How to Start a Traditional Jazz Band

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The Professor’s Guide to Starting a Jazz Band

If you’ve ever wanted to start your own traditional jazz band, but never learned how to play an instrument, then have no fear, my friend! There are far more important things involved than actually playing music. After all, this is show business. I’m here to help. So if you follow the Professor’s guide to starting a jazz band, you too can be a success in the jazz world (but don’t take my bloody gigs). The first thing you need to do is to choose a catchy trad-jazz band name. This is most important. I recommend using a combination of the following words, in no particular order: Prohibition, Hot, Speakeasy, Jazz, Stompers, Professor, Band, Old Timey, Brooklyn. Here’s an example: THE HOT BROOKLYN SPEAKEASY OLD TIMEY JAZZ STOMPERS. Or how about: THE HOT JAZZ PROHIBITION OLD TIMEY BAND. (But please avoid using the name THE HOT PROFESSOR. I’m saving that for a side project…)

Now that you’ve got a band name, you need to figure out what your band should wear. (Actually, we discussed clothes in a previous column. You can’t remember? Well, it’s not my fault if you weren’t paying attention. That’s on you, buddy.) But here’s an addendum to the previous installment: The lower paying the gig, the better you’ll need to dress. (If you ever see a jazz band in tuxedos, you know they’re playing for gas money and a drink. If you ever see a jazz musician looking like he’s homeless, he’s probably a superstar. Or, he’s homeless.)

Your band’s choice of musical instruments is also important. Ignore all the technical advancements made to musical instruments over the last hundred years. The crappier the instrument, the more serious you are about your jazz. If you only have a shiny new instrument, I recommend leaving it in a primary school classroom for a week. Or a kennel. That will give your horn that authentic lived-in old-timey look. Also, homemade instruments are a must for today’s cutting-edge trad band. A jazz band can never have too many washboards. Or spoons. Or how about a trombone made out of a garden hose (hmm…not much of a stretch really).

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Choice of songs is important. What tunes should your band play? Repertoire-tribute bands are always a good idea. The good thing about jazz, is that since so many great jazz guys are dead, you can rip off their music without getting any lawsuits. Huzzah! In fact, the greats are pretty much all dead, so have at it!

Sidemen: it’s important to hire the right guys for the gig. But don’t get the best players. Get the guys who won’t complain when you hire them months prior, but the day before you tell them that the gig is five hours long and a four-hour bus ride away. And they’ve got to wear pirate costumes (yes it happens). Also, it never hurts to throw in a chick or two to the band line up. Let’s be honest, trad jazz audiences are mostly randy old men, so one or two pretty faces will go a long way in this business. (I wouldn’t be above dressing one of your males in drag if need be. Those randy old guys tend to have bad eyesight.)

Now that you’ve got your crappy old instruments and your clothes together, get a band photo. Here are some good trad jazz settings: old water towers. Old cars. Actually, anything with rust is good. Old war memorabilia is also a good setting. It doesn’t matter that your band is seated in front of a machine that was used to kill lots of people. Now it’s romantic! (NB: if you’re going to wear WWII officer uniforms, make sure they’re American.)

As the bandleader, you have to be the most elaborately dressed to elicit respect and attention. Remember, this is show business. Nobody cares how you sound. How do you look? It’s important to live and breathe the old-timey life. Drive a vintage car. Also, I recommend growing a large old-timey mustache. (Think Coney Island strongman.) Be sure to buy a gramophone player. And tell everyone about it. Make sure you tell them “CDs don’t sound anything like the old phonograph cylinders.” (Of course they don’t, you idiot. That’s why we have CDs.) Be sure to talk in one of those faux British accents from the old movies. Nobody wants to buy an album from a guy who sounds like he’s from Newark. Make sure you sing through a megaphone. And try using a walking stick. And call yourself by a showbizzy title (don’t even think about using Professor, thank you very much).
Also it’s a good idea to get a column in a publication…like…The Syncopated Times, for example. And write cheeky columns about the jazz scene.
So if you follow the above directions, and you’re fast tracking your way to jazz fame and fortune. Happy gigging!

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Reedman extraordinaire Adrian Cunningham is the leader of Professor Cunningham and his Old School Jazz Band, based in New York City. His most recent CD is Ain’t That Right! The Music of Neal Hefti issued on the Arbors Jazz label. Visit his both his sites on the world wide web: www.adriancunningham.com and professorcunninghamjazz.com.

The Professor is delighted to field your questions regarding jazz and a variety of other germane topics. Write him at oldschoolprofessor@gmail.com. 


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