“We dream in order to integrate experiences from our daily lives into our stream of consciousness about our life.” ~ Patricia Randolph
I have been listening to big bands around the Seattle area for the last ten years now. And I have developed some impressions based on talking to the audience after a performance. So I thought I would try to capture some of the ideas here to point to in future discussions both on the Internet and in my real world. So from my stream of consciousness I want to highlight the following ideas.
Bands that have fun are fun.
This should be totally obvious but there are so many pro and semi-pro bands that don’t get this. Bands that laugh at themselves, have a great time playing music, and can get the audience to laugh are and will continue to be great draws.
For example, the Microsoft Jazz Band has a running joke about our vocalist Shaz, who is from Scotland, where we introduce her as from England. The resulting frivolity that ensues has both the band and the audience laughing like crazy. And it brings a bit of European geography into focus too.
Here is an example of the kind of throw away lines that can get the audience to pay a little more attention to the band:
Big Bands that Feature Soloists more than the Band
I was listening to a band that was well know and always had their practices in a public place. The band played 5 songs in one hour. That music consisted of over 35 minutes of solos. My wife said it was pure drudgery to sit through the first set. My director said that it was a concert that was more for the players in the band than it was for the audience. My music teacher said, that is an average jazz concert and to be expected.
I prefer the ensemble sound, favoring rich orchestrations over the self gratification of giving everyone in the band a solo. But maybe that is just me. Having talked to audiences for many years, I have discovered a huge majority of listeners who like to hear the songs they recognize, done the way they have always heard them. Your average listener is not a jazzer, they just know what they like and it is great music served up by a hot band.
Invite the dancers
It’s amazing how many great dancers there are out there looking for a place to swing dance. Swing dancing is sexy, healthy, and a great way to burn off some calories. My bands have always gone out of our way to invite the instructors from Swing Dance schools to our gigs. Typically they will bring some of their students too.
We also will do a pro bono gig for these dance instructors. Even if only one or two dancers show up, it can make our gig a little more interesting than that of a Big Band who has no dancers.
This couple showed up and luved to cut up the floor. Not only did we feature them, I gave them a copy of the resulting DVD we made of this gig.
Bring in World Class Musicians to Sub
There are times when one of the regulars in our band can’t make a gig, for all the right reasons you understand like work, family and other obligations. I see these as opportunities to bring in the best musician I can afford, especially if they are teachers too. We have been known to give the big name player the whole proceeds for a gig just to have them sit in with us. At the 3:40 mark of the following video I solo, which I actually do very rarely. Then contemporary jazz and sax man Darren Motamedy solos after me. Hear the difference? ;O)
Darren not only a stellar musician, he is a teacher who has been known to share some of his limelight with his students and local bands.
Design sets and fronts for Look and Feel
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve subbed for a band with those 3 foot high, standard big band fronts. I hate them! I’m over six foot tall, I have to bend down to read the chart. If I stand up to solo, it has to be memorized. Who designed these thangs anyway???
Suzy and I have tried many designs to find some thing that is more user friendly and have ended up today with this. You saw them in the videos above too. Yes, it is just a poster frame with a crate behind it. But the front looks sharp and it allows me to use my music glasses with a music stand set to my eye glass prescription.
The crate doubles as a short desk to hold extra reeds, mouthpieces, and most importantly, my drink. The nicest aspect of any front, I see a lot of bands not using them, is that you don’t get distracted by see the musicians moving and tapping their feet. That is not a nice distraction. A number of other musicians from other bands have looked at this design as a possible replacement to the standard fronts they use now. It stacks down to the flat fronts and crates stacked inside of each other; that makes it easy to move.
I’m sure there are other tricks of the trade that I could learn from. Ping me if you have some other experience and ideas. I’d luv to hear from you and may add to this list in the future.
It’s difficult to balance the interests of musicians in the band and members of the listening audience. The “Have fun” approach is excellent. Another is to program tunes, one for the audience, one for the band.
Very good post. Good observations too. My impression from years of doing this sort of thing in the past is that most people, including me in my youth, did not understand that this is precisely, Show Business.
Re. the soloists. Soloists can be a good musicians that we love to hear play, but they have to have some kind of charisma too. And most ‘hacks’ don’t have that. They haven’t developed stagecraft. If they have, then the situation has to allow them to be in the spotlight. Most of the time, an amateur group can sound really good playing songs – like you said. But the soloists, such as yourself are still developing and might never be that compelling to the audience. So if it isn’t music school (or camp, or rehearsal) where you trying to give people the opportunity to learn that stuff (and evaluate whether you want to perform that way), it is best avoid. Those long meandering solos are difficult to love.
So unless you are Miles Davis, or Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea or some other top 99.99% player (who each have their own styles – Miles was the anti-style late in his career but that worked for him), then resist the urge to pretend to be.
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Fortunately Shaz, our female vocalist, has charisma like crazy. She really brings the audience to life and gets the band going too. I have one ringer or more in each section (sax, trombone, trumpet, rhythm) and that makes this band a very nice place to be a member of.