Monday, November 28, 2011

Requestor vs. Musician

The Request. You’re on the bandstand and a napkin heads your way, slightly torn by the pen used to write down the title of a tune. A napkin being walked to the bandstand can stir up a few emotions in a musician. Most of those emotions can be boiled down to a certain wariness. “Will I know the tune?” the musician wonders. Or, “Will I want to play it?” I fall more into the first category. I really don’t think I’ve paid enough dues yet to earn the right to disdain too many requests, so I’m more likely to hope my band knows what the listener wants to hear. And, subsequently, feel proud when every once in awhile we come through. A few years ago, the Southside Aces were playing a wedding reception at the St. Paul Hotel. A man, approximately twenty-three years of age, approached me and told a story of how his girlfriend, just moved here from New Orleans, was brought to tears by the band. I offered the obligatory, “I’d cry too, if I moved here from New Orleans and heard us.” He insisted it was because we made her homesick. Deciding to ignore the potential for more self-deprecation, I thanked him. He then pressed a twenty into my palm. “Do you think you guys could play “The Pearls” by Jelly Roll Morton? It’s one of her favorites.” 

After they woke me from the dead faint I suffered from hearing that a twenty-three year old included “The Pearls” amongst her favorite tunes, I looked at my co-leader, Erik, with a bit of trepidation. It’s a difficult tune, and at the time the band was barely conscious of it, as I had just thrown it into our book. I asked Erik “Do you think we can play ‘The Pearls’?” At first he winced, knowing what might happen if we tried. Then I showed him the twenty. “Yeah! We can play it!” he said with newfound confidence. We brought our transplanted New Orleanian fan to fresh tears with our rendition. Whatever rough spots may or may not have occurred, the young man thanked me as if we had serenaded his girlfriend beneath her window on a moonlit night.

There exists an enormous spectrum of behavior, however, on both sides of the relationship between the Requestor and the Musician. My “Pearls” story is my positive reinforcement for welcoming all requests. But for a musician with decades in the trenches, enough can sometimes be enough. Consider the following famous story. The way I heard it, trumpet man Wild Bill Davison, when confronted with a loving fan shouting “Play Maple Leaf Rag!” purportedly shouted back, “Get your own fucking band!” While I, and most of my colleagues, wouldn’t recommend that as a method of responding to requests, there has not been one musician to whom I’ve told that story who hasn’t expressed knowing admiration for Wild Bill’s billingsgate. His words speak to moments we’ve all experienced. Like I said, I haven’t yet played any of my songs 3,843 times over the course of a long career of handling requests. I think, at a certain point, a musician deserves to occasionally turn one down. Or at least attach provisos to fulfilling them. The famous sign in Preservation Hall for instance:

If you can't read the sign in the middle of our fuzzy picture, it says: "Traditional Request-$2.00, Others-$5.00, The Saints-$10.00" I’ve seen seasoned jazz veterans handle requests as if it’s the beginning of a tense negotiation. Unfathomable calendars: “You know, it’s only been six years since the last time I played that one. I need at least a decade.” The bait and switch: “Bill Bailey”? We don’t really play that one. But we’ll play this other one I think you’re going to love!” Or maybe the band employs a more passive, underhanded route, “accidentally” running out of time before they can fulfill the request. There’s a great musician joke about this. You ask the crowd, “Does anyone have any requests?” Without pausing a single second to wait for an answer, you emphatically say, “Too late!”

Please don’t let me scare you, you who reside in the Requestor Camp, into deciding never to ask for another song again. Let me reiterate, I want to talk to you about the songs you want to hear. Even if the band doesn’t know it, sometimes we end up putting it in the repertoire. Which reminds me of another story, this one regarding New Orleans trumpeter Kid Thomas. At a Saturday dance, he would get requests for songs he didn’t know. If the customer could sing or hum it with any sort of accuracy, Thomas’ trombone player would pick up the melody and the rest of the band would join in. On Monday, Thomas would purchase the sheet music, and the band would be playing the published version of the song by the next week. I’m not promising that kind of instant response, but I’m open to the conversation. 

Should the next time you make a request and encounter resistance, I urge you to pause before cursing a musician’s highfalutin artistic standards. I have seen the dark side of the Requestor as well. One time it wasn’t even about a tune. The very drunken sister of the bride made a beeline for me at the end of the night. No, it wasn’t what you’re thinking. She came to a stop and stood there swiveling in place like she was a drink, stirring herself. She looked up into my face and yelled, “Let me play yer killernet!” (She actually pronounced clarinet, “killernet,” I kid not. I have a witness). I calmly informed her that it was already put away. Exactly like Elaine from Seinfeld, she expressed her disbelief by hitting/pushing me in the chest with both her open palms while expostulating, “Get out!” At least that request was amusing. A more recent story was not, although it has led to this fine lesson.

The Southside Aces play for dancers a lot. There are those dancers who can and want to fly around the floor all night. There are those on the beginner’s side, who need very 
moderate tempos. And there are those dancers who won’t go out on the floor unless it’s a slow dance. Usually, all those dancers are in the same crowd. This was a usual night. 

We began the night like we always do, toward the moderate side for the beginner dancers. We match the tempos of the practice songs we hear during the swing lesson taught just before we play. In this way, the theory goes, the beginner dancers will neither be a danger to themselves or to others. To give a hint of things to come for the more experienced hoofers, however, we gradually build up the tempos over a few songs. On this particular night, I looked out on the dance floor to see that many were still figuring it out, with a little laughing stumble here, a little arrhythmic spin there. But after four moderately paced tunes it was time to rev it up. Just as I was about to stomp off a speedier one, I observed a dancer walking up to the stand. I recognized the body language of someone with a request, I thought, so I waited to see what we could do for her. I was unprepared for what happened next. With nary a how-do-you do she barked, “You need to play faster tempos!”

My jaw hung open a little as both my eyebrows reached for my hairline. Before I could form a response, she turned and strode off. This set the band on edge. This was no way to begin a relationship. Let’s say you’re on a first date and you snap at the unsuspecting person across the table, “You need to talk more about where you grew up!” Check, please! But we shook it off and played. After that one we played an even faster one, a long and burning “Diga Diga Doo.” At this point we felt it was time for our first slow dance of the night. What we in the industry call a “belly-rubber.” “Time to polish your belt buckles.” We turned in a pretty, three minutes worth of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sweet Substitute.” 

Just as I turned to the band to say, “Good work, fellas,” Our new friend’s face reappeared at the edge of the stage. “You need to play faster! I can’t dance that slow!” I was stunned again, but this time not into speechlessness. I demonstrated my own ability to bark: “You need to LEARN to slow dance! If you can’t do it, it’s not OUR fault!” And the band didn’t let it go there, either. A few songs into the second set, Erik said on mic, “During break someone requested a SLOW ONE, so we’re going to play “Smoke Rings” for you.” Then, later still, he raised the price of our CDs “tonight only” just to be contrary. 

In retrospect, the Aces certainly could have comported ourselves with a bit more grace. Of course, if we had it wouldn’t have been quite as funny. I fully understand that a dancer or listener may chance upon four or five songs in a row that might not fully satisfy their needs. Hence the urge of the Request. Imagine, though, how differently the above scenario could have played out. I wouldn’t have been able to solve her problem with slow dances. You don’t need to be romantically involved to have fun dancing a slow one and showing some real beauty out there. All she had to do was walk up to me and ask, “Can you play ‘San,’ or something really fast like that?” If she named a song we didn’t know, we could have still had a conversation about feel and tempo, and I know we would have come through for her. This is true for all of you. One of the best ways to get what you want is if you’ve been in front of us before, and you really liked a certain tune, take it upon yourself to find out what it is and ask us to play it again. Call me day or night! Be it via a quick chat, scribbled-upon napkins and coasters, or discreet twenty-dollar bills, ask for that tune! We will do our best to play something within spitting distance of the bull’s-eye and, as a bonus, with a minimum of artistic grimaces.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The "Shouldknows" vs. "New Orleans Bump"

Lookie here. Let me tell you about one of my problems. Don’t worry, just one. I don’t want to put a strain on our friendship. My problem is not really the worst thing that could happen to a person, though it will be one that roosts with me the rest of my life. A First World Problem, I guess. Maybe I should stop describing the quality of my problem and finally take you into my confidence:

There are too many songs I want to learn.

Please…please…stop crying. Really, I’ll be all right. Here’s what happens to me when I get to thinking. With no exaggeration, there are two to three thousand songs worth a jazz musician’s attention, and that’s even just sticking to early jazz and swing. You might whittle that down to a list that’s merely filled with Warhorses, Chestnuts, songs so old they have whiskers on them; you know, the ones you’re “supposed” to have in your repertoire. “Hindustan,” for instance. Even that list reaches into the hundreds. I’m going to call these the Shouldknows. Because I think it has a nice rhythm. The Shouldknows, however, bring about bandstand exchanges such as this:

Smartypants: “Do you know_______________?”
Heroic Clarinetist Unafraid To Admit His Ignorance: “No, I haven’t learned that one yet.”
Smartypants: “Really? You should know that one.”

There exists not too many more irritating sounds than the sound of that “Really?” It sometimes makes me want to say, “Really? You should know what it feels like to have a clarinet poked in your eye.” One difficulty with Shouldknows is that there can never be a universal list. I would bet that if you compared the repertoires of any two jazz musicians, there would be at least fifty songs that don’t overlap. Not to mention this fairly common scenario: the more songs a musician stacks up, the more the Shouldknows list grows. I admit to feeling a certain responsibility to making sure I know songs like “Hindustan,” but right about the time I get all disciplined, I hear a record that makes me wander off Chestnuts Path. Just take the title tunes of the Southside Aces last two albums, if you want to know what I mean.  Bucktown Bounce and A Big Fine Thing. If there did exist a universal list of Shouldknows, neither of those tunes would be on it. But we Aces just couldn’t resist. 

There are hundreds, thousands of songs that come flying by your ears, worming their way into your noggin, and bugging you until you just have to play them. But assuming we all only have one lifetime to get around to this business, some picking and choosing must be entered into. Let me give you an example of how this can be an overwhelming prospect. I love a lot of Duke Ellington’s music. But the man spent some fifty years writing songs! He has over a thousand of them to his credit! Granted, not every one of them falls into my need-to-play-it bin. I could skip at least seventeen of them and survive. But even if you chopped half of his body of work away, you could spend a good portion of your life ignoring Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and the hundreds of other equal and lesser folk of jazz writing. All so that you could have enough time to absorb all those compositions of that great Washingtonian. You might also, for instance, miss out on Jelly Roll Morton.

Jelly Roll has been occupying my time as of late. This Thursday night, the Southside Aces will be featuring his music at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34. I’ve been listening to his records, playing his music and reading about all his jazz boasting. Jelly Roll immersion? Bakery jokes and more blue material come to mind, but I’ll leave it alone. Anyway, should you decide to plant yourself in front of us, the Aces are prepared to give you Jelly Roll what for. One thing you’ll hear is the debut, in our repertoire, of an evocatively titled piece, “New Orleans Bump,” recorded by Jelly Roll Morton and his Orchestra in July of 1929. I remember about eight years ago when I held the 33 and a 1/3 in my hands and I saw that title. It was the fourth track of side four of a three-record set. On account of my intrigue (what is a New Orleans bump?!) I played it first. That title drew me in, and the recording had me completely sold by the end of the fourth bar, the sound of Harry Prather’s swaggering brass bass making me go, “Oh!!” like I’d just been gut-punched in the soul. In the good way. Thus began a not unusual process I have of letting a tune rattle around in my hat rack for a while. The song was thrown on my ever-growing, I-will-play-that-song-in-my-lifetime-so-help-me pile. That pile is like the human population. Tunes eventually come off the pile, just as people eventually die, but both continue to get bigger and bigger. After a long gestation allowed “New Orleans Bump” to come to term, I arranged it last month. Listen to Jelly Roll's band!

Here’s the deal, though. “New Orleans Bump” is not in the top ten hits of Jelly Roll Morton. Probably not even in the top twenty. If I were a perhaps more responsible bandleader, I would have ushered the Aces into Jelly’s repertoire via those more popular tunes. It certainly would be part of a more solid jazz education for my band mates and me. But, as usual, I spend half of my time ignoring the Shouldknows, and this is, for better or worse, what we have to show for it. From a certain perspective you could definitely say it’s a weakness. I mean, I agree! A lot of these tunes so labeled Shouldknows we, well, should know! But think about this. It’s the year 2011 in South Minneapolis, and you get to hear a live band play “New Orleans Bump.” There’s nothing weak about that! I’m beside myself with anticipation. On Thursday night, however, should you decide to plant yourself next to me, you may overhear a conversation that goes roughly like this:

Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Hey, are you guys going to play “Sidewalk Blues?”
Heroic Bandleader Unafraid To Admit Repertoire Shortcomings: “No, we don’t play that one yet.”
Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Well, you’ll for sure play “Wolverine Blues,” or what Jelly preferred to call “The Wolverines.” 
Heroic Bandleader Continuing, Patiently, To Admit Repertoire Shortcomings: “Nope. Not that one either.”
Jelly Roll Smartypants: “Really? You guys should know that one.”