Mr. PC pt 2

Here’s Part 2 of the collected wit & wisdom of Seattle-based pianist-composer-bandleader Bill Anschell.
For more of Mr. P.C.’s wisdom, visit his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mr-PCs-Guide-to-Jazz-Etiquette-and-Bandstand-Decorum/176989928575?v=wall
To receive each new post directly from Mr. P.C., or to send him your own etiquette question, email him at pcjazz1@gmail.com

Dear Mr. P.C.:

My group was playing in a remote South American town for people who had never heard jazz before. We were billed as a jazz trio, and after the show one of the audience members asked me, “Who is Jazz?” What should I have said?

— Howard In The Tropics
Dear HINT:

Jazz is slippery. It carries no passport or credit cards, and refuses to reveal its name at hotel check-in. Hiding from authorities, it can take on any physical form it chooses — from Wynton Marsalis to John Zorn, from Pat Metheny to Kenny G. Its diet is high in alcohol and THC, and it often smells rank. Jazz has no fixed name; it’s a psychopath, changing identities faster than you can say “harmolodic funk.”

So who is jazz? For the time being, apparently, it’s my next door neighbor Bob, a ruddy tugboat captain who keeps building weird additions to his house. Go figure.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

When people use big words to describe their music, is that supposed to make it better? Like I know a bassist who says he’s “contextualizing” his music. Why does he do that? — Bassist Uses Lofty Language

Dear BULL:

He’s practicing Grantspeak, of course. Here’s the story: A few decades ago, granting agencies grudgingly started funding jazz projects. But how can their panelists judge the applications when they know nothing about jazz music?

Well, what they ARE comfortable judging is intellect, so they depend on jazz artists to put it on full display. That’s why savvy applicants like your bassist friend keep their eye on the prize and practice at every opportunity. In fact, if you’d stuck around a little longer you might have even seen him go from contextualizing to “re-contextualizing.” Bank!

Although grantors were the original targets of Grantspeak, its use has become more widespread. Other people in positions of power in the jazz world — especially presenters and journalists — have proven equally susceptible to its charms. And it’s even starting to influence artists, not only in their music, but also in their interactions:

Andrew: “Hey, Bob, what’s happening?”
Bob: “You know, just shedding, trying to keep my chops up. How about you?”
Andrew: Actually, in my new multidisciplinary song cycle, based on a contemporary reading of recovered scripts from the earliest matriarchal societies, I’m re-examining the relationship between soloist and ensemble, looking for ways to evoke a more egalitarian, communal paradigm.”
Bob (embarrassed): “Cool. Um, guess I’ll go practice Stablemates.”
Andrew (silently): “Heh, heh, heh.”

People ask where jazz is heading, BULL, and I can answer definitively: Grantspeak is the future! Not only as a descriptive language, but as a quasi-paradigmatic, non-idiomatic re-contextualization of jazz itself. Buy your thesaurus now, before you and your music are left behind!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I just went on YouTube and found out there’s a really crappy video of me playing with some lame musicians. I got pretty upset. Is there really nothing I can do about it? — Fred T., Boston

Dear Fred:

Of course there’s something you can do: Stop dwelling on the negative, and pay a visit to your happy place!

Mine is the memory of a special moment early in my career. I was playing a solo gig as a volunteer at the local psychiatric institution when a middle-aged woman ran into the room, her mouth sealed by duct tape. She sat close to me on the piano bench, fragrant with medication, and began furiously attempting to sing. Duct tape isn’t shed easily, but she was so moved by my playing that one side of her mouth eventually broke free. It turned out that she was improvising her own lyrics, a combination of the Gettysburg Address and the Book of Job. I went right there with her, bursting into passionate free improvisation that became her underscore.

Before I knew it, she tried to kiss me, and her mouth got stuck to the side of my face. It was the first time I’d ever seduced a woman with my playing, and I realized I was blessed with a powerful gift; one that I was obliged to share with man/womynkind. I didn’t even mind our eventual painful separation, though it did rip a layer of skin from my cheek.

How strange and enchanting that the two of us, both destined for groundbreaking careers, should meet in this chance encounter! I, of course, parlayed my interests in psychology and music to become the therapist so many of you depend on. She headed east with her duct tape, took the stage name of Thorazine, and was the toast of New York’s performance art community before a rehearsal mishap led to her untimely suffocation.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I was playing at a club in town, a pretty fancy place, the gig all the guys in town want. On the break a pretty woman in the audience came up to me and complimented my playing. So far so good! But then she asked if I play professionally — right in the middle of a gig! What should I have said? — John G., Denver

Dear John:

You should be flattered! Obviously she was attracted to you and just wanted to make sure you have some other, more viable source of income. Like being a realtor, or an insurance salesman, or whatever it is you actually do for a living.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I bought an acoustic bass guitar that you can also plug in and my son and I have been playing a lot of pop songs together taking turns on the bass and guitar. I know this is a stereotype that upsets bassists and I’m sure it’s hard to play really well, but… it does seem pretty f’ing easy to play the root or maybe a little more and sound okay. It’s also very fun. — Andrew

Dear Andrew:

Well, you’re half right. Playing simple roots on the downbeat can be easy, but it’s not fun. How can it be fun when almost anyone can do it?

Frankly, so called “simple pleasures” have no place in jazz bass, or in jazz itself, for that matter. What is more profoundly fun is playing busy lines of dizzying harmonic and rhythmic complexity. That’s what motivates bassists through a lifetime of desperate practicing, for they are the jazz world’s true hedonists.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Did you ever say anything about people undercutting each other? There’s a gig where I live, and it used to pay $100 a man for three hours, and then a guy who doesn’t play very well offered the owner to do it for $60 a man. Seems like the bread will keep going down and never go up. How does that work? Are we doomed? — Undercut Player

Dear UP:

If lesser musicians didn’t offer to play for less money, everyone would be paid the same. While that achieves some admirable egalitarian ideals, it’s not really fair to the best players, is it? This “guy who doesn’t play very well” is showing amazing graciousness and humility by volunteering to play for less. You should be grateful to him, not only for knowing his place, but for helping establish a pay scale that recognizes and rewards excellence.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

On a recent trip into the city I attended a master class by a well-known jazz guitarist. At one point he claimed that it is our limitations that truly define us. I have read about this kind of thing before so the idea was not entirely new to me, yet hearing him say it so clearly was inspiring. I really would like your opinion on this as I have more limitations than most and feel ready to take advantage of that in a big way. I gave notice at the local middle school where I teach P.E. and have packed my drums but am now having doubts. Please help! — Walter “Sig” Mathews, Milepost 17, State Route 4, Tulelake, CA

Dear Sig:

Milepost 17 – I’ve totally been there! It wasn’t in Tulelake, but I remember it vividly. It was just outside of Eagle, Idaho, a few miles before the VFW hall where I had a gig. Inside the hall, in the men’s bathroom, they had decorated the urinal with a drawing of Jane Fonda’s face, so that each user had no choice but to direct the stream into her mouth. I remember wondering: Was her acting really so bad? Distracted by that thought, and rushing to make the downbeat, I started urinating before I realized what I was doing. Could I stop, mid-stream? Hardly — I don’t have superpowers! But I’ve never forgiven myself, to this day.

Why was I urinating so hurriedly? You see, my arrival at the Elks club — and with it, my subsequent defiling of Jane’s image—had been delayed at Milepost 17, where I struck a deer. Was it my fault or the deer’s? Oh, how I’d love to blame the deer! Then I’d at least have a partner in the blame for what I did to Jane. But, alas, I’ll never know.

The poor bloodied deer, involuntarily quivering in the harsh glare of my headlights. The crude, glistening drawing of Jane Fonda, desecrated by an endless procession of war-hardened veterans… That’s my Milepost 17, a nightmare that will haunt me to my dying day. Your Milepost 17 apparently involves some light wordplay about limitations and definitions. Forgive me, Sig, if I have trouble pretending to care.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I was in the audience at a jam session. My back was to the stage, and I couldn’t believe how long a solo the tenor player took. He played like watered down Coltrane, a sound I’m used to nowadays. Then I turned around and realized I’d heard three different tenor players who all sounded the same. Why do they all do that? — Roger Overandout

Dear Roger:

If tenor players didn’t all sound the same, how would they be able to find subs? This way, when a pianist who sounds like watered down McCoy needs a tenor player who sounds like watered down Trane, the bench is deep.

And “watered down” isn’t a negative — if Trane were still alive, at 88, he would sound like watered down Trane too. The sax players you heard value historical accuracy, while a player who sounds like Trane at the peak of his career is nothing but a thoughtless knock-off.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

What is meant by the term “Post-Bop”? Since “bop” ended in the 1950s, isn’t everything since then technically “post-bop”? — T.M. in Seattle

Dear T.M.:

It sure is, and that’s great news to anyone worried that jazz is becoming irrelevant. What better solution than to be massively inclusive, the biggest of all big tents!

Taylor Swift? Post-bop! Rice a Roni? Post-bop! Donald Trump? Post-bop! Post-modernism? Post-bop!

Sure, pop, rock and country outsell jazz fifty to one, but we know the post-bop truth — we own them.

The post-bop world belongs to jazz!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I have heard the song “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” and have several questions:

Does the word “ain’t” have a place in such a musical masterpiece?
Why would a composer write such double negatives?
What does it mean if it does have that swing? — Stuck Wondering If Negatives Groove

Dear SWING:

Although Ellington has received plenty of recognition as a composer and pianist, he’s sadly overlooked as an existential philosopher. When he says “It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing,” he’s telling us that a musician who isn’t swinging — or perhaps even a swinging musician when he’s off the bandstand — is plunged into meaninglessness.

“What Am I Here For?” Duke asked, but a part of him knew that there was music, and nothing more. That explains how terribly prolific he was, shadowed by the fear that the moment he put down his pen or took his hands off the keys, a life well-lived would come to nothing.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I just played a gig with a bad banjo player. I spent a lot of time learning the music, and the gig went fine. My problem is that now I can’t get that music out of my head. It’s killing me! What am I supposed to do? — Troubled in Tallahassee

Dear Troubled:

Unfortunately, offensive music in your head can only be displaced by music that’s more offensive — that’s how the banjo music got in there to begin with. So if you really want to get rid of it you could always listen to bagpipes or kazoos, but at some point you’ll have to ask yourself: “Could I face death with this as my final soundtrack?”

For now, a better question is this: How and why, in the course of evolution, did humans develop a predilection toward filling their heads with painful music? The answer: If their heads were instead filled with beautiful sounds, humans would become complacent, content to sit idly and enjoy their internal concerti. Bad music motivates humans to take action, even if their march forward is just a desperate attempt to escape, their heads ringing with escalating sounds insufferable.

It’s a bleak commentary on existence — mankind forever in motion, running from increasingly torturous music that finally proves inescapable. Unfortunately, that’s the formula for progress; on the brighter side, death becomes something no longer to be feared.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

When we’re playing a “background music” gig and the crowd is so loud there’s no way they can hear us, and we can’t even hear ourselves, does it matter what we play? — Invisible Dan

Dear Dan:

Jazz is all about responding, in the moment, to the sounds around you, right? To do otherwise is dishonest and untrue to the art form. So of course it matters what you play; you need to play the music of not being able to hear yourself, music of frustration, rage and — above all — inaudibility.

Liberated from burdens like intonation, note selection, tone quality and time, you can focus instead on creating music that fully deserves not to be heard.

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One Response to Mr. PC pt 2

  1. Good afternoon,

    My name is Jeremy Seaton and I am Co founder and Musical Director of Clazzmates, a jazz combo from Detroit now living in Phoenix, Arizona. If you get a chance, check out our music on http://www.clazzmatesmusic.com. Would love to get your input and feedback on our music. Thank you.

    Jeremy Seaton

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