Leaders vs. Sidepeople: Can't we all just get along? Discuss.


Last week I had a gig at Ryles Jazz Club with my new band.  I was feeling a little absurd, as the audience turnout was comically low one, and I was calculating the amount of money I was losing on this evening, even as the gig progressed.

Anyway, to indulge the absurd inner monologue playing in my head, I did about 10 minutes of comedy as I introduced the band, and proceeded to good-naturedly rib the people who shared the stage with me, and continued this activity throughout the night.  I do this on most of my gigs where I'm handed the microphone, but that's another story.  As I introduced our drummer, I pointed out that he'd never hired me for one of his own gigs as a leader, which got a pretty huge laugh.  A couple days later, said drummer updated his Facebook status to indicate that this had bothered him, that he wasn't sure whether to feel guilty or pissed that I had pointed this out on the mike, in front of an audience.  In the hour or two that the message was on the drummer's wall (he took it down after I noticed it and posted a public apology), there were at least twenty comments from colleagues of ours (I was not mentioned by name on the post) sticking up for the drummer.  Many of the commenters were pretty annoyed at me for calling the drummer out on stage like that, not realizing the humorous context.  Interestingly, though, many of the comments were from people who I know find themselves in this position.  Many of these people were principally band leaders, who mainly record projects and seek out gigs for them, sometimes writing their own music or arrangements, and others were principally sidemen (I'm going to get sick of constantly writing "side people" so I'm going to stick with using the male gender to signify all genders, if that's OK), in that others hired them to play on recordings and gigs.

Now, the drummer and I patched things up about 15 minutes after the controversy, but while we were patching it up (and we had other gigs together throughout the weekend, so the conversations about this continued) we realized that the post had perhaps touched a nerve in the music community, and definitely had made each of us think about our roles in the world of music.  It inspired me to expand my initial Facebook response into a proper blog post, to try and explore my feelings on this issue, and to maybe get some input from some in the community.  I've already gotten some feedback on my Facebook wall and in my dealings with fellow musicians, but hopefully this will inspire more.

Oftentimes, intentionally or not, a musician will find themselves in a position where they are always the bandleader.  Perhaps they write a lot of music or arrangements and have an artistic vision that they want to explore without a lot of other input.  Maybe they even have many bands with subtly or vastly different music.  This can even be a survival mechanism for some of our more prolific and well-known artists (I'm thinking of Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, John Scofield) who have numerous bands.  They can return to play in the same cities or festivals year after year and offer something different each time.  Also, maybe they're just better at hustling gigs, because of their personality or because of a motivation of financial survival.

There is another practice that has become more and more common, and I noticed it happening sometime in the mid-to-late 80's, but it had probably been going on throughout the history of jazz.  Leaders will hire "ringers" or "heavies" who are more established players, for their recordings or gigs (usually the more high-profile gigs... it would have been tough to get Michael Brecker to play on your $75-a-man gig at Michael Timothy's in Nashua, NH, in 1996, although he might have done it for that amazing Pizza they'd always give the band... it was like a "pizza-sampler" of about 3 different pies... there was always this ranch-bacon combo that I loved).  The hiring of more experienced players became more common for a couple main reasons, in my observation: 1) Record companies began to sign "Young Lions," who in many cases had enormous talent and potential, but perhaps lacked the experience to put together a complete recorded project or carry an evening with their own instrumental prowess.  To make the music deeper, and to provide the "finishing school" that young players used to get on the road, in an apprentice-like setting, more mature, established players were hired, definitely for many recording projects, and often even for the road bands.
2) In order to get a big gig, or get a record distributed by a label, or to define and jumpstart one's career, artists started hiring these more established players.  No one is going to buy a record by The Mark Shilansky Quintet, but what about The Mark Shilansky Quintet with Jaco Pastorius, Steve Gadd, Pat Metheny, and Sonny Rollins?  Holy crap, could that have even happened?  Jaco died when I was 17, so probably not... now I'm going to have that concept to think about as I go to sleep tonight.  I have hired some established players to form the band or be guests on all of my CDs, and I'll probably do it again, but the main problem with this approach is:  when are YOU established enough so that people will come see you or buy your music WITHOUT the superstars?  Also, I believe there is some hope that by playing with these people that you've hired, it will help make YOU a better player, but so much better that YOU are now a commodity who is hired to lend legitimacy to some kid's first record or even that it will make you enough of a "cat" that people will play a door gig with you for an equal slice of the door?

To go off on a tangent for a second and explain what I mean by the "apprentice" program... It used to be that someone like Miles Davis would seek out the best young evolving players and scoop them up to play in his band, and then these young players would learn invaluable lessons about playing, putting a set together, handling the road, business, every aspect of being an artist.  Then these players would gradually leave the nest (sometimes forcefully, sometimes with the leader's blessing) and having developed more of a voice of their own (and hopefully some notoriety, so they would sell tickets and recordings) would start bands of their own and get their own gigs and record deals.  The development of the "Young Lion" system of promoting young talent above all else disturbed this apprentice system, and there are several players who (although they went on to have careers of their own) were hit hard by this shift... one could make the case that it was Mulgrew Miller's or Hal Galper's or Gary Bartz's "turn" to be the next star of jazz, but the moment that was supposed to happen, the youth movement began.

Also, and this is definitely the topic for another blog post, I'd say that this apprentice system has been replaced by the great Jazz Education system we have at some of our fine schools around the world.  Despite some claims I've read that say that "the Academy" has killed music, I would counter that it is where we have to go to encounter and work with master musicians, since there are fewer places to play, and fewer gigs all around.

The other side of the coin, the sideman who just can't get any traction as a leader, is somewhat common, too.  Sometimes to be a good sideman you have to be a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.  Maybe you have a personality that is agreeable and humble, so that you get along with others well, but don't have that narcissistic burst of confidence every once in awhile (or about 10 times a day, for the big stars) that says "I have something to say!"  And the other question raised by my drummer-facebook-imbroglio is about balance.  Can one be a leader and a sideman in equal measure, or will one role eventually outweigh the other?

I feel like I have been on either side of this equation throughout my career.  I've played with some pretty established people and actually been hired by them.  I've played with some established people wherein they've been "stuck" with me, where a guest artist comes to a school where I teach and I am their band, or a friend of mine has had me as one of the "local cats" in their star-studded band.  Also, I've led some artistic gigs, and I've led a lot more "function" gigs, weddings, parties, etc.  There are gigs that I covet.  I've had in my conversational lexicon for years the phrase: "Well, sure I can play with you next Saturday, unless Joe Lovano or Sting calls!" because it would hard to think of a gig I wouldn't bail on to play with either of those heroes of mine (the list goes on, but those are the names that come up most often).   But my particular ego-and-insecurity combination goads me into wanting to play with many, many other artists, both here in town and around the world.  "I could do that gig better than [insert name of perfectly fine player who becomes my unwitting nemesis]."
Here are some observations I've made, partially to calm myself down and keep me from spinning down the vortex of this scarcity mentality: 1) Sometimes it means absolutely nothing that someone hasn't called you for a gig, like, there are a number of great people on that instrument in the area, and the leader just happens to prefer one person, or they have a special bond, or just wants to work with a variety of people. 2) It's almost always a bad question to ask "Why don't you call me?" because there's really only TWO answers: a) There is someone else who plays the gig better, gives the leader more of what they want, which is a really hard conversation to have, or b) The person who is asking the question IS the best person for the gig, but they're too much of an asshole or a liability in some other way (substance abuse, showing up late, saying stupid things to your drummer mid-comedy-routine on the microphone) to hire.

There is a hand-written list, that you can find on the web if you search for it, made by Steve Lacy, I believe, when he was playing with Thelonious Monk, where Steve would write down advice that Monk would give the band.  One important tenet was: "Don't sound anyone for a gig. Just be on the scene."  Bill Evans has said that when he got to New York he just hung in his room and practiced, and went to very few sessions or to schmooze, and word spread about him pretty fast.  If you want to be called for more gigs, you probably have to increase and strengthen one or more skill sets, be it reading, chops, familiarity with certain genres, grooving, or maybe just being less of a douche (or MORE of a douche, if you want to play with a band of douches.  That's a great name for a group.  Mark Shilansky and the Band of Douches).   And this is all advice I am pointing at myself, believe me, though not always following as much as I should.  

To refer back to my brief endorsement of "Schools..."  Many of the people I play with today are people I met in undergrad or grad school.   Those are great places to develop a peer group.  Perhaps, if you want to work with peers, you need to find a group of people who are at your level, which often means going back to school or finding a new jam session to frequent, or even a new town to live in, in some cases.  

If you want to be a bandleader, well... maybe try writing more, try partnering with other artists you play with so perhaps you could open for them.  Try soliciting your local restaurants, bars, libraries, civic centers to see if they'd like to have some music there.  If you teach at a school or are affiliated with a Church use whatever power you have at that organization to set up clinics wherein you can hire people, or to play on a concert series there. And we now have the web... start a blog, make some web videos to build a fan base. 

Finding a bridge across the Leader vs. Sideman schism is something we may never fully accomplish, and maybe this is the way things are supposed to be.  I hope this little note gets some of the musical community talking about it in a more constructive way, and I hope to keep sharing these thoughts with you from time to time.  

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