Monday, November 16, 2009

Era of the Unrehearsed Band

Jon Crowley Quintet @ Chris' Jazz Cafe, Jan '09 (1 week before recording the album)

Blog # 31: Era of the Unrehearsed band

Years ago, when Jazz was at its peak of popularity, many bands roamed the earth performing frequently, developing their own 'band sounds' and playing 'tight' arrangements. We've all seen the photos of club fronts with signs reading; "Miles Davis Quintet tonight, Horace Silver Quintet tomorrow".

From my experience over the last year, those times have changed, if they ever existed in the first place. I question if they ever existed because there are a lot of myths about the jazz scene of the past that simply aren't true.

I can tell you this, as a trumpet player on the scene in New York City; most bands you see are pick-up groups. This does not mean that the musicians have never played together before, but it very well could mean that they have never played together in that combination or playing that music. I know this might seem impossible considering the incredible performances you might hear at any club on any given night, but those performances are possible due only to the incredibly level of musicianship possessed by people like Chris Potter, Ari Hoenig, Ben Monder ETC. (Just check out their schedules on myspace, they play with different bands each night)

I remember a few years ago when I first moved to NYC and was going to NYU. My band at the time consisted of friends of mine that were also students and the general mentality was that we all had a fair amount of free time so we would rehearse, hang, play and perform frequently.

Life out of school in the real world is very different. Young musicians are taking work where they can find it. Teaching two days a week, playing a wedding gig out on long Island, a few days on the road with a band, doing some copy work for pop act, Church Gigs and Subway hits. This makes everyone's schedule's a hodgepodge day-to-day scheduling nightmare. Rehearsing a band weekly, and doing gigs with the same group just doesn't happen. Now, when you book a gig you make some calls and say "Can you do the gig on this day and the rehearsal on this day", if they can't do both you get someone else.

There are steady working bands that still tour and play, like the Dave Holland Quintet, Terence Blanchard's Groups, but they are the exception. The jazz apprenticeship system is loosing steam simply because the older generation of 'well-known' musicians are either dying or taking jobs at Universities, which keep them off the road. It would seem there is a great separation in class structure between the very rich and the very poor.

Perhaps the scene has always been like this, and its the idea that there are tons of well rehearsed bands in New York City that is purely fiction. I know that before Miles Davis was signed to Colombia he toured with Philly Joe Jones picking up local rhythm sections in whatever town they played in.

I will leave with this; last month I saw a band at Cornelia Street Cafe consisting of a lot of up-and-coming talent. The performance was pretty mediocre due to the fact that the musicians were so buried in their music stands. It was obvious they were under-rehearsed. and the real shame is that that music would have really taken off with more time to prepare.


  1. Jon, I've thought about this same issue regarding the scene here in Seattle, and there doesn't seem to be an answer, at least for working musicians. It's also become common to schedule rehearsals with one or two group members at a time, whoever can make it basically, hope for one full-band rehearsal, and then hit the gig, which, depending on the music, often won't pay enough to make it worth the time that the group put in to prepare. It seems to me that the best a leader can do is find musicians that are peers or friends who are willing to sacrifice time and money to help with a project and take whatever time you can get.

  2. Hi Art,
    I think this is a common problem that a lot of working musicians deal with, but its rarely discussed. The worst part about it is that the music is what suffers most.

    One solution I've found, is that if I book a gig, and then make calls to see who I can get, it becomes a two part deal. IE "can you do the gig on this date and the rehearsal on this date?" If they can't do both, I get someone else.

    I think the lack of rehearsals affects the music in a profound way. I know that I am more reluctant to play difficult music that I've written if I know the band won't get a chance to rehearse much. I've started writing two types of tunes; 'lead-sheet style' and more 'through-composed stuff with layers and counterpoint.' This gives me more options depending on the amount of preparation I'll have for the gig.

    Thanks for reading and commenting