The Misery of Jazz

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I often recall a highlight from one of my first adventures as a young man, visiting the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania in Africa.

Despite the island itself being one of the most extraordinary places I’ve been, what more often pops in my memory is a sign on the wall of an old junk shop of Stone Town that read something like:
“Suffering is man’s duty and should be his joy.”

How that sign was supposed to help him sell the crap in his shop I’ll never know, but something in that message still resonates with me after all these years: that there is something powerful in the struggle of the artist. There is a force within suffering that makes us reach deep within and create something greater than ourselves. I can often feel this within all types of great music; an expression of, and testament to, the resilience of humanity.

This is certainly present within jazz musicians. In a nutshell, we love to be miserable. And here’s proof. Let me ask you: have you ever been to an extraordinarily beautiful part of the world- Hawaii for example, or Zanzibar (to keep it topical) or perhaps a beautiful chalet in the Swiss alps? These are some breathtaking places. And how many jazz musicians did you see hanging out there? Exactly. Those places are way too pretty for us. But, find us an overpriced rat-infested Brooklyn basement with no windows or heating, and we’ll fight over it like seagulls with a french fry.

And knowledge of this trait can be very beneficial for the conscientious bandleader wanting to keep band members at the top of their game.

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Duke Ellington, rather than firing someone, would just hire another guy to sit next to the cat he wanted to replace, who would play the same part every night. It would get so uncomfortable that the original cat would eventually just quit the gig.

Miles Davis, right before going on stage for one of his most famous live recordings, told his band they weren’t getting paid (but he himself was). They were understandably furious about it, however the resulting recording is full of musical fire.

And don’t even get me started on Buddy Rich.

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So as any successful bandleader knows, it’s vital to emotionally maltreat your musicians. This is an important tool in keeping your band in top musical shape. I personally find that a generous serving of general bullying, mixed with a hammering of their self-esteem and musical ability, is a good formula for a strong musical performance. Please note that I do not refer to my behavior as abuse (for legal reasons I am advised not to)…I prefer the term inspirational intimidation.

The Misery of JazzSo if you’re a bandleader looking to improve the musicianship of your band, here are some tips to keep your cats swinging hard every night.

General demoralizing:
After a song, turn around to the band and yell, “What the hell was that?” Because it’s not directed at anyone in particular, all the musicians will stay on their toes, thinking it was directed at them.

Vibey phone call:
When you call and offer a cat a gig, and they say yes, reply with, “Ah what a relief! I’m so glad you can make it! I tried everyone else and no one was available.”

Before the gig:
While you’re backstage, walk past one of your bandmembers who is warming up and ask (choose one): “Is that the reed/mouthpiece/horn you’re gonna use?” Then keep walking.

Impossible comparison:
Make up an imaginary musician, and say to one of the band, “If you wanna keep this gig, I really need you to sound more like ‘Big Chops’ McGee.” They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but they’ll be too afraid to ask.

At the end of the gig:
After the last note is played, turn to the band and say: “Great job, some of you guys.” Then walk to the bar and order a martini.

If you follow these simple steps, you too can be the leader of a miserable, hard-swinging, terrified band; and maybe even join the ranks of the jazz greats. Good luck! Now, get back to the practice room. You sound awful.


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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