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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I don't play free jazz but I'll make you a good price

I am on the mailing list for the McGill goings-on and I was recently forwarded this email from a restaurant in Laval:

My husband and I are looking for music students to Jam at our Cafe located at the Centropolis in Laval.

-Looking for music students for a jam night
-one a week /biweekly or monthly depending on your schedule
-location Cafe Art Java Centropolis Laval
-Style of music : Jazz, Blues, or any other mellow evening cafe suitable music style
-Benefits to be discussed upon contact

If interested please call Reina at 514...

Its clear that this well intentioned entrepeneur couple wants to imbue their establishment with some groovy sounds however its also clear that they don't want to pay a cent for their ambience providers. When the "benefits" are not offered up front that is secret business code for "yeah, yeah sure we'll take care of you".  And maybe that's cool with you to barter beer/snacks for jamming with your friends outside of school.  But before you pick up your cell phones and start looking into the cab fees to get out to Laval with all your equipment I would like the good students of McGill to consider this:

-If you do end up working for these people you will never, never ever get payed as a professional musicians from them.  Once an employer realizes they can get a student to do a job for free they will never relinquish that relationship with you. If you do someday want to ask to be payed a professional wage you will have no leverage and even you will be living proof that a student will do it for free.

- I know it might sound like an ok deal for you now but think about it: in a few years you will be a professional and trying to make a living playing your instrument. Restaurants are one of the types of businesses that you will turn to make some bread (hopefully not literally).  When you play for free as a student you are sending the message that these establishments shouldn't pay for musical ambience and encouraging them to outsource for free. When mom and dad are no longer paying the rent, believe me, this is going to suck.

-Also consider the effect that performing for free will have on you as an artist. First of all the client isn't even looking for a "performance" they are happy with you jamming.  This is starting with a pretty mediocre expectation of the quality of music they are hoping for. This can only influence the attitude that you bring to your performances.  Are you going to just wing it on the gig thinking "why should I prepare anything if it doesn't even pay?" Think about the perception the public will have watching potentially very under-rehearsed music being played.  On the other hand many of you are already performing at a very high level and are only student musicians in name only. What effect will this have on your attitudes towards yourself given the hours of practicing that you've put into you music.

-Finally, speaking as someone trying to get my own bills payed partly through jobbing gigs in Montreal I always sigh a little when I see an example of the erosion of a musician's standard of living. It used to be that we participated in our union (corrupt as they may have been) but the end result was that there was a commonly understood standard of remuneration that a musician could expect. The sad fact is that when I work in a restaurant or do a club date I am getting payed the same amount on the cheque that musicians made 20 years ago.  I realize that I too have been willing to play for less and less and that my elders must have been shaking their heads at me as I set out professionally.  But when will the undercutting end?  I know personally of musicians, very well respected by the community, who have called up booking agents trying to undercut their peers. And this restaurant advertises for a "free" gig (maybe they want to hear Free Jazz?) without even a smidgeon of reserve.  These are dark days for live music and I would just hope that you weigh thoughtfully the consequences of performing for free.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Piano Voicings I: Basic rootless voicings

I have had several requests from people to start posting on piano voicings. This is obviously an important topic to pianists as comping is something we do 90% of the time. There is often something kind of mystical about learning voicings since they can sound complex. Personally I think all piano students should be given these things from their teachers early on so that the student doesn't develop habits that will need to be broken later. The whole business of voice-leading will take care of itself if the students learns just a couple of basic structures and really internalizes them. This will get their ears around the basic jazz voice leading (3-7, 7-3, 5-9, 9-5). Once you hear this it becomes easier to get inside the changes on a standard tune and remember the harmony because the hands will instinctually play the sounds that your hearing without too much thought. I find when a student is struggling to play voicings (especially left hand voicings while soloing) it can really get in the way of the creative flow. But it requires patience in doing a fairly un-creative practice routine until you get to the point of efortlessness and fluidity. Well take a deep breath, suck it up. If you've got a big voicing whole in your playing here are the basics. I guarantee that if you make these chords something your hands can do on their own you will have so much more mental space for your creativity. Here's Part I

Jive Spectrum and the art of "being that"

The blogg-o-sphere has recently been buzzing over comments made by saxophonist and jazz elder Brandford Marsalis about his students. While the controversy over jazz education itself has been raging for years I didn't think we were getting anywhere until this video went viral last year. Check it out for yourself...

It seems the floodgates are open. Teachers and students, young players and veterans, are all beginning to weigh in. Brandford's comments somehow got to the heart of the controversy and in a way that offended most everyone. Being insulted, people are now mustering the energy (courage) to speak out on jazz education, its place in jazz music and, furthermore, the role that jazz music has in our society.

Recently a young student in New York recently posted comments that over-lapped Branford's sentiments: Aaron Johnson

I won't try to over-simply the issues that these two musicians present. Their feelings are as deep and nuanced as jazz music itself. I did want to present these viewpoints to my McGill kids in the hopes of stimulating a discussion (their eyes had recently been glazing-over towards the end of an hour of studying block chords). We put down our pencils, shelved the Nestico scores and I started things off with a question:

"How do you, as aspiring jazz musicians, reconcile the lineage of musicians who were themselves the embodiments modernity, forward thinking, and individuality (even their style of dressing was on the cusp of the time in which they lived...Diz, Bird, Prez etc...) with jazz education which is by nature a study of that history?"

My class pondered this question. They were put-off by the tone that Branford used to express himself. He seemed to be old and farty and cynical. I pointed out the cynicism in Aaron's tone as well. What were they unhappy about exactly? When we began to deconstruct their arguments it seemed like they went further than just jazz education and were trying to address questions of honesty and authenticity. These notions, perennially debated in the jazz world, come up time and again as we struggle to understand the transitory nature of the idiom. Never before have there been so many styles, genres and blends of styles and genres that fall under the heading "jazz". My students all agreed that it is useless to resist these trends. However its hard to figure out where it all comes together for a jazz musician's playing. What is real and pure music and what is trend and novelty?

One of my students opined that on the one hand jazz education could never really be about teaching a person to become their own unique musician and yet it could provide some information important to their development. I agree and from my point of view (as an ex-jazz student turned reluctant teacher) I see often see how the attitudes of some students prevent them from using that education to their full advantage. Sometimes I hold back from saying something like "well if you already know all the answers why aren't you on the scene in New York right now?". "Resistance" was the topic of an earlier post. I think Brandford hits the nail on the head when he says that "the idea of who you are is more important than you actually being that". He's talking about jive. Our society reinforces jive and even rewards it. So yes or course jive plays a role in music and that includes music education. But as my students pointed out Aaron Johnson seemed to exhibit his own special blend of jive even though he was the person drawing attention to it around him. I think we all can fall somewhere in the "jive spectrum" but where it becomes a problem in art is the part it plays in an artist's intentions.

It is a highly romanticized notion that all the greats, the trailblazers, genre defining musicians came up with their own musical voice on their own. In academic literary study there is the concept of "The Romantic Author" who thinks of their own ideas by themselves; their own genius precluding any outside influence. And certainly to the novice jazz fan it does seem that improvising is an entirely spontaneous act. In actual fact it takes a village to raise a jazz musician. When you look at pictures of Diz, or Lester Young it only seems like they stood on their own as the innovators they were. In reality they stood on the shoulders of giants and what made them truly "great" was their artistic intentions to get up on those shoulders and be a part of something greater than any individual. In a sense it is almost beside the point (or perhaps it is the job of historians to determine who the greats were) for them to have set out to be innovators. What they had to do was find who they were themselves through the musician's path which is a sacred journey. And when anything gets in the way of that path it becomes "jive". Simplistically put our society doesn't reward or often even recognize those of us who become masters so there is less incentive to do so. In the short-run it is a whole lot easier to try to replace mastery with something else, something that makes us feel good about ourselves but only for a little while.