It does not matter in Jazz how great your solo chops are, it is how you work with others in a group that makes you really worth playing with. Jazz is more than just soloing.
Playing jazz in a band involves more than just a collection of solos. It is not enough to focus entirely on individual improvisation skills because there is much more to it than that. Playing in a group demands ensemble skills, cooperation, sharing, and collective creation. These skills seem either to be downplayed in jazz education or ignored by too many students.
Jazz students need to learn how to play in a band, how to play in an ensemble on stage, how to improvise with others, how to perform. These essential skills seem often to be neglected in jazz education where they are overshadowed by a fixation on individual soloists. Plenty of people in the jazz world make various criticisms of jazz education, most of them nonsense, but in my experience, this is a real issue.
Playing and soloing in an improvising jazz band is a team effort, not just a collection of individuals all playing at the same time. Musicians work together, interacting responsively in real time to create complete-sounding ensemble performances. Despite this, jazz education and, hence, young jazz players seem fixated on jazz as individual improvising skills and soloing, to the exclusion of most other aspects of playing.
Here are a few of the things that jazz students need to learn beyond their personal improvising chops.
You must listen to the other musicians in the band. Drummers and bassists need to be locked into each other’s time and be consistent in how they play together.
When comping, rhythm section players such as pianists, guitarists, and drummers must hear what soloists are playing and work with them interactively to enhance the music, not simply play at the same time as them in the background. They also need to listen to each other to work together to create music appropriate to the context. This often means keeping out of each other’s way.
Piano players can rest sometimes. They don’t need to play over every beat of every bar in every tune! Sometimes, it is nice to lay out completely. Occasionally, it is cool to leave some spaces for the soloists or other rhythm players. Sometimes, pianists can even let a guitarist of vibes player comp instead of them.
Soloists should involve the rhythm section in their improvisations. “Solos” are not really solos, they are created in cooperation with other musicians in the band. Don’t treat the rhythm section as a backing track. Doing that misses the whole point of playing in a jazz band. Leave spaces, offer material for them to respond to, respond to things they play. Try at least sometimes to have a structure to the solo, maybe building up or starting big and developing from there: just do something besides just playing as though practicing shredding over a backing track.
2. Be aware
Be sensitive to the context of the performance. Are you playing for a concert-style listening audience, or dancers? What does this band require from you, this band leader, this gig, this venue, these players, this tune, or even this solo? What and how is best to play in the unique context of every gig and every band?
On stage, stay aware of what is going on. Listen to the other solos and be ready to contribute to whatever needs to happen: trading fours, backgrounds, intros, endings, riffs, shout chorus, etc. You are there to create complete performances, musical arrangements and settings, not just a head followed by a series of solos.
3. Take care of professional stuff
This is a wide category but here are some considerations related to performing:
- What should you wear for this occasion? (hint: a T shirt and jeans are not always ok. In many adult, professional settings these only make you look unprofessional, dissolute, gormless, selfish, ‘tone-deaf’, or foolish).
- Arrive on time.
- Bring all the right gear for the gig. Always have a music stand, at least in the car.
These are the three main points: listen/interact, be aware, and be professional. There are certainly more things than this short summary, but these three would be a great start for many students. These things should be taught by jazz educators because they are not self-evident to everyone. Jazz is more than just soloing.