Playing Well With Others: On Singers & Musicians

Over the past few weeks, I’ve observed a few disparaging remarks about singers out there on the social media playground. More specifically, these were remarks made about jazz vocalists by jazz musicians. It actually surprised me a little. While there is definitely a common sentiment that musicians look down on vocalists, I guess I’ve never entirely bought into that idea. That said, I’m more than willing to entertain the notion that I might be kidding myself. It certainly seems like something worthy of investigating here. Let’s have a look, shall we?

I guess the first question to ask is this: Is it true? Do musicians really believe that vocalists are somehow lesser entities in the jazz pecking order? I guess to answer that question, one would have to make the distinction between what a person thinks versus what a person does. With one notable exception, the musicians I work with have always treated me very well; they are friendly, supportive and upbeat. I feel respected and generally get the vibe that these musicians are happy to be playing with me. So if their actions are any indicator, then they have no problem with vocalists, or at least with me. They may be thinking something entirely different, but if so, they hide it well. With the one aforementioned exception, there was no ambiguity. The musician in question was, as the old standard goes, “mean to me.” He made sarcastic remarks throughout the gig, complained a lot and was uncooperative. Musically-speaking, it didn’t feel like we were a team at all up there on the bandstand. In fact, I not only got the feeling that this dude didn’t want to be playing with me but that he didn’t even like me. Needless to say, that was one long gig. As I look back on that now, however, I can’t say for sure if this was a musician/ singer thing or simply an unfortunate mismatch of personalities.  (It could have even been a bit of sexism, but that’s a topic for a whole other post.) I don’t play with this person anymore and luckily, he was my only overt experience of being treated badly by a jazz musician. But this is only my experience. I have definitely heard horror stories from other vocalists about musicians they’ve played with and how disrespectfully they’ve been treated on some of their gigs.

On the other side of this, it is fair to say that there are a few badly -behaving vocalists out there that make it rough for the rest of us to get respect. I’ve witnessed some shenanigans first hand. I’ve watched a highly skilled rhythm section chase a singer around while she randomly changes the key she’s singing in.  I’ve also observed these same lifesavers make seamless adjustments for dropped or added beats. I’ve seen plenty of singers get lost in the form. And one of the things that makes me cringe the most is when vocalists interject their own commentary during an instrumental solo. I find this especially embarrassing if there’s sexual innuendo involved: “Take me there, baby!”  Finally, I’ve seen a few vocalists (not many, thank God) who are downright mean to their musicians. There was a vocalist I’d known personally for a few months before I’d ever heard her sing. I finally made it out to one of her gigs and was mortified at how she was ordering her band around. Once she stepped onto the stage, she  transformed into some kind of jazzilla. I only have three words for these types: Don’t do that!

Perhaps what might be important to toss into this discussion is whether or not singers are considered musicians. My thinking is that if vocalists are indeed considered as musicians by instrumentalists, then these relationships are probably more collegial than adversarial. So, are vocalists musicians? My guess is the answer to this will vary, depending on whom the question is proposed.  I grew up playing alto sax. Mind you, this was marching band stuff, not jazz. A few years after I started singing, I began taking piano lessons. The whole point was to hopefully make myself a smarter and better vocalist. My goal was to learn as much as I could. Although I could already read music,  it was  through studying piano that I  really began to learn theory. Changes in my financial situation forced me to quit lessons, and I have to say that has been detrimental to me. I do have a keyboard; I can poke around on it and figure things out on new tunes I’m learning, for example. But it was the weekly lessons and decidedly focused practice that had the strongest impact on my developing musicianship. I have a daily vocal practice and am always trying to improve and learn. I don’t know at what point I am considered a musician. But even if we vocalists are not seen as musicians- and I am speaking only about vocalists that aren’t proficient on an instrument- does it matter? Are we any less worthy of respect?

I don’t claim to have any answers here. I think there are dump trucks full of gray area in this situation. This isn’t a black and white deal. I just know that when I’m trying to improve any relationship, musical or otherwise, then ideally the first thing is to have a look at myself and what I’m doing. With any luck, I can be proactive in improving things. In that vein, I’m going to toss out a few suggestions for happy singer-musician relations. Actually, these are things that I’ve tried to employ in my own trip. I  may very well be full of shit. That’s why I am asking for commentary at the end of the post. But for now, here goes:

(1)  Know your tunes. Know the form and what key you sing them in. Sure, if you’re blasting off with a new tune, you may still be figuring stuff out. But in general, know your music. This leads me to….

(2)  Have your book in order. Have your charts (in your key) put together in an organized and easy to read format. Have it with you on gigs. Yeah, we’re fortunate to have plenty of amazing musicians around town that can play almost any standard in any key. But don’t make the assumption that they can and they will. The book, the book, the book!

(3)  If you can (and haven’t already), learn piano. It made my understanding of the music so much more complete and definitely enhanced the adventure.

(4)  Ask questions. Be curious! I’ve been really fortunate to play with sweet men and women who are generous about answering my musical questions.  Most of them have had long careers, and their depth of knowledge is vast. I’ve learned a ton by just asking questions. It’s also a nice way to get to know the people you’re playing with. At the very least, don’t pretend to know something you don’t. It’s a really bad idea. My assumption is that the musicians I am working with know loads more than I do. With a very few exceptions, this assumption has worked well for me over the years.

(5)  Listen.

(6)  Take care of your musicians. Pay them well. Feed them whenever you can. Don’t ask them to load their gear into the club via a route that takes them past the fry cook. I’m not talking about ass-kissing here but simple golden rule stuff. And if you make it a practice to treat your musicians well, then generally speaking, they’re more inclined to be patient and flexible in goofy situations that are beyond your control. (weird club owners, dimly-lit bandstands, whatever…)

(7)  Don’t be a diva. Just don’t.

(8)  Keep a sense of humor, don’t take yourself too seriously and have fun for God’s sake! I think this is really, really important. Honestly, fun is the most important thing on a gig….at least to me anyway. It’s not about impressing anyone, or singing perfectly or wearing an evening gown that sparkles….it’s all about the joy of the jazz. I mean, isn’t that ultimately why we do this? Enjoy the people you’re on the bandstand with!

Again, I don’t even pretend to make these suggestions with any authority. I’m just saying what’s worked for me. As for what musicians can do on their side to make nice with singers? I guess I would ask that they be kind and not assume we’re stupid. As I said earlier in the post, I’ve been treated really well by the musicians I’ve played with, so I don’t have loads of comment here. But I would like to hear some.

The other night at Tula’s, I was sitting with another vocalist and mentioned to him that I was thinking of writing a post on the relationship between jazz vocalists and musicians. He gave me a worried look and asked me if I really wanted to “open up that can of worms.” I guess I don’t really see it as opening up a can of worms. That’s certainly not my intention. I think we’re capable of having a sane and respectful discussion here. With that, I invite and welcome your comments. The ground rules are these: be cheerful, be kind and keep a sense of humor. (If you want to comment anonymously, that’s cool. I think the blog allows it, but if not, shoot me an email and I will post for you.) Remember that the one thing we all have in common is a shared love of the music. Let that be our starting point……..