IJMC I Was a Trombonist

                      IJMC - I Was a Trombonist

Someone should have told me that trombonists were not supposed to
distinguish between notes. I quit playing because I could not reach high
F. Took up the viola instead. Of course, that was all back in elementary
school. I wonder nowadays if I should take the viola and singing back up
again. Unfortunately, I would have to pay for my own lessons...you should
have heard my folks laugh when I asked them...maybe I should just wait til
I retire.                                                            -dave


List of Characters:

Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied theory, harmony
and composition in college. Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are
usually bald. They should have big hands, but often don't. They were social
rejects as adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy
soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers. If
you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.

Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their
limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better
musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an
animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are alway=
bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will no=
be able to tell whether or not he's listening.

Drummers are radical. Specific personalities vary, but are always extreme. =
drummer might be the funniest person in the world, or the most psychotic, o=
the smelliest. Drummers are uneasy because of the many jokes about them,
most of which stem from the fact that they aren't really musicians. Pianist=
are particularly successful at making drummers feel bad. Most drummers are
highly excitable; when excited, they play louder. If you decide to talk to
the drummer during a break, always be careful not to sneak up on him.

Saxophonists think they are the most important players on stage.
Consequently, they are temperamental and territorial. They know all the
Coltrane and Bird licks but have their own sound, a mixture of Coltrane and
Bird. They take exceptionally long solos, which reach a peak half way
through and then just don't stop. They practice quietly but audibly while
other people are trying to play. They are obsessed. Saxophonists sleep with
their instruments, forget to shower, and are mangy. If you talk to a
saxophonist during a break, you will hear a lot of excuses about his reeds.

Trumpet players are image-conscious and walk with a swagger. They are often
former college linebackers. Trumpet players are very attractive to women,
despite the strange indentation on their lips. Many of them sing; misguided
critics then compare them to either Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker depending
whether they're black or white.

Arrive at the session early, and you may get to witness the special trumpet
game. The rules are: play as loud and as high as possible. The winner is th=
one who plays loudest and highest. If you talk to a trumpet player during a
break, he might confess that his favorite player is Maynard Ferguson, the
merciless God of loud-high trumpeting.

Jazz guitarists are never very happy. Deep inside they want to be rock
stars, but they're old and overweight. In protest, they wear their hair
long, prowl for groupies, drink a lot, and play too loud. Guitarists hate
piano players because they can hit ten notes at once, but guitarists make u=
for it by playing as fast as they can. The more a guitarist drinks, the
higher he turns his amp. Then the drummer starts to play harder, and the
trumpeter dips into his loud/high arsenal. Suddenly, the saxophonist's
universe crumbles, because he is no longer the most important player on
stage. He packs up his horn, nicks his best reed in haste, and storms out o=
the room. The pianist struggles to suppress a laugh. If you talk to a
guitarist during the break he'll ask intimate questions about your
14-year-old sister.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are
placed in sessions to test musicians' capacity for suffering. They are not
of the jazz world, but enter it surreptitiously. Example: A young woman is
playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus
newspaper critic describes her singing as "...jazzy." Voila! A star is born=
Quickly she learns "My Funny Valentine," "Summertime," and "Route 66." Her
training complete, she embarks on a campaign of musical terrorism. Musician=
flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the
full fury of the jazz universe.

The vocalist will try to seduce you--and the rest of the audience-- by
making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you betwee=
tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, make your distaste obvious.
Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, i=
you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her

The trombone is known for its pleading, voice-like quality. "Listen," it
seems to say in the male tenor range, "Why won't anybody hire me for a gig?=
Trombonists like to play fast, because their notes become indistinguishable
and thus immune to criticism. Most trombonists played trumpet in their earl=
years, then decided they didn't want to walk around with a strange
indentation on their lips. Now they hate trumpet players, who somehow get
all the women despite this disfigurement. Trombonists are usually tall and
lean, with forlorn faces. They don't eat much. They have to be very
friendly, because nobody really needs a trombonist. Talk to a trombonist
during a break and he'll ask you for a gig, try to sell you insurance, or
offer to mow your lawn.

Picking the Tune

Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one. That's a fundamental
concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with jazz group processes. Tune
selection makes a huge difference to the musicians. They love to show off o=
tunes that feel comfortable, and they tremble at the threat of the unknown.
But to pick a tune is to invite close scrutiny: "So this is how you sound a=
your best. Hmm..." It's a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes.
Sometimes no one wants to pick a tune, and sometimes everyone wants to pick
a tune. The resulting disagreements lead to faction-building and - under
extreme conditions - even impromptu elections. The politics of tune
selection makes for some of the session's best entertainment.

Example 1: No one wants to pick a tune
(previous tune ends)
trumpet player: "What the f#@*? Is someone gonna to pick a tune?"
trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. I'm outa here." (Storms out of room,
forgetting to pay tab).
rest of band (in unison): "Yes!!!" (Band takes extended break, puts drinks
on trumpet player's tab).

Example 2: Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election
and eventual tune selection
(previous tune ends)
(pianist and guitarist simultaneously):
"Beautiful Love!"/"Donna Lee!"
guitarist to pianist: "You just want to play your fat, stupid ten-note
pianist to guitarist: "You just want to play a lot of notes really fast!"
saxophonist: "'Giant Steps'."
(a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.)
guitarist and pianist (together): "Go ahead, asshole."
trumpet player: "This shit is lame. 'Night in Tunisia'."
(a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for loud, high
saxophonist: "Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard."
(long, awkward silence)
pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn to drummer: "Your
turn, Skinhead."
(drummer pauses to think of hardest possible tune; a time-tested drummer
ploy to punish real musicians who play actual notes.)
drummer: "Stablemates."
trumpet player: F#@* this! I'm outta here." (Storms out of room. Bartender
chases after him.)
trombonist: "Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?"

Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions that
will last all through the night.
(As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart
diagramming the shifting alliances. You can also keep statistics on
individual tune-calling. Under no circumstances, though, should you take
sides or yell out song titles. Things are complicated enough already.)

IJMC June 2001 Archives