Don’t just stand there

US Marine band at attention

Don’t just stand there! There’s more to playing jazz than just taking solos. There’s more to a jazz performance than just play the head together, take turns soloing, play the head, and end.

For some reason, new jazz players seem often to believe that the formula head – solos – head is all there is to playing jazz in a small group. Credit where it’s due, at least they are playing in a combo and have some sense of general structures and procedures. For, most students’ experience of ‘jazz’ is: wait for the conductor to count in, play verbatim what’s written on the music, and end. And that has as much to do with playing jazz as reading a script has to do with having a conversation. However, as I have written before, there is more to jazz than just solos.

In this short post, I will focus on things to do when you are playing in a band but it is not your ‘turn’ to solo.

Don’t Just Stand There. Do Something.

Most likely, you are playing off a lead sheet (ok, good start) or else you have memorised the tune and chord changes of a song (ah, very good). Those are just general sketches of a tune and say almost nothing about how it is to be arranged or performed. Read more about that in this post about using lead sheets. It is up to YOU, the performer/s, to bring it to life by arranging and realizing it in real time. ‘Realizing’ just means causing something to happen, creating the finished performance on the spot through your own actions, your own agency. Problem is, performances by new jazz players often lack life. They are nearly lifeless.

Incidentally, by ‘new jazz players’, I mean students who are new to jazz, not established players performing cutting-edge new stuff.

Don't just stand there when you play jazz - it is about more than just soloing
Don't just stand there, do something.

There are many things you can do to add life to your performance. I’ll summarise just a couple of examples, but you can learn more by looking at experienced, established, professional players on stage performing. Live is best, but on video is fine too. Audio-only recordings will help a bit, but not so much. Also, watching young, university/college/school players won’t help much either, because they are inexperienced and still just learning. Emerging players still in university or just out of it tend to be far too inwardly focused. Too many of them still think that jazz is just about soloing and your personal chops. Watch how really established players do it and learn from them. They have the personal skills to play at a high level but also the interpersonal skills to survive in a competitive industry.

So, on to the examples.

Firstly, don’t just stand there. Engage with the other performers, the audience, and the venue. They are all part of the performance. Look at others in the band, maybe smile or scowl or nod or unleash your stank face. Look at people in the audience. Play to the audience and for the audience. Read the room, adjust your playing or your set guided by the audience response. Play to the space, volume and approach in keeping with the venue and the occasion. Things like that.

Secondly, don’t just stand there 2. Someone else is soloing? Contribute, at least sometimes, to the overall performance rather than just standing in place stock still staring at the floor while you endure their moment in the spotlight and await your solo and chance for glory. You can play backgrounds sometimes, lines or long tones, guide tones, or something else. If you aren’t going to do anything at all, at least get out of the way. Step back or off to the side. Don’t just stand there.

Thirdly, add something as a collective, as a team. You can add shout choruses, interludes, riffs, countermelodies. Behind and around a head, you can play fills or counter lines. Fills doesn’t mean solo or shred away, it means engage with what the others are playing and add musically appropriate stuff to enhance it. No showboating, it turns people off pretty quickly. Introductions and endings are good too – there is a lot more you can do than just starting at the top and ending as soon as the chart runs out. Bring something to the performance as a team that adds something to it.

Fourthly, interact with the rhythm section. I know this is really the same as my ‘firstly’ point, but I realise some of you are horn players so are already distracted by dreams of shreddage. Respond to them, give them things they can respond to. Do something. Do more than just solo away like they are a backing track. That’s boring for everyone besides you and besides, they can make you so much better if you harness their power.

Anyway, there are a few examples. Do like I said and listen to established players and bands. See and hear what they do. Really see and hear, focus on how they work as an ensemble and how each player contributes to the overall performance. Do not get distracted by their solo lines or transcribing their licks. Sure do that too, but learn from them how you can do more when you perform.

Above all, please, don’t just stand there.

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