How To Get That Jazz Sound

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Jon Challoner, the trumpet player in my band, told me he recently cleaned out his trumpet, and what came out was “ungodly.” And as any responsible bandleader would do upon hearing this, I cut his pay. Not because his horn was in a disgusting condition, but because he chose to clean it. This leads to an important facet of jazz culture which is worthy of discussion. The more astute of you may have noticed something different about jazz musicians when compared to other genres: that our instruments are—and there’s no point beating around the bush here—old and crappy.

If one were to judge us by the appearance of our instruments, one may conclude that jazz musos are a cheap, negligent class of people with little regard for personal hygiene. That is accurate. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find it’s in these old beaten up instruments that we can find that magic unquantifiable ingredient that is our jazz sound.

Jazz musicians religiously reject all technological advancements in instrument production over the last 100 years. The older and crappier, the better. So your instrument plays out of tune and has rubber bands holding it together? Keep swinging my brother. You’re the real deal.

If I have the choice of hiring a musician with a shiny new horn straight off the factory floor, or a guy that looks like he just pulled something out of a dumpster, I’ll choose dumpster guy every time, thanks very much.

And so if you’re a musician with a desire to play jazz and want to know how to get that jazzy sound, my main piece of advice is to never clean your instrument. Does your new Yamaha drum kit sound great and has a lovely pearl inlay finish? That ain’t jazz. Throw it down a set of stairs. It’s now broken and sounds like crap? Great. You’re ready for your first gig. Is your double bass a beautiful polished maple with a gorgeous resonant sound? That’s amateur stuff. Let a family of raccoons nest in it for a while. Now you’re swinging. So you’ve got a brand new banjo?

Hmm…actually no help needed with banjos.

Old, Worn Out, Beaten Up, Ragged, Neglected, Battered, Weathered: not qualities I would look for in a girlfriend, but describe a saxophone in this fashion and you’ll find me burning with desire.

Horn repairers relay stories of musicians’ horror at receiving their horns back after a service, which are not only repaired, but also all cleaned out and polished to a shine. Repairers will never understand that this grit and grime took years to accumulate with every gig and every hot lick played. Every dent, every ding, every scratch, is a story on that horn’s musical journey.

Furthermore, the morsels of hamburger stuck in our pipes, the cigarettes smoked in our breaks, the red wine stains on our reeds, all contribute to the complex and unique timbre of our jazz sound.

Just in the way every life experience comes through your horn when you play, every pizza/beer/whiskey literally comes through your horn when you play. Why does all this make it sound better? Damned if I know. I’m no scientist. But hey this is art, not science, right?

And even if we did look at it scientifically: your horn, over time, becomes home to a delicate ecosystem of bacteria and other organisms. You’re a giver of life. Good for you.

That reminds me, there was a news article a few years back of a clarinet player hospitalized for a type of hypersensitivity pneumonitis. It turned out he was a trad clarinetist that hadn’t cleaned out his clarinet in over 30 years. It was so disgusting, it put him in hospital. Wow! Any clarinet which would put you in hospital must sound amazing. I really hope he never cleaned it out, because if that clarinet ever winds up on eBay, I’m buying it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a storm coming in. I’ve gotta go bring in my washing…and hang my sax out on the line.

Reedman extraordinaire Adrian Cunningham is the leader of Professor Cunningham and his Old School Jazz Band, based in New York City. Adrian Cunningham was voted in a 2017 Hot House Jazz Magazine readers’ poll the Best Alto Sax Player in New York. His most recent album is Duologue, issued on the Arbors Jazz label. Visit him on the world wide web: www.adriancunningham.com.


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