Did you know that Dizzy Gillespie pretty much invented beatboxing more than half a century ago? Honestly.
Dizzy wouldn’t just count off a tune: ah one, two, ah one two three four. No. He’d vocalise the entire arrangement out loud to the band – an amalgamation of the way he heard the bass, drums, horn lines, the whole lot, in his head. He wasn’t just giving a metronomic cue, he was giving tempo, pulse, feel and a sense of the entire arrangement. He communicated the whole lot in one crazy splurge of vocalised sound and physical antics.
You may feel self-conscious doing this sort of thing with a band. But who cares about that, if the result is that the band kicks off in the perfect groove every time? Anyway, Dizzy actually made prannying around in front of a band going “oop-boop-sh-bam be diddly-doo-dah” cool, so there’s no need for you to feel embarrassed about doing the same. Is there?
You may have noticed that most experienced musicians stop and consider for a moment before they start a tune – some close their eyes, click their fingers, that sort of thing. What they’re doing is accessing their inner iPod. They’re hearing the tune playing in their heads, listening to it and taking what they need from that to bring in the band with the exact feel that they want.
Great habit to acquire. It’s also a really useful check against getting too excited or nervy and counting something off too fast (interesting that, in my experience, it’s rare for people to count something off too slowly). Get the tune running in your head, take the tempo and feel from that and communicate it as clearly as you can to the rest of the band.
Here’s a little trick. If for some reason (and it can happen in the heat of the moment) you can’t pin down the feel of a tune, try forward winding in your head to the bridge or a stronger point in the tune and take your tempo from that point.
HOW TO CONDUCT YOURSELF
Sir Thomas Beecham, a famously outspoken git of a conductor whom I love dearly, was renowned for his pithy, sometimes unkind, usually hilarious and often profound ways of addressing musicians and audiences. He’s the classical music world’s Oscar Wilde when it comes to quotes (oh please look him up, you’ll adore him), but I’ll paraphrase one of my favourites of his:
If you start together and finish together, nobody gives a flying damn about what happens in the middle.
Granted, Beecham was dealing with written orchestral music, but his point applies just as much to improvised music. Get everyone clearly together at the start and what happens thereafter has the best possible chance of just taking care of itself.
So when you count off a tune, do whatever it takes to kick things off right. Take your time to conjure the tune in your head. Then beatbox, do a silly little dance, draw a picture on a knapkin, do anything, whatever it takes just to get that thing moving the way you want it to. Saying “right folks, last one to the end of the tune buys the drinks” and miming that you’re desperate for a pee gets just the same result as a po-faced direction such as “presto assai”.
Musicians generally like a strong lead that brings everyone in together, even if it conflicts with the tempo or feel they might personally prefer. It’s far better than: “Oh, it’s sort of like this” – waft waft, waft waft waft, then everyone comes in on a sort of squodgy FLOMPHHH… Then they spend the rest of the piece trying to find each other…
Start with a plan. You can change it later, but start with a plan.
AND NOW… THE END IS NEAR…
Regarding the other end of Beecham’s equation, endings are often a weakness for jazz bands. Go round the last four bars three times (or forever) and waffle. Go up a semitone or tone (and waffle). Do a substitution (and waffle). Have a cadenza (waffle) then waffle. Waffling is generally the order of the day…
There’s a common practice when jazz bands rehearse (honestly, we occasionally do, but it’s rare because we’re all far too cool for that) called “topping and tailing”. As Beecham observed, you can get away with all sorts of shenanigens if you have a crisp start and some kind of ending in mind. Even just the odd dead stop. I’m not saying you should compose and rehearse an intricate ending for every single number, and a bit of waffle is fine sometimes, but please don’t have a dickwaving contest on the last chord of every single tune. It’s not big and it’s rarely clever…