I am unabashedly old school. I secretly long for the days of Dr. J with the big afro and the red, white and blue basketball. I remember when the King of Pop looked more like me than not, MTV actually played music videos by Stevie Ray Vaughan and you could watch regular TV shows with your parents without being embarrassed by the risqué content. My three kids don’t have cable in their bedrooms, they don’t have cell phones, they don’t have Facebook. My wife and I actually want to parent our children, not be their best friend, and we have standards. We celebrate achievement, not the standard. You don’t get money because you got good grades; good grades are what you’re supposed to get. You earn money by doing work.
I love old school. I hated it at the time I was young, but I sure appreciate it now.
When I was first getting started playing professionally, I had this crazy notion that I would only book a gig under my own name when I was ready. I didn’t want to embarrass myself because my entire CD collection – (compact discs for those that don’t know what I’m referencing) – maintained a certain standard. I wanted to honor the music I claimed to love, the music I said I respected. I didn’t want to have to read every single note and chord change of every single song in my repertoire. I didn’t want to figure out on the spot how to cue my band. I didn’t want to play a song I liked but I couldn’t play the bridge. I didn’t want to spend most of my time promoting my gig instead of learning the music I was going to play on my gig in the woodshed. When you love something, you want to be your best for it.
You serve the one you love; it does not serve you.
So which comes first? Preparedness or the gig? What’s right? I don’t know but I have a feeling. I think there are many benefits to one being prepared before you make a presentation in contrast to booking a gig and then feeling pressured to “get it all in”. If you’ve read my previous articles you are probably aware of a common theme with me: I believe there are occasions where jazz musicians can be enemies of the music. One way we can improve is in our preparedness, our presentation of the music to the audience.
Not much makes me angrier than being on stage, playing the chart I was given and having some vocalist make an apology to the crowd: “We haven’t really rehearsed that last song so I’m sorry if it was a little rough…”. Musicians can play music notation, chord charts, rhythms and even play in different styles. We’re all striving to be musicians. The audience paid to hear musicians. Even more importantly, the music we claim to love obligates us to be the best we can be. I would make an argument – a very strong argument – for being prepared.
Once you are prepared, and there’s nothing wrong with soliciting the opinion of a more seasoned cat to assess your preparedness, THEN book a performance. Why not? You know the material. You’ve studied the songs inside and out. You’ve heard the intro the pianist is playing multiple times in multiple ways. You know the keys, the tempos and how to articulate what a Bossa Nova sounds like and what a Samba sounds like. (ask a drummer).
Even greater, you can come to the bandstand with a greater degree of confidence that will exude to the musicians behind you and the crowd in front of you. Your band will work hard for you, want to give you their best. They’ll play their hearts out for you because you’ve earned their respect in the practice room. It’s an intangible.
The audience will be with you from the downbeat. They’ll pick up on the experience, not just the music. They will smile with you, laugh with you and fall in love with you if only for one night. Your stage banter will draw them closer. They’ll pick up on the silent communication going on between the musicians. They won’t be able to describe it and they won’t be able to tell you exactly why they like it. But they’ll tell all their friends they had an experience, and encounter with you and the music that was more valuable than hearing it on the iPod.
So what comes first, the rehearsal or the gig? Do you study best right before the test? Do you have the kind of personality that needs pressure to get things done? That yields a certain response. But I would argue a much more lasting, deeper impact would be when preparedness is coupled with opportunity.
Pianist/vocalist Eric Byrd has been an active member of both jazz and gospel music for over 20 years. The Eric Byrd Trio was US State Department Jazz Ambassadors and is currently on the Maryland Performing Artist Touring Roster. He has appeared on over 30 recordings and their latest recording is called 21st Century Swing. Eric can be reached via www.ericbyrd.com