Monday, August 9, 2010

My First Gig as a Jazz Pianist

How many of you musicians remember your first gig? ( Gig, for those of you who don't know, is a slang for any type of concert, performance, musical job, etc...) I do remember my first gig as a jazz pianist. It was not my first time being paid to play music: I had been playing trumpet and drums for a while, and had done some brass quintet gigs in high school and also played drums in some jazz and rock bands. But I was slowly gravitating towards the piano in college. I started jamming a bit in practice rooms around Peabody Conservatory with trumpeter Alex Norris. I only could get through a handful of standards, but it seemed like enough to get through an hour's worth of playing.

I would also get together and practice with bassist David Ephross, who I had known since elementary school. David was also making a transition from classical flute to jazz bass, so we were in the same boat , in terms of moving to a second instrument and a second genre. We didn't know a lot of songs, but we had learned some of the hardest ones: Cedar Walton's "Bolivia", Benny Golson's "Stablemates" , and John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice". (I think this is how we fooled people into believing that we were better than we really were. ) I remember that we didn't really have enough vocabulary to "stretch out" ( play long solos) so we would play the melody, take one chorus each, and then take the melody out. We had no idea that some players could take twenty to thirty choruses on a song and never repeat themselves! ( A chorus in jazz usually means one time through the entire form-whatever form is delineated for improvisation. In case you weren't sure!)

I don't remember how we ended up with the gig at JK's Pub in Columbia, Maryland, which was a short drive from my mother's house. And somehow, we had  recently met two older musicians from Baltimore: Richard Dorsey on tenor saxophone and Chris Perry on drums. So we called them and they agreed to do the gig.  David and I met a few times the week before the " gig" to play through our non- extensive repertoire. "So I guess we'll play the melody, and then you take a chorus, and then Richard will take a chorus, and then we'll end the song?", David would inquire. " OK! That sounds good!" I would reply. So we continued to practice the tunes in this manner.

The night of the gig arrived , and I had to borrow a Fender Rhodes from a pianist and bassist named Josh Schwartzman. Josh was, and still is , the leader of a Baltimore based Latin Jazz band called Rhumba Club. In retrospect, I think Josh was reluctant to lend me the Rhodes: It was in really good condition, great action, and it had the separate speaker, a real beast to carry. I swore I would take good care of it. I suspect also that Josh didn't believe that I was ready to do a gig on piano; he had been showing me some voicings and some tunes but it was really all new to me. I was still primarily a classical trumpet player. Yet I wanted to see how this piano thing would play out.

JK's Pub was not a hip jazz club, it was really just a neighborhood restaurant and bar. There was a stage in the corner near the front window, and the tenor/Rhodes/bass/drums quartet was really packed in tightly. Richard Dorsey called Theolonious Monk's " Well You Needn't" to start the proceedings. I recall feeling like an astronaut upon the moment of liftoff. " This is really it!" I said internally, as we started to play.

We did record the performance on cassette tape, as we did all of our performances for the first few years. (And I remember many nights we would stay up all night listening to those tapes, right after the gig. Even after a 3 set gig, we would listen to all three hours of it.) Luckily, the tape of this gig doesn't not exist anymore, as far as I know. If I listened to it now, I think I would be terribly embarrassed. A song like "Well, You Needn't "was probably too advanced for me: I was most likely playing at best like a weak clone of Herbie Hancock, and at worst laying down some random chromatic crap. Which is what I do now, but it was far less compelling 20 years ago! ( Somebody say "well, you needn't have played it!")

But what was most shocking for David and I was when Richard called Moment's Notice. This is a Coltrane classic, a real uptempo harmonic workout. And Richard was clearly a Coltrane devotee, as many tenor saxophonists are. When he played that melody, he might as well have been John Coltrane himself, as far as we were concerned. David and I looked at each other as if to say telepathically, " Oh, we're playing with adults now!" Furthermore, Richard played about 25 choruses, each one better than the last. Every time that the Bb pedal came around signaling the end of a chorus, I glanced at David; I'm sure he was thinking, " Wow, he's taking another chorus!"

And with that, we were given the green light to do the same. I played for as long as my inexperienced fingers could handle. This was the first real jazz gig that I had ever done on any instrument. I felt like I could play anything on that Rhodes and it would be right. The frustrations of playing classical trumpet had completely left my psyche. I finally felt free. At last I felt like a real musician. Little did I know what triumphs and trials lay ahead.

Feel free to post memories of your first " gig"!


  1. Thanks for good story .My first gig I play with Big Band of my scholl and I play solo by Benny Carter.and no have idea how to play around changes))))---)but transcripthion I did wery well

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  3. wow, I had forgotten about Richard Dorsey. When I was new to the Baltimore scene, we did a steady gig at the Haven every tuesday with Tom Baldwin and Jim Hannah playing a lot of Coltrane and Mingus. Thanks for reviving some nice memories and sharing your first gig story!

  4. This is a great story. You read in Downbeat about how people's careers begin with a nod from Herbie or Wynton or winning some great contest. But, what about those who don't begin with super stardom and have to grind it out ? Are they doomed ? From your blog apparently not. It's important to me in my journey to hear those stories that are not so romantized. That don't begin with the perfect gig or having someone just smile on them. Thanks man :)

  5. wow, I had forgotten about Richard Dorsey. When I was new to the Baltimore scene, we did a steady gig at the Haven every tuesday with Tom Baldwin and Jim Hannah playing a lot of Coltrane and Mingus. Thanks for reviving some nice memories and sharing your first gig story!

  6. Great story! My first (jazz) "gig" was this recital in high school.

    Some of my friends had a very negative attitude towards jazz (or stereotypes of jazz), and we even had heated debates and arguments with teachers and other students on the subject of which kinds of jazz sucked or not (we were die hard metalheads back then, and kind of stil is). I actually started out playing the clarinet back when i was like 9-10 years old, and later played sax for about one year before picking up the guitar - so i had played some jazz songs and listened to some jazz for a couple of years (was a fan of Herbie Hancock already), even had a "jazz-punk" outfit at the time.

    So our teachers set up this little jazz combo for the end-of-semester ensemble project. It was me on guitar, my friend Leo on bass (but his first instrument was guitar), a drummer named Carl and the only sax player in school, Charlie (turned out his sax teacher was my old clarinet/sax teacher - nowdays i occasionaly get called in to play with his ensemble). We rehearsed one song, "Take Five", for a month or so before even moving on to the next tune ("St.Louis Blues"). I remeber that the concept of improvising was the thing i was most nervous about. Although i played a lot of solos in my heavy metal band, and i loved blues, improvisation in jazz were seen as this mystic secret. It didn't help us that our teachers wouldn't teach us how to, or even give us some advice. It's not like there are 500 chords in "Take Five", in fact there are only two in the solo section.

    I had to push my guitar teacher (who learned me to comp on all kinds of jazz songs, but more the nylon solo guitar comp style) into give me to only advice he felt he could give. He recalled whatching TV back in the 70's and seeing a Finnish guitarist playing an outstanding solo by staying on the same note for a whole minute. So he said to me to not be so worried with harmony, but to focus on rhythm, feel and dynamics instead.

    So on the last day in school before christmas break it was time for the gig. We decided that each one of us were gonna have clothes that represented different eras in the history of jazz. I was dressed as a swing era big band musician, with pinstripe suite and my hair combed back with lots of hair wax, the others dressed as "a jazz rocker", "the slick and sleazy smooth jazzer" and "the average jazz bum". The other ensembles had themes like "Power Trio", "Acoustic and Soft", "Ladies sing Soul" and so on, but the act with the greatest expectations on them were without a doubt our little jazz combo.

    We started of with "Take Five". Charlie played the first solo, with his alto doing all kinds of lines i could only dream of playing. Then came my turn. I remember just playing arround over the chords before hitting this one note, as my teacher had adviced me. The thing i remember the most of this solo was that as i played that single note with lower volume, the rest of the group followed in dynamics. At that moment i could feel that the audience were 100% focused on what was going on up on stage. And it stayed that way for the rest of the "gig". Next song was "St.Louis Blues", with me playing banjo and Carl laying down this cool second line beat we had learned. The third, and final, song was us comping the rest of our grade doing a choir version of "The Christmas Song".

    After the gig people came up to us and praised us. I remember two of the guys that we had the most heated arguments with saying that my solo was awesome. How couldn't you be hyped about playing more jazz after that experience? Little did i know then that six years after, looking back, i can really say that this was a life changing experience for me.


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