The Professor’s Language Guide for Talking to a Jazz Musician

I get it. You want to talk to me at a gig and. . .tell me how great I sound. . .that my music has changed your life. . . that you want to leave all your money to me in your Will and Testament (ahem—my details are below).

But you don’t know how to start the conversation. Ah yes, talking to a musician can be intimidating, and I understand your hesitation (sometimes I’m even afraid to talk to myself). Furthermore, if you’ve ever heard a Jazz Musician speak, you’ve probably noticed a host of unusual phrases and terms that almost earn it the title of another language.

Red Wood Coast

Navigating the lingo can be an overwhelming task, so once again, I, your humble servant, have undertaken the self-appointed duty of bridging that gap between audience and musician, with the Professor’s Language Guide for talking to a jazz musician.Jive Dictionary

1. Complimenting a musician. We like compliments. Beneath our cool exterior, we’re actually just insecure artists looking for validation (don’t tell the other guys I told you). A good way to break the ice is with a compliment. That will get the conversational juices flowing.

In the “real world,” compliments normally include positive references. Not so in jazz. Don’t tell us “that was beautiful music.” C’mon. This is not an Enya concert. In jazz, negative equals positive.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Here’s a good example: “That was a bad solo” means “that was a great solo.” “That was nasty” means “that was masterful.” Get the idea? But be careful, it doesn’t apply all the time: “that sounded awful” means “that sounded awful,” so choose your negatisims carefully. Use words that imply violence and destruction, that will really melt our hearts.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: try to imagine the musician as a horde of marauding Vikings, and that their solo was a small village. (Make the references heavy on the pillaging but light on the raping.)

For example:
“That was burning”
“You killed it”
“You swing a mean axe”
“You destroyed it”
“You shredded it”
“You nailed it”
Once you get the hang of it, try some combinations:
“You destroyed it with your burning axe”
“Your nasty solo killed it”

2. Asses. Asses play an important role in musicians’ lingo. One might ask why musicians are obsessed with each other’s asses, especially in a traditionally male-dominated field, but I don’t know and hey, I didn’t make the rules.

Here are a few ass-related observations:
“You played your ass off”
“You were swinging your ass off”


(Losing one’s ass in the throes of musical excellence is considered a good thing. I never quite understood that one. I’m quite happy with my ass. I go to the gym and watch what I eat. I want to keep it, if possible.)

Concurrently, if witnessing a jam where two musicians are battling it out, you might say to the victor “you handed him his ass on a platter.” This uniquely portrays a subtle reference of violent conquest whilst also making no practical sense whatsoever.

3. This next one may be a bit risqué for the sensitive palate of the Syncopated Times’ readership, but it’s an important one, so for educational purposes, lets press on. “He/she is a bad “mother@&$;/-”


Don’t ask me why one’s relationship with another’s mother is pertinent to a good jazz solo. All I know is, if greats like Satchmo and Miles Davis used it, it’s good enough for me. (Furthermore, Miles used it so much in his autobiography, that if you edited the offending word from the book, it would basically be a pamphlet.)

4. One more important one. We are not called musicians (despite what’s on our tax returns). In the jazz world we are called cats. There is actually a reason why, but since I’m running out of space, I’ll let you Google it.

So, next time you’re at a gig, tell them they killed it. And don’t forget to reference someone’s ass. You’ll be the coolest cat in the joint.


P.S.: Please send amended Will and Testament to: Adrian Cunningham c/o Andy Senior, Syncopated Times.

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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. 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:

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