When you are just starting out as a young musician, you are probably under an false impression that your ability to play a.k.a. Killingness is the thing that will help you succeed. Well, if you are Mark Turner/Eric Harland/Chris Potter special, yes. That applies. For 98% of the jazz school graduates, that won’t be the case.
Most of the gigs you will be doing, you will do as a side-person. You should be proficient in your craft and your game should be tight and you should continue to evolve and expand, of course. But there are other basic common sense stuff that helps you create your place in music.
I have been in NYC for almost 30 years and I have seen many many many cats come and go, not because they can’t play but because they didn’t have people pulling their coattail to the fact that jazz is a long game and you should approach it as such; the fact that you are playing with and for people. Having good working relationships with (most) everyone is really important. It’s not so much who know but how you know them is what counts.
So here are my two-cents to create and sustain your place in music:
Be on time. Nobody wants to deal with frustration of a band member not showing up. It really sucks. If sound check is at 6 pm, that means you are ready to play the first note at 6 pm, which means you should get there by 5:30 pm. If you are that person who are always on time and ready to play, chances are you will get the call before a cat who might play a little better than you yet always unreliable.
Learn the music before you show up. You know it pisses you off when you hire someone for a gig and the first time s/he looks at your music is at the rehearsal. And the same cat sometimes shows up without the music you emailed 2 weeks ago. You know you’d be like, “WTF.” But how would you feel if a cat already knows your music. You feel appreciation like MF. One less thing to stress over. Bandleaders have million things to worry about. You not knowing the music should not be one of them. After all, you are hired to play the music. You want to play music for living. It’s so basic that you know the music before you arrive. If you do this consistently, you’ll be the first call cat. Even if you don’t kill that solo every single time. Bandleaders are not so worried about your solo but you playing the music correctly.
Be nice. Nobody wants to sit next to a cat who always finds something to complain about and all s/he wants to do is to gossip and bring the vibe down. Especially when you are doing that 14-hour trans-Pacific flight. Smile and kindness is the WD40. Things are already hard enough. Why make it harder.
Know how to dress. Ask the person who hired you about what to wear. This is always very much appreciated. There is a time to dress up and there is a time to make a statement with your clothing. You got to know when to do what. If you show up at a corporate reggae in old t-shirt and torn up jeans, chances are, you won’t get a call next time.
Mind your hygiene. Please bathe and wear deodorant. It’s hard to be around people who smell and it’s harder to point that out to that person. It goes with #4. It is also a very professional and grown up thing to do.
Learn to communicate in timely manner. We live in the world of emails and texts and what not. There is no reason for you to make other person wait, unless you are doing that on purpose for whatever reasons. But if you are trying to build your career and trying to get as much work as possible, then, it serves you to reply in very timely manner. It’s so frustrating to not hear back from someone when you need to.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. It’s sort of an addendum to #6, but this makes everyone’s life easier. It’s totally fine that you don’t feel like doing some gig or whatever but you have to communicate that clearly at the get go. Not a day before the gig and with some sad excuse. Alternately, if you said yes to something, act like you said yes. Don’t half-step.
Be flexible. You don’t have to say yes to everything but it’s helpful when people are reasonable and accommodating. In other word, don’t be a diva. A very very few people can continue working and be a diva at the same time. Rest of us, not so much.
Curve your guests. It’s not your gig so don’t ask to have 10 people on the guest list. It’s not a good look for the person who hired you and it’s really not a good look for you.
It’s about the music. More specifically, it’s about the music of the person who hired you. You should still be you, musically, but you also should think about how you can make this person look/sound good. It’s not possible for you to shine when rest of the band is struggling. (I mean, I guess that can happen, too, but not very fun, though.) Jazz is funny that way. It is an individual AND a team sport at the same time. You would have much more fun when everyone else is having fun, too. If the boat starts sinking, don’t stand/sit there with an attitude like, “oh man. I got nothing to do with this sad shit over there ….” Don’t do that. Get in there and make it work. And people with ears and hearts are listening out here. Really.
You might not agree with me right now, but when it’s your turn to lead your own band, you’d think of this list and you’d secretly think to yourself, “damn, she was right!” Lol. So take my words and get your life in music.