An excerpt from
“Do You Know…?”
The Jazz Repertoire in Action
Robert R. Faulkner and Howard S. Becker
How Musicians Make Music Together
Every night, all over the United States and in many other parts of the world as well, this scene takes place. Several musicians walk into a club, a bar, a restaurant, a place for a party. They get their instruments out, warm up, and then without much discussion begin to play. They play popular songs of some kind—the kind varies and the variation is important—for several hours while the audience dances, drinks, eats, and socializes.
These players might never have met, though, depending on the locale, that’s not very likely. It can happen that players in a large city like Chicago or New York haven’t met, but in smaller locales, which do not support so vast a world of casual entertainment, and so contain fewer professional musicians, they probably will have met somewhere, sometime. But even players who know each other may not have played together. More likely still, this particular collection of players may never have rehearsed together and, almost surely, have not rehearsed what they will play on this occasion. But they do just fine, performing well enough for the occasion without noticeable difficulties.
How do several people who haven’t prepared a musical performance nevertheless give one? How can they play together competently enough to satisfy the manager of a bar or the bride at a wedding or the mother of the bar mitzvah boy?
When we decided to study this phenomenon, we thought we knew the answer to that question. We have, each of us, played professionally for many years. Faulkner is still quite active. Becker plays, but not so much and not so professionally. No matter. Having each been in the situation we just described countless times, we “knew” that the answer to how strangers can play together so well is simple: it’s because they all know the same songs. Right? No. Wrong. After our first fieldwork, when we wrote field notes describing what actually happened in such situations, we saw that that wasn’t the answer, because it’s not true. That isn’t how it happens.
What happened more often—not always, but certainly in the extreme case we thought about as exemplifying the phenomenon in its purest form—was that one player turned to another and said, tentatively, “Do you know ‘My Romance’?” The person so addressed might say, “In E♭?” or, perhaps not knowing or feeling comfortable with that song, counter with an alternative: “How about ‘Let’s Fall in Love’?” adding hopefully that it’s in the key of B♭. And so on, until they found something they could agree on and began to play.
Incidents like that showed us that everyone doesn’t know all the songs, that one player knows songs another player may not know, so that which song (musicians prefer the word “tune” and from now on we’ll use the two interchangeably) they play depends on them finding one they both know. Only then can the answer to the question of how they do it be “because everyone knows it,” and we can be sure that it won’t be everyone, because the next time another player may not know the tune these two have just agreed on.
All this takes place “on the stand,” where the musicians assemble and play for an audience. Before we begin a more formal analysis, we want readers to know in more specific detail the kind of place and event we’re talking about. To that end, here are three lengthy descriptions of bands at work, two of them in places we know well. Becker describes a scene from the 1950s, a bar in Chicago where he and his colleagues in the Bobby Laine Trio put together nights of music in a way that could then have been found all over the country. Then Faulkner describes a contemporary scene in a New England restaurant and the very different way he and his colleagues did it in the early 2000s. Between the two we’ve summarized the elegant and detailed description Bruce MacLeod (1993) gave of a typical kind of musical work—the club date—he studied in the New York area in the 1970s and ’80s.
(This is as good a place as any to note that we have used masculine pronouns throughout, because all of the people we observed or interviewed, with a few exceptions that we have noted, were men. The music business is overwhelmingly a male business, almost all the women involved being singers [some of whom play piano as well, often accompanying themselves]. An excellent discussion of this phenomenon appears in Buscatto 2007.)
The 504 Club, circa 1951 (Becker)
It sat just off the corner of 63rd Street, one of Chicago’s longer business streets, and Normal Boulevard, in what was then a white, working-class neighborhood. Like many such corners in Chicago then, 63rd and Normal was a small neighborhood business community, with a complement of retail stores, a couple of small restaurants, and several bars. The 504 Club was, as its gaudy neon sign let you know, the biggest bar on the corner and the only one whose license let it stay open until four in the morning (five on Saturday night); the others all had to close at two (three on Saturday night).
The back room of the bar filled up on busy weekends but otherwise was empty at night. During the day, it housed a thriving handbook, which took bets on horse racing and may have provided a sizeable share of whatever profits the club made. A door at the back led to a storeroom holding the bar’s liquor stock, which consisted of twenty or thirty cases of something called “Old Philadelphia.” Whatever the customers thought they were drinking, and no matter what the label on the bottle the bartender poured from, they were drinking “Old Philadelphia,” which the bosses poured through a funnel into empty bottles of Seagram’s Seven Crown and other local favorites.
The big boss, Joe Contino, was a small-time hoodlum who claimed to be the uncle of a well-known accordion-playing pop star (and he might have been). Joe wore expensive suits and had a (sort of) dapper air. His assistant, Ralph, did the dirty work, filling the bottles with Old Philadelphia and taking care of the horse-racing business in the afternoons. Joe had an “arrangement” with the local police. I didn’t know the details, but I did on occasion see him quietly handing a police officer a roll of bills.
We played from a revolving bandstand in the middle of the long oval bar in the front room. It was just big enough to hold a small upright piano, a drum set, the saxophonist, a bass player if we had one and, early in my stay with the band, a trumpet player. Long-term, the band was a trio: Bobby Laine, tenor saxophone, singer, and leader; Howie Becker, piano; and a succession of very good drummers. Bob had been a pilot in WWII, and had lost an eye in combat. I was in my early twenties, had just finished a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago, and was wondering whether I wanted to be a sociologist or keep on playing the piano. I had studied piano with Lennie Tristano, who later became a sort of reclusive jazz legend, but thought, though I was certainly competent, it was unlikely that I would ever be a great jazz pianist.
We played forty minutes out of every hour. The twenty-minute break was long enough for a drink, a cigarette, even a run down to the corner for a quick hamburger.
We never rehearsed during the year and some months Bobby Laine and I worked together. We just got on the stand and played, one tune after another, for forty minutes. Bobby would call a tune, I’d play a four-bar introduction (eight bars if he needed to adjust his reed or something), and we’d start. He’d play a melody chorus and sing the second chorus, I’d play a somewhat more improvisatory chorus, and he’d finish with a last melody chorus. One of us might play two choruses now and then. Sometimes we played medleys: Bob would play a tune, I’d play another one, he’d play a third one, I’d do a fourth, and so on until we got tired of the tempo. Sometimes he snapped his fingers to set the tempo for the next song, sometimes I just started playing at whatever tempo seemed right to me. We did not discuss keys, we just played whatever we were going to play in the key we had played it before.
Sometimes one of us, usually me, wanted to play something we hadn’t played before. If I had a written version I’d bring it, but more often I just played it and then taught it to Bob by playing the melody behind him until he had it. When he wanted to play something I didn’t know he’d give me some specific indications (key, perhaps the nature of the harmony), but mostly I picked it up by trial and error.
The tunes we played came out of our shared background of songs that “everyone knew,” from a more specialized selection of Irish songs and other material that might appeal specially to the crowd in that club, and from various sources of written music that we referred to when we needed to play something we didn’t already know. In addition, I used to insist that Bob learn to play and, especially, to sing (he was a better singer than saxophonist) tunes I thought interesting, which I got from records and elsewhere.
Bobby sang, in addition to a variety of popular songs (and unusually for an Irish American of that day), blues, especially when he could work in some dirty lyrics. But he also did well with ballads and show tunes, and I undertook to enlarge his repertoire by teaching him the kinds of less-well-known songs in which I was becoming expert. He liked learning songs from what later came to be called “The Great American Song Book”—the tunes by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Arlen, and other composers now greatly admired. And he was also ready to pick up less-known ones, especially if the lyrics were a little suggestive. So, for instance, we often did “Do It Again.” But the tunes didn’t have to be dirty. I also remember teaching him “Walking My Baby Back Home.”
Patrons of the bar sometimes made requests, which we did our best to ignore. They had trouble addressing us up on our revolving bandstand but could catch us during intermissions, asking for songs we usually reflexively decided we didn’t want to play, although occasionally one of them redeemed himself by buying us a drink.
Mostly, however, the customers, busy drinking and socializing, ignored us completely. This amused Bobby, who tested his strong conviction that they didn’t know what we were doing by making strange announcements from the stand: “We’re having a big party here Saturday night and, if you can’t come, just send the money,” for instance. No one paid any attention to this or any of his other remarks, and for the most part completely ignored the blues lyrics and the changes he made to the lyrics of popular songs (“Little White Lies” became “Little White Thighs” and “I Only Have Eyes for You” turned into “I’ll Open My Thighs for You”).
There’s a practical question here. How could we be playing all this stuff in a bar full of working-class people on Chicago’s southwest side? They weren’t aficionados of the Great American Song Book. When they made a request it was likely to be one of the standards we didn’t much like, pop tunes of the twenties like “Melancholy Baby.” We did that and tunes like it, assisted by a singing bartender who had become a fan of ours and used to follow us from job to job, turning up behind the bar in whatever tavern we were playing in, belting old-timers out in an authentic working-class style. He described himself as an “Irish tenor,” had a good voice, sang in tune, and knew what key he sang things in, all of which made him pleasant to accompany (and it couldn’t hurt to be on good terms with the bartender). His repertoire was limited to old favorites: “Angry,” “Jealous,” and some Chicago specials like “Back of the Yards” and “Heart of My Heart.” We welcomed the diversion that accompanying him provided.
Once in a while someone would look up, puzzled by the more or less sophisticated repertoire we were playing. But mainly we just provided background noise for customers’ drinking and socializing. That’s how we got away with it.
As the night went on and the crowd got drunker, we tired out. Playing in a bar took a lot of energy, and around one o’clock fatigue competed with boredom to cause our playing to deteriorate (in Bob’s case, his drinking contributed to that result). I would find myself falling asleep at the piano, though I never lost my place and continued to play (I sometimes lost my place when I woke unexpectedly and realized I didn’t know what I was playing, what key we were in, or where I was in the song).
Playing such long hours, we would start to repeat ourselves, forgetting whether we had played this or that song already that evening. We tried to play without those repetitions, which meant that we played (calculating three minutes per song and 7 × 40 or 280 minutes a night) something like ninety songs a night. Our constantly changing repertoire was larger than that, but ninety represents the minimum we knew and more or less had to know to get through a night. I can’t even guess what the total of different songs we played during a week was, because we didn’t repeat ourselves completely from night to night. Even so, we often got bored, playing the same songs over and over (which is how it felt to us), and that led one or the other to suggest new tunes.
Joe, the boss, took an active interest in how well the bar did, and that created some difficulty for us. He often complained that, yes, the people in the bar were all drinking, but look at what they were drinking: “Beer!” When I asked him what he wanted them to drink, he said he wanted to see a bar full of people drinking scotch. That was pure fantasy; he couldn’t have sold a case of scotch in that part of Chicago in a year. But he did fire us a few times so that he could try out groups he thought would do better for him: a Gypsy band one time, and an all-girl band (as they were called then) another time. This wasn’t what the customers wanted and, after business fell off enough, he hired us back.
We played at a number of other bars on 63rd Street and elsewhere in Chicago: a bar farther west owned by an inexperienced proprietor who spent his receipts taking people (us among them) out to after-hours joints and got so far in debt that he finally robbed his own bar and the attached liquor store and went to prison; a club on Michigan Avenue across from Al Capone’s old headquarters in the New Michigan Hotel; and other places in similar parts of town. We picked tunes to play the same way in all of them.
New York Parties (1978, as Described by Bruce Macleod)
Bruce MacLeod’s ethnography of club date musicians (MacLeod 1993, especially 42–86 and 188–200) in the New York area in the 1970s and ’80s describes a quite different scene. What follows summarizes (and occasionally quotes from) MacLeod’s description of the typical setting in which these players worked, the kind of music they played, and how they played it, especially from his fieldwork in 1978; we’ll return in a later chapter to his findings on the changes ten years brought to the business. (Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in MacLeod’s book.)
Club date musicians played for private parties: weddings, debutante balls, bar mitzvahs (an important component of the music business in New York City with its large Jewish population), banquets, and parties given by charitable organizations or corporations. They provided background sound and played for dancing. Bands consisted of as few as three or four players to as many as twenty. MacLeod notes two astounding features of their performances: they played continuously for three or four hours, and they played what seemed to be complex multipart arrangements without any written music or rehearsals, even though some, perhaps many, of the players had never played together before. “The actual personnel in a bandleader’s ensemble for one night could be quite different from the same bandleader’s group on another night” (18).
Leaders watched the party guests, especially the dancers, to see what they liked and danced to, and shaped the evening’s music in response. Most songs were played in medleys, which were
rarely prearranged. Without referring to written music, the band members switch from one song to another following signals from the bandleader, and the signal for the next number may come only during the final measures of a song. The musicians learn which songs are part of the medley only as the medley is being played.… The medley format is used for nearly all the repertoire, not just a small portion of it. Generally speaking, if the band begins a song suited to one particular dance style, it will segue to at least one or two similar songs before moving on to another rhythm. (37)
Leaders picked songs guests would recognize, avoiding obscure songs or musical styles and “in the course of a four-hour party, a band will play sixty or more individual songs, covering a wide range of dance styles and musical genres” (39). The leader expected players to know these tunes and play them from memory. Many musicians knew this repertoire because they had played in big bands, in town and on the road, and had learned the songs (often including harmony parts) by playing them from stock arrangements. In addition, standard phrasings came to be widely known (we put it that way because no one seemed to know who was responsible for this development, it “just happened”):
Each song in the repertoire came to be phrased in a style that was more or less standard throughout the club date business, a style reminiscent of the phrasing used by the larger swing bands. Lead trumpet, saxophone, and violin players became responsible for keeping the phrasing as standard as possible so that other musicians in their sections could anticipate the correct phrasing from previous experience. (47)
Musicians didn’t always agree on phrasings, producing some rough spots. But, as one player told MacLeod, “Don’t forget—we’re not making recordings, and we do not need perfection. All we need is about 90 percent. That’s enough because people are not listening to the music critically.… If sometimes I might play a phrase differently from another man, it’s not that critical. As long as we’re together most of the time.” In other words, the bands don’t need written music because, in the party situation (as in the 504 Club), no one pays that much attention to them (49).
How much music did these players have to know? MacLeod kept a careful list of every tune played at nine events where he made observations, 520 songs in all. Of course, many songs were performed at several of these events, but “to have performed at all the affairs in the sample—not an entirely unlikely occurrence—a musician would have needed to know approximately 292 songs.” And, he concludes, “within each area of the business, then, there is a general repertoire with which all experienced players are familiar.” The list of tunes played covered seventy years of American popular music, from “Heart of My Heart” (1899) to “Love Me Tonight” (1969) (63).
Musicians bring to the job, in their memories, all these songs, plus a knowledge of each leader’s idiosyncrasies and ways of organizing a set and an evening. They know that one leader, having picked a tune made popular by the Glenn Miller orchestra, always follows it with another Glenn Miller tune, or always follows a song from “Hello, Dolly” with a song from “Cabaret.” They also bring to the job the ability to improvise harmony parts, so that four saxophone players who don’t know each other can improvise chorus after chorus of four-part harmony on tunes in the repertoire. (Pages 7286 describe what players bring to the job in great and astonishing detail, with excellent written-out musical examples.) MacLeod demystifies this feat:
The harmony parts generally move in parallel motion to the melody throughout the piece. The baritone part does move in contrary motion at times, but according to other horn players whom I interviewed, this is exceptional. Normally, the fourth saxophone part… doubles the melody at the octave below.… None of the parts strays very far from chord tones.… Sticking to chord tones may produce a very conservative harmonization, but it at least ensures that the harmony will be acceptable and that individual parts will not conflict. (81)
The Egremont Inn, circa 2007 (Faulkner)
The Egremont Inn is, according to Zagat, a “classic New England Colonial inn” with guest rooms and a spacious dining room and bar. The innkeepers, Steve and Karen Waller, take pride in their chefs, food, award-winning wine list, and their music policy. Steve, a jazz fan, hires the best musicians he can to play in the dining room next to the bar, which serves customers waiting for a table, having dinner, or just having a drink while listening to live jazz, a piano-bass or guitar-bass duo, or a piano-bass-trumpet trio. The Wallers are proud of their commitment to jazz.
The trio I play in consists of Jay Messer (guitar), me on flugelhorn and cornet, and Dave Santoro (bass), who joined the group when the former bass player got sick and couldn’t commit to the gigs Jay had scheduled at the Inn, Castle Street, and several other venues in the Berkshires, western Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
We play facing the dining room, with the long bar off to our left. The comfortable, rustic-feeling room, with an oak and walnut floor and a large oriental rug, has a warm sound. Guests pass in front of the band as Steve escorts them into the dining room, to their tables.
Karen Waller, very sensitive to sound levels, worried about hiring a trumpet player as an addition to Jay’s guitar-bass duo. I guess some owners, like Karen and Steve, have had bad experiences with trumpet and tenor saxophone players who take the gig, as one of them ruefully told me, “to blow the roof off of my place.” The Inn had a history of cozy duos of bass and guitar or bass and piano players. A horn player, and especially a potentially loud trumpet in the bar and dining room, made the Wallers nervous.
The first time I played at the Inn with Jay, Steve assured me that he loved contemporary jazz, including Chet Baker and Tom Harrell (both trumpet players), shattering my stereotype of owners and managers as philistines, and revealing himself to be a knowledgeable jazz fan. He approached his concern in a low-key way: “We have customers who don’t like the band playing too loudly. I don’t mind an intense band, but you know what I mean.” I told him I understood precisely what he meant, that “playing the room” was an art, and that I could see this was “an intimate setting,” a quiet dining atmosphere. I told him, only half-joking, that I didn’t even like to play loud, preferring to keep things in “a quiet Chet Baker range and mood.” I said, “You won’t be hearing anything tonight above mp [medium-soft], no ‘double f’ [very loud].”
Then I turned to Jay, as he was tuning his guitar, and said, “It’s as if owners and managers see a dangerous weapon being unsheathed and fear the worst for their customers, their club, their business.” Jay said that one trumpet player he worked with at the Egremont Inn played the entire gig with a cup mute in his horn and the Wallers loved him. In the meantime, Dave had tuned his bass, and set up his fancy new state-of-the-art pocket digital recorder on the piano to his right. It was four minutes until seven o’clock.
I had my cornet and flugelhorn stands out of the case at 6:30. Now we got down to business. I pulled the cup mute out of the case, and set up the horns. Jay was adjusting his music stand and I put my folder of music on the right side of his stand; Jay’s pocket watch, which we used to keep track of what time it was, sat on the upper left of the stand; and beneath it Jay had put a three-by-five card on which he had handwritten a list of songs he might want to play that night. I’d seen the three or four cards before but had not examined them closely. I was still busy setting up, but I glanced at it and read the top three entries: “East of the Sun,” “The Touch of Your Lips,” “The End of a Love Affair.” Jay, Dave Shapiro, and I did these jazz standards on a regular basis on gigs in the Berkshires, restaurants and clubs in Vermont and New Hampshire, and ski resorts in the region. We knew Dave Santoro knew the tunes; he’s toured, recorded, and played commercial gigs with the top jazz musicians in New York City.
Three dining room tables were already occupied, and several people were sitting at the bar. Some of these folks looked up from their cocktails. Jay looked over at Dave and said, “East of the Sun,” Dave said, “Sure,” and Jay began playing a sixteen-bar, out-of-tempo introduction, followed by four bars of chord changes and rhythm to establish the tempo of the tune. I played the lead line, quietly. Dave gave me perfect support, with beautiful bass notes, and comforting intonation. I could tell it was going to be a good night. Laughter broke out from the direction of the bar and quickly evaporated, but plenty of conversation came from there too. This wasn’t a jazz concert so not everyone was listening. When we finished the tune, I turned to let Jay know he should take the next chorus. He played three choruses, then I played two, and Dave played two. We took the tune out with me finishing the melody, and ended with a brief cadenza on my part as Dave and Jay held chords for the ending. Marcia, who knows something about musicians, applauded, and so did a few people at the bar who had been listening. The couple in the dining room turned away from one another and responded to the end of the tune tepidly. The reigning matriarch of the larger party at the back of the room applauded approvingly, and that encouraged two others at the table to follow.
Jay said to Dave, “‘Body and Soul,’ we do it as a bossa nova?” Dave said, “Okay.” Jay established a rhythmic figure and Dave immediately started laying down the bass line. After an eight-bar introduction, I switched from muted cornet to flugelhorn and entered playing the melody, in a quiet mood and at a medium tempo.
We followed up with a ballad from the 1930s, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” me playing open cornet in a quasiNew Orleans style; a medium-up-tempo, Latin-tinged “The End of a Love Affair”; a bluesy jazz classic titled “A Walkin’ Thing”; and Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else But Me.” Jay had heard a recording of “A Walkin’ Thing” done by Phil Woods and wrote out an arrangement for flugelhorn, guitar, and bass. He and I have played this tune on every gig we’ve done in the past year. He added “Nobody Else But Me” to our regular list of tunes this week. After hearing a recording by Stan Getz and Gary Burton, he fell in love with it, copied it off the CD, and wrote out a part in concert key for himself and one in B♭ for me. This beautiful and tricky tune has some unconventional melody lines and chord progressions. Dave Santoro had absolutely no trouble playing it and, in fact, took two beautiful choruses before Jay and I returned to play the melody, taking it out. We finished the set with our “break theme,” “Christopher Columbus,” a Fletcher Henderson tune based on the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm,” eventually incorporated into Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and played at a very fast tempo. By 7:50, we had played for fifty minutes, and by eight o’clock the dining room tables were three-quarters occupied.
A dozen people sat at the bar or stood around it. I walked over to a friend of mine, Ronald Oliveira, a lawyer who is very knowledgeable about jazz and has followed Jay and myself to various places we’ve played in the Pittsfield and Berkshire area. He likes the music of Michel LeGrand and is especially fond of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans recording “Sketches of Spain.” He requested a LeGrand tune, “You Must Believe in Spring.” I told him I’d heard a wonderful recording of it by Michel LeGrand and Phil Woods, and said we would play it. I asked him if he knew the tune “Estaté.” “Estaté” is a new addition to Jay’s list and I was still learning it.
After a fifteen-minute break, we returned to our instruments and I asked Jay if we could play “Estaté” and told him that Ron had requested “You Must Believe in Spring.” Jay said, “We’ll do those later,” meaning that we would do them later in the set, because it’s important to honor requests by supporters like Ron Oliveira. Jay called the Paul Desmond classic “Wendy” for our first tune. Dave Santoro didn’t know the tune that well, so Jay pulled out the sheet music for it and put it on the stand for Dave to read. He counted off the tune, setting the tempo, and we alternated playing the melody line, back and forth. I took the first solo and two choruses. By a quarter to nine we had played two Cole Porter tunes, “Get Out of Town” and the ballad “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” followed by Luis Bonfa’s “Manhã Do Carnaval” from the film Black Orpheus. Jay wanted to play Charlie Parker’s “Dewey Square,” and he was going to get the music out for Dave, but instead told him what the chords on the bridge were; these were conventional changes, so there was no need to start searching through fake books to find it. I said, “How about the Michel LeGrand tune?” Jay had been working on this tune and pulled it out of a moderately thick folder of tunes sitting in a package by his guitar case. So we were going to play Ron’s request, “You Must Believe in Spring,” which required music for both Dave and myself. Jay took the first solo and, as he was starting his second chorus, several couples began to dance. So we had people dancing, the bar was full, and we were playing the request of a friend who’s also a good customer. No one complained about the band being loud, and some bar patrons had turned their stools around to watch us.
After we finished the LeGrand tune, the question was “What do we play next?” A slow tune was out of the question; we had just played one. I said, “It Never Entered My Mind,” but that was another slow tune, though one of my favorites by Rodgers and Hart. Jay thought for thirty seconds while Dave and I waited. He said, “Let’s do ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’” I put the flugelhorn down and picked up the cornet; Jay counted it off, and I played the melody open, in a traditional style. The bar crowd, or at least a few who were listening to us, liked it. After a couple of solo choruses apiece, we ended with a trumpet cadenza, some fast-note flourishes, and a high note. We immediately heard applause. Jay then called a tune he wrote titled “Concentration,” a medium samba over the chord changes of “I Concentrate on You,” one of my favorites. Jay pulled out the arrangement—the lead line and chord changes with their alterations—so Dave could see it. We played “Never Let Me Go,” followed by “Night and Day” as a fast samba. Jay had been thinking about adding this to his list.
The customers at the bar who were listening seemed to like this one. Others were talking loudly or eating their dinner at the bar, some of them even occasionally seemed to be listening to the band. The band sounded tight and in tune, and it was a good musical moment for everyone. Jay quickly segued into the opening rhythm and chords of the up-tempo “break tune,” and we finished our second set. Dave’s secure and steady time made playing up tempos remarkably easy.
I sat down at the bar, ordered a Coke, and started a conversation with a psychiatrist I know who plays a little trumpet on the side. We met at Castle Street, the bistro and jazz venue in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a few years ago. He likes the tunes we play and likes my flugelhorn sound. He especially liked my ballad playing and wanted me to do some ballads in the next set. Then I checked in with Ron to see whether he had heard the Michel LeGrand tune. He had. I told him we might play “Summertime,” since he was a fan of the Gil Evans-Miles Davis Porgy and Bess album: “I’ll check with Jay.” About that time Jay motioned me to the stand for the last half-hour set, which would take us to 10:00.
Jay called Vincent Youmans’s “Time on My Hands,” for which he had written out the lead sheet three months earlier. We played it at a medium tempo, following the same format we had used earlier: melody statement in the flugelhorn, two or three choruses of jazz on the guitar, two flugelhorn choruses, two bass choruses, trading fours between guitar and flugelhorn, and melody to conclude. Then we played Joe Zawinul’s “Scotch and Water,” which Cannonball Adderley had recorded, a blues with a bridge, Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned” as a medium-tempo tune, with some trading fours between me and Jay, and Benny Carter’s jazz classic “Key Largo.”
There was plenty of noise at the bar and a ski crowd had arrived, with two women who shouted and yakked through the entire set. The men they were with arrived and ordered beers. Soon our band was wallpaper to the group at the bar. We continued with Jay calling “When Your Lover Has Gone,” which has been in our book for a year or so. Jay had introduced his arrangement of it to me, a double-time Latin beat over a slow melody. Jay said to Dave, “This is a slow form with Latin, I’ll set it up,” and he proceeded to play a chorus for us to hear how he wanted it to go. There was scattered clapping over the racket of the skiers. Jay thanked the crowd, introduced Dave and myself, and the gig was over. I went to the bar and Karen immediately came over, asked me if I wanted steak or Caesar salad for dinner, and said, about the noisy customers, “They’re only here one week out of the year, and they’re good paying customers.” I responded, “That’s a good ratio, one out of fifty-two. I hope they pay their bills.” Karen nodded yes. She was pleased with the band and my sound. “I like to play softly,” I told her, “it’s a great room.” She smiled and told one of the waitresses to start the dinner order for the band. The Egremont Inn treats us very well.
We’ve worried over how to describe the kind of musicians we studied (and are and were). Our subtitle, using the word “jazz,” might mislead readers into thinking the book is about famous players like Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. It’s not. But there’s no word in common use outside the music business that accurately describes the people we’re writing about. Becker, writing a master’s thesis in 1949, called them “dance musicians,” but they don’t always play for dancing. We can’t call them “jazz musicians” and be accurate because, although almost all of them aspire to play jazz and would do it full time if they could, their working situation doesn’t allow that luxury. (A few players, of course, can work full time playing nothing but jazz, but that requires traveling around the country to the relatively few venues that hire only jazz players, and probably abroad as well, to hit the international festival circuit.)
The musicians we studied play (to define them by what they do rather than what they don’t do) whatever the people who hire them (the owners of bars, the fathers of brides, the promoters of dances) want them to play, within the limits of their knowledge and abilities. Musicians often describe this kind of activity as “jobbing” or “playing club dates” or similar expressions that refer to playing whatever kind of engagement presents itself. Some musicians might turn down an invitation to play a night with a band that plays for audiences who want nothing but polkas (because they only know a few polkas) but most would probably accept the engagement, believing they probably could get through the night one way or another without sounding disastrously incompetent.
Musicians who play club dates, or “job,” usually have a checkered musical experience, playing a little of this and a little of that, but often can find a niche where they play in more or less one style with people who play more or less in the same style. Nevertheless, over the years, the variety of their experiences means that they have played (and probably learned) a variety of kinds of music and songs, though it’s unlikely that any two of them will have had just the same experiences and know just the same songs.
Having all this in mind, we’ve decided that we can most accurately describe these players by adopting the term used by the excellent French sociologist of music (and bass player) Marc Perrenoud in his book Les musicos (2007), and calling them “ordinary musicians.” That is, players competent in a variety of styles, ready to do what is likely to come up in most engagements, interested in jazz and aiming to play it when they can, but in the end doing whatever the world throws their way. And what we have, somewhat inaccurately, called “the jazz repertoire” refers to the mixture of jazz, popular songs, ethnic music, and whatever else ordinary musicians might learn through their experiences playing in public.