photo by Ravigopal Kesari
I made a draft of this article almost 6 months ago. I guess I didn't have the nerve to finish it. Something about stones and glass houses kept ringing in my ears. The following thoughts are things to do if you want to keep a gig as a sideman.
1. Call people back. I'm one of the world's worst at this, so I thought I would get it out of the way. Some gigs may be last minute, and if you wait you'll miss them. Perhaps more importantly, if you don't call people back quickly, they get frustrated. I had a friend leave me a message once saying, "Ben, if you don't call me back today, I'll never call you for a gig again." As much as I disliked it, I got the message loud and clear. Return calls within 24 hours. Also, say yes. It may seem obvious, but there are only so many "I've got another gig" or "I can't make it" cards you can play before someone stops calling you.
2. Be on time. Friend and mentor Bob Lark at DePaul University used to tell me, "To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late, and to be late is to get fired." I already intuitively knew this. Now I have a cliche to prove it. There's nothing more nerve racking for a band leader than to know it's time to play and still not have a drummer on site.
3. Don't be a jerk. This may seem obvious as well. Then why have I seen so many spectacles on and off the band stand? Musicians are interesting and sometimes sensitive people. But if you are too difficult to be around, people will stop calling you for work.
4. Dress well. Don't think you need a subscription to GQ magazine. Just look like you mean to be there, wherever "there" is. About 12 years ago I first heard the Ornette Coleman quote, "But who wants to see a guy standing in front, looking like a bum, doing something that a bums don't do?" I'm not sure there is ever a good gig for wearing flip flops. A friend of mine use to say, "Look good. Feel good. Play good."
5. Don't be a Debby Downer. I guess this goes hand in hand with #3, but I've met some really nice guys on the bandstand that to my horror feel compelled to tell me a sob story that takes multiple breaks to complete. I'm not saying friends can't bear each other's burdens from time to time. But when you meet someone on a gig for the first time and they ask you, "How's it going?," don't respond with how you don't have any gigs anymore, your car's in the shop, the IRS is after you, and your dog is at home dying as you speak.
6. Know tunes or at least bring a fake book. This tip is especially important for jazz gigs, but I assume it's relevant for most genres. Young musicians often spend a great deal of time working on soloing. If only 20-30% of their time was spent memorizing tunes, they would probably be more hireable. If I'm on a gig, and one member of the band is musically weaker than the rest, it doesn't automatically mean the gig is a bust. However if you are relegated to playing C Jam Blues, Blue Bossa, and Take the A-Train all night because they didn't bring a fake book, then I'm probably not calling them back. On the flip side, as a sideman you don't have to know every single song called. But be ready to suggest one you do know when you get stumped.
7. Use proper gig etiquette. Understand who is running the gig. You have to defer to the leader most of the time when it comes to setting up, picking songs, when and how long to take breaks, etc. Perhaps out of insecurity or sheer bossiness, I've seen musicians sub for someone, and before the night is over, they are trying to takeover the gig. Being musically bold and assertive can be an assett, but be sensitive to the group dynamic too. If someone asks for your card, don't give them your card like I did once without thinking. Get them in touch with the leader.
Notice that all of these tips besides #6 aren't really about music gear or playing music. Obviously, when you get called for the gig, it's because someone knows or hopes you can play well. You definitely have to take care of the music in order to get called back. So, if you are already on your game musically, check to see if you are committing any of these gig fouls. The good news is that it's much easier to fix these things than it is to learn to play music.