Over the years, I’ve suffered a certain number of headaches owing to musicians (and occasionally whole bands) who mounted the bandstand without the merest clue as to how to play together as a group. I believe they were all for the idea of being a jazz band but they could not put the thing into practice. The individual musicians might have some fluency on their instruments of choice, but the cumulative result is almost too much to endure.
I’ve been known to surreptitiously record such musical disasters. The term “train wreck” is too kind for the sound I have captured. Revisiting those recordings, I grimace, snort loudly, and wonder if the human race is worth saving. I am inclined to play back those unholy bootlegs to scare the skunks and stray cats out of my yard. (The squirrels, I fear, are immune.)
At long last, and none too soon, there may indeed be help for solipsistic soloists who attempt to act as part of non-cohesive whole. A trad-jazz Florence Nightingale has emerged, banjo in hand, to show would-be hot musicians the way. Our particular Lady With the (Jazz) Lamp is none other than Cynthia Sayer, world-renowned music educator and purveyor of the four-stringer.
Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and bandleader Cynthia Sayer first gained prominence as a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, and has explored other musical realms playing with many renowned jazz and popular artists at club gigs, concerts, and festivals in the US and internationally. And having an abiding and essential interest in musical education, she has conducted master classes and workshops in addition to giving private lessons.
Ms. Sayer has just published You’re IN the Band, a self-contained musical education course for all who wish to play what has been variously called Traditional Jazz, Hot Jazz, Early Jazz, and (yes) Dixieland. As opposed to all prior “Music Minus One”-style approaches, her book, and the enclosed CDs provide the neophyte (or even the seasoned shut-in) the feeling of playing with a really good jazz band. And, what a band! Cynthia Sayer herself is on banjo, with Bria Skonberg on trumpet, Mike Weatherly on string bass, and Kevin Dorn on drums.
These are musicians you’d never get to sit in with, assuming you’re not an icky fanboy hanging around the clubs in New York hoping for some of their real magnificence to drift down to you. Yet here they are, leaving solo space for you to fill with your own musical gropings, in both “rehearsal tempo” and “gig tempo” CDs. Take it!
This is the ideal package to arm anyone taking lessons on anything but a Stratocaster. Every music student, no matter how besotted they are with Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, John Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman, needs to know this stuff. The book is all about basic behavior on gigs, and what those arcane hand-signs mean (and they mean different things on different coasts!) when the leader indicates what is supposed to happen during a number. This book demystifies the Freemasonry of jazz musicians, and as such it is Train Wreck Avoidance 101.
The tunes, written out variously in chord symbols, in fake-book fashion, and musically scored for transposing instruments (trumpets, saxes, etc.) are all what you’d call “traditional” or “public domain.” Despite the late Sonny Bono’s attempts to ensure that everything worth playing would be under copyright forever, there are a slew of spry tunes written before 1923 that every aspiring jazz cat should know. Licensing the more recent selections would have been a nightmare, but there is enough musical gold in You’re IN the Band that you could play a gig with all the assembled chestnuts and none would be the wiser. ASCAP would wonder what (didn’t) hit them.
And how could you lose with “Avalon,” “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me,” “China Boy” (to name the first three of those included)? There are also “Some of these Days,” “My Gal Sal,” “Whispering,” and the inevitable “Saints.” (You need to know these tunes, unless you want your axe to be metered.)
I do know these tunes, and while I now have almost no discretionary time to play any of the various musical instruments I’ve dabbled at, I took You’re IN the Band out for a test drive. (Specifically, I have a Hohner Melodica at hand that I sometimes use to determine the correct pitch of old records I transfer.) Yes, it does what it says on the box. This is the absolute next best thing to stalking world-class jazz musicians and pestering them until they allow you to sit in. It’s better, actually, because it’s unlikely to result in a restraining order.
I would buy this book/CD set for a child, for an adult—in short, for anyone with even a mild inclination to play in a group with other musicians. It is it is a better musical education—and much more fun—than you’ll get jamming in the garage with your cousin who took a year of drum lessons and your friend who can play a couple of chords on the guitar.
I’d go further and suggest that every member of every local trad jazz outfit should own and practice with You’re IN the Band. And even though aspirin is cheap, I wish I could hand it to certain musicians retroactively. Oh, yes. I won’t name names, but—yes.
You’re IN the Band is available through www.cynthiasayer.com. The CDs are also available as downloads for those who know how to navigate such things, and there are downloadable versions of the recorded music available sans trumpet or banjo tracks (if either of those is your particular instrument).