’s decision as to who is allowed to participate on their stage on a given night. The choices they make can speak volumes about their taste, acumen and the musical persona that they wish to present to the public. And the musical consequences, whether immediate or proximate, are, at times, unimaginable.

There are times for me as a bandleader when the social blueprint of jazz’s past supersedes everything else I might have planned on a given night. Somebody walks into the room… and regardless of what is happening musically at that moment, I know that a jam session will be occurring shortly—whether immediately, after a tune or two, or on the next set—a jam session is imminent. That somebody is usually someone that I wish to hear play and that I think others should hear play. Whatever the case, I’m now planning to have some fun with the new arrival. It doesn’t matter if I’m not happy with my playing that evening. I’m not afraid. Maybe this person will infuse some new life or energy into me and I’ll feel and sound better. It should be FUN. Together, we’ll bring out the spirit of jazz that we already share, even if we’ve never played together before. In fact, that’s even better—perhaps a new friendship will be forged. And what if I’m the one being seated in the club? Well, I can only hope that someone will ask me, “Where’s your horn?”…and that I’ll be inspired to join them.