Jazz Blog - January 13, 2008

Playing jazz in public, finally

When people find out that I play jazz trumpet, they almost always ask if I play anywhere around town. I typically respond telling them that I'm not very good and that I've still got a long way to go before I play in public. And that's how I've felt since returning to the trumpet in 2002. I'm still in "development mode".

If you read my review of the 2007 Atlanta Trumpet Festival, you know that I finally did play the trumpet in public for the first time, as a member of the adult ensemble. It was primarily an educational event with little pressure, so it was easy for me to give it a try. Although I enjoyed playing at the Atlanta Trumpet Festival, it wasn't exactly a big confidence boost for me. I struggled to play some of the parts and I made some mistakes during the performance. If anything, it reinforced my belief that I'm not ready to play jazz in public.

When I talk about playing jazz in public, I don't mean playing gigs. Playing gigs is really of no interest to me, thanks in large part to all of the coffee shop gigs I played in college. Some musicians don't care if the audience isn't paying attention to them and they don't mind (too much) if they're playing to an empty house, but it always bothered me. So, no gigs for me. I would, however, like to someday become good enough to play jazz on a regular basis with other people, in a relaxed environment. Ideally, I'd find a group of musicians and we'd play jazz at somebody's house where there's no pressure to play well and there's no audience to please. All that matters is that the vibe is good and that everyone's enjoying the music. But, like I said, I'm not ready to play in public yet, so even a low-key jam session is many years away. At least that's what I thought until the guy in this photo came along...

What are you lookin' at?About a week ago, I received a fairly long email message from a visitor to my jazz blog (I hope he enjoys this 1970 photo of him that I dug up online). Like many of the long messages I receive, it began with his personal background. He told me he's been a musician for 40+ years and that he and some friends have been playing jazz at his house every Thursday night, for the past few years. As he described it, they're a "rehearsal band" that plays together "simply for enjoyment." Oh, and he lives in Atlanta. I was halfway through the message and figured he was just going to ask me a question about the local Atlanta jazz scene or something like that. And then it hit me... he's inviting me to play in his band.

My first reaction to his invitation was: how am I going to get out of this?! I've still got years of ear training and trumpet fundamentals in front of me. I'm definitely not good enough to play jazz with other people yet! I was all set to politely refuse his offer but for some reason I decided to wait before responding. Later that night, I told my wife about the email and her first response was "Do it." I tried to think of some excuses, but I couldn't come up with anything compelling enough. I couldn't even use the old "it's too far" excuse since he lives only 3 or 4 miles from my house (Atlanta is really spread out, so "it's too far" is often a perfect excuse to get out of just about anything). Unable to come up with any good excuses, I replied to his email and accepted the offer to sit in with his band.

Driving up to his house this past Thursday for my first jam session, my mind was filled with all sorts of worst-case scenarios. What if I get lost in the chord changes? What if my chops blow out after five minutes? What if I'm the worst one there and they laugh at my playing? What if this is all just an elaborate setup and I'm about to be held ransom by a diabolical crime ring that uses their knowledge of jazz to prey upon unsuspecting jazz blog writers? It's a good thing I hadn't yet seen that 1970 photo. He looks like trouble with a capital "T" in that Davy Crockett jacket ;-)

When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by the bass player (Davy Crockett). He then introduced me to the guitarist and the drummer. Everyone seemed really friendly, so I was able to rule out the "crime ring" scenario pretty quickly. I was still pretty nervous, though. With just four of us there, we began playing a blues-based tune. Unsure of myself, the first chorus of my solo was lackluster but I held on and continued for 2 or 3 more choruses. With each successive chorus I loosened up and my playing improved noticeably. By my last chorus I was playing better than I had expected to play the entire night!

After playing a couple of tunes as a quartet, the violinist and alto saxophonist arrived. We played a few more jazz standards including "Well You Needn't," "Blue Monk," and "Stolen Moments." To my surprise, my range and endurance held up really well. In fact, I played at least half a dozen C's above the staff at full volume during my solos. I can't even do that during my practice sessions at home! The guys were very supportive of my playing and offered several complements. I suppose they were being a little extra nice since I was the new guy, but I do think they genuinely enjoyed my playing. In any case, I thought it all went really well and I had a blast. I had totally forgotten how fun it is to play jazz with real live people.

Is this the start of a new chapter in my musical journey? It's probably too early to tell, but it was definitely a great experience and also a good indication that maybe I am ready to play jazz with other people!

I'd like to say a special thank you to "Davy Crockett" (his real name is Rick S.) for inviting me to play with the group, and to the other musicians for welcoming me into their band. I'm looking forward to many more Thursday nights.

Comment by Rick S

Very nice piece, Rick. Glad to hear it worked out for you, too.

We all look forward to seeing you regularly on Thursdays. Our steel drummer and tenor plyer will be back in the fold this week, so there should be eight of us!

For all of you out there in the blogosphere; Start up a weekly session. Is's unbelieveably rewarding.

Just ask Rick.

Best,

Davy Crockett

King of the Wild Frontier

Atlanta, GA

Comment by gary Pitts

I really enjoyed hearing you play last Thursday your playing was thoughtful, well phrased, and in key, all things I'm striving to achieve. The tone you were getting was strong and sure of itself. You brought a informed Jazz sense to the jam, and I am looking forward to playing music with you again.

Comment by Eric B

Rick -- congrats man! I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that you're playing with folks. As you know, our journeys are similar in many regards. I recall going through the exact same thoughts as I rolled to my first jam session... even the diabolic crime scenario. LOL. I'm dead serious.

Quick update - I'm still practicing and playing out when the opportunity presents itself. Here's a bit of news - like Art Farmer I've switched to flugelhorn full time! We'll see how long that lasts but right now if feels perfect.

I'm thinking of launching jazzbrew.com version 3.0 some time in the Spring. Still thinking about it. We'll see...

Comment by Rick

Hi RickS, Gary, and Eric. Thank you all for the encouragement and support!

Eric, I'm glad to hear you're thinking of bringing your site back. I've missed reading your updates. And isn't Art Farmer playing a Monette flumpet nowadays? If so, you should definitely get one! It shouldn't cost you too much... ;-)

-Rick

Comment by Rob

Hi Rick,

The most fun thing I ever did and the best thing I ever did to help my trumpet playing was to find some like-minded musicians and form a band. We rarely actually perform anywhere and usually just play at our bass player's house, but it gives so much more purpose and direction to my playing.

From listening to your clips, you are already way better than me, so I look forward to hearing about what happens to your progress over the next few months. I'm sure it will really take off.

And Eric, if you are reading this - please put up your site again soon! Your journey has also been an inspiration to me, but unfortunately I only discovered your site shortly before you shut it down.

Best wishes,

Rob

Hey Rick,

I share everyone's enthusiasm in playing with you Thursday nights. Your ideas and tone are inspiring. Can't wait for next Thursday!

-- Richard

Comment by Steve

Hi,

I've been playing double bass for about five years now and suffer a lot from 'everyone else is better than me' syndrome.

Lately I've been going over to a drummer's place with an alto sax player friend every week and jamming. At first we were trying to play loads of songs but lately we've been feeling more like sticking to mostly the blues and the rhythm changes (no shortage of songs with just those!).

The progress I've made lately is amazing. I've even started to solo! It really motivated you to practice as well.

Always try and find some other guys to jam with. Jazz workshops are a good place to 'headhunt'.

Comment by Rob

Hey,

I've been visiting the site for a few months using the ear trainer etc. This blog just made me think of my 'performance anxiety' I guess you could call it. I'm about to go on tour with my school's senior band and I'm wondering if you have any tips with nerves?

Thanks,

Hit me back on email if you get the chance.

Comment by Guti

Hi, Rick, hi all.

I'm a lousy guitar player. A complete amateur, a student that devotes no more than 3 or 4 weekly hours to the instrument. It may look silly, even shameless or offensive that I give any advice, not to mention any advice to *you* (who, as a player, are undoubtedly at an entirely different level).

But... that is exactly my point. In this particular topic, I modestly think I am a virtuoso :-)

No matter how big one is, it's easy to forget very important details and make basic mistakes. You can be a guitar guru, but... you can drop the pick at the worst moment. You can be a trumpet monster, but be always late and nobody will call you.

If you have the slightest reservation about playing among friends, you're making a basic mistake: thinking that perfection is possible. Or even worse: thinking that perfection matters anyway.

Please, play. Play in public. Play with others. Play bad notes, with only one condition: play lots of them, play them with all of your heart, blow them away, let everyone hear each one of your bad notes. Be proud of them. You're not killing any whale, you're just doing music. Your reputation is not that important. Enjoying your own music is. If you can't enjoy, forget about ear training or solo patterns; work on that. That needs your discipline and immediate attention.

If you wait until you achieve a "satisfactory level" before playing in public, or even rehearsing in private, there's one thing I know for sure: that moment will NEVER arrive. If you're a serious musician, you'll always be a student, and feel small. Learn to live with that idea, accept that you'll never be "ready" to "make a decent performance", and meanwhile... enjoy music, and let others enjoy the (partial, incomplete, insufficient, ok, whatever) result of your long years of effort. (And many more to come.)

Every great musician is a perpetual student, and every record or gig lets others see the result of his inspiration... at that moment. Different musicians are at different stages of development, and each musician is at a different stage of his personal development. There's no way (and no need whatsoever) to avoid or hide that. But those differences are negligible when confronted to the important things in this business.

Comment by Marq

I am so late with this comment but I do need to say that you inspire me bro. I am like you in many ways. This story is all too familiar. It could have gone a different way but thank God it worked in your favor. We really are our worst critic and actually sound better than we think.

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