About ten days ago, I was at a jazz club and found myself at the bar listening to two esteemed jazz players, whom I’ll call LOUIS and EARL, for purposes of discretion.
Earl was telling us a story. He had had a gig with three of the finest musicians he knows; things were going beautifully. As the end of the night approached, a musician he knew only slightly came up to the stand, and said, “Hey, you guys sound great. Can I sit in?” Earl, somewhat unprepared for this, said warily, “OK. What do you want to play?” And the musician said, “You know, the only tune that I have in my head is _ _ _ _ _ _ (a simple-sounding but quite treacherous Monk composition).” Earl was sure that the original musicians on the stand, experts all, could extemporize on it, so with some trepidation, he counted off the tempo and they began. However, the guest star — and that appellation is ironic — couldn’t successfully negotiate the chord changes of the song he had chosen to play. I’m not sure how much chaos ensued, but I assume that the musicians couldn’t wait for the particular song to be over.
The moral that came out of this incident, aside from a good deal of rueful head-shaking, grew into a small informal disquisition on the unstated rules of sittin’ in.
One: If you have to ask, “Can I sit in?” or even “May I sit in?” you shouldn’t be there. I don’t know if it resembles what they call “seeding” in tennis, but musicians of equal stature or good standing are invited to join the fun.
Two: If you do make it up to the bandstand, through whatever means, it is bad form to call a weird tune in hopes of showing off your large and esoteric repertoire or your ethereal hipness. Match your suggestion to the collective style of the musicians whose world you are temporarily joining. Some groups move seamlessly from HIGH SOCIETY to ORNITHOLOGY, but they are few.
Three: If you forget Two in the heat of the moment and the joy of sittin’ in, make sure that you know how to play the weird tune you yourself have suggested. It is better to be the King of ALL OF ME than to mess up something more exotic.
Louis proposed his idea: he had always wanted to have a small card printed, a musical quiz. “Want to sit in? Then you won’t mind taking this little test, first.” I proposed the first question: “What key is C JAM BLUES in?” (I didn’t ask how he would prevent plagiarism, because I was so entranced by the image of a player taking the card back to a table in the club and perhaps filling in the circles with a #2 pencil.)
But then a thought occurred to me, and I asked these two veterans of many bandstands. “How do you say to people, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t want you to sit in with this band”? And they looked somber, which made me think that many people get allowed up on bandstands who weren’t welcome there just because musicians hadn’t developed their polite refusals.
I proposed several that I thought were tactful — social falsehoods that wouldn’t be obviously rude: “You know, the owner doesn’t like having people sit in.” And Louis chimed in, “Yes, I could always say the band was about to do something special this set, and sitting in wouldn’t work.”
But my creativity had been stirred, and I proceeded to suggest a few — possibly more dangerous — rejoinders for this delicate moment:
“I’d love to have you sit in, but I’ve just washed my hair / I have my period / I have a headache.”
“Boy! What a great idea! But, you know, it’s Shabbos / Ramadan / Lent, so tonight’s out. Could you come back after sundown tomorrow / in a month / in ten days?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m lactose-intolerant, and my holistic healer says that letting people sit in is bad for my stomach acid.” Or, “I’m so sorry, but my cardiologist says I can’t.”
“Sounds fine! Let me just check with my psychic / financial advisor / interior decorator and see what (s)he thinks!”
If readers would like to suggest tactful versions of what musicians really want to say, which is “No.” “I don’t feel like it.” “No, you’d just screw it all up.” “You know what? I really dislike the way you play,” please let me know. You will have done the jazz community a great favor.