On The Jazz Couch: The Art of the Open Mic – by Jonathan Whines

On The Jazz Couch: The Art of the Open Mic

Jonathan Whines, Saxophonist, Psychotherapist and Open Mic Host, writes:

With recession biting and the country gripped by a collective depression, one area of our cultural life appears to be booming: The Jazz Open Mic. What’s behind it? What weird, synchronous aggregation of X Factor wannabes, Have You Got Talent rejects and the plain old Warhol lust for “my 15 minutes” is driving this success? Best to leave that thought behind…probably far too cynical.

There’s another, more positive side: a lot of people across a wide generational range just love jazz and want to both perform and learn how to hone their art, and to get a feel of a community.

Our Open Mic at The Orange Tree, Richmond – like many others – attracts performers from 18 – 85 who meet in an atmosphere of supportive encouragement. As a relative newbie Open Mic host I feel admiration for those who have kept these nighs going through the years. But I am inclined to ask what the big attraction of this activity is? One answer I come to is that so much about our contemporary world is dislocated or “virtual”. And that by contrast there is something very human about the Open Mic, where people gather to actively make themselves quite vulnerable in pursuit of improving or developing their music – including the host!.

The Open Mic needs to be both safe enough to encourage people and yet of good enough standard to entertain those listening. This can be a tricky balance! What follows are some of the things I‘ve learnt in the last six months.

Creating a Safe Enough Space

Creating safety requires that everyone is welcomed, from the top notch pro sax player who will test the mettle of the house band through to the quivering vocalist performing his or her first ever Summertime! Judgements about the musicality of performers need to be bracketed. Open Mic only really works if it is inclusive. People seem to grow best when they are encouraged and supported not criticized. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a response, even a gentle critique… “Maybe next time you could…” etc.

Safety also requires endeavouring to be scrupulous about favouritism. This is best dealt with via “The List “and adhering to who has the next turn. Not unlike any other family, Open Mic’ers are very attuned to favouritism and quickly smell a rat. Sally is a divine jazz singer but the rumour will spread instantly that she’s caught the eye of the organizer if she inexplicably gets given an extra turn! With lots of people coming up to sing or play it is easy to forget to thank all the performers, whatever level thay are at. It’s their big moment and they deserve acknowledgement and encouragement for trying.

The Vocal Mafia

As a saxophonist who has recently been trying, with not a little difficulty, to learn to sing I feel I now look at life from both sides. As a sax player the vocalists were always a bit of an irritant who got in the way of playing “real jazz”. As a vocalist, the horn player trying to do Coltrane fills behind my “sensitive” vocal rendition of Body and Soul is a total pain. That said, vocalists do tend to dominate and easily “take over” Open Mics which results in instrumentalists disappearing into the night, never to be seen again. Yet singers also provide a much more reliable “audience” as more singers tend to turn up for Open Mics than instrumentalists. As ever its probably about finding a balance or possibly offering two predominantly different Open Mics: Vocal and Instrumental, which is our plan at The Orange Tree.

The Bebop Mafia

“OK, Giant Steps at 280 bpm – put that music away… 1,2,…1,2,3.4….!!!” I’m sure we’ve all been to those Open Mics where each tune is a test of your bebop credentials and machismo and the last man standing gets the Charlie Parker award for having the biggest pair of testicles! The rhythm section glare at you and there is no compere as that would be un-cool. Yes, jazz can be the school of hard knocks and maybe there is a place for that if you are really trying to hone your chops but for most ordinary mortals a more forgiving environment probably works best!

Divas, Moaners and Faffers

“I’m sorry, your PA is rubbish!” “That mic makes me sound like Tom Waits on acid!”. Most Open Mic bands play for little or for free. You hump your gear down 16 flights of stairs, the room is freezing and the bar staff have gone on strike. Then the guy who never sings in tune tells you the band are awful and quietly advises you to buy a new PA system. Practising non-judgemental acceptance becomes more difficult than playing Donna Lee at tempo and you wish you’d stayed in banking, because you wouldn’t end up feeling so hated! You get your equipment set-up, the band arrives, the Open Mic commences and up steps Perdita Faff. “Well, I usually sing it in Eb but tonight I’m going to try it in C, or was that D, I don’t know, and I’ve forgotten my charts, what do you think?” Duh! Twenty minutes later, your audience have left and the band look as though they all want to commit mass suicide!

The Band

Speaking of the band, well they can often be excellent musicians who engage in this strange ritual for no money, or very little, because they just love to get out and play the wonderful tunes which make the repertoire of Open Mic. The pianist often needs the patience of Job to interpret what the vocalist requires yet somehow from the sketchiest of ideas or non-existent charts some great music emerges. Treating the band to good charts ( including transpositions for horn players!!) and a modicum of respect certainly helps the session to go with a swing!

“It all becomes worthwhile”

Whatever the trials and tribulations of running an Open Mic you get some great moments where a song really works or the band are playing their socks off and it all becomes worthwhile. In a way Open Mic is the ultimate jazz test. To throw together an un-tried and un-tested singer or instrumentalist with a new rhythm section and to see if you can, in that moment, create some good music.

With an economy on the skids and misery in the air Open Mic is a place for musicians to meet, network, have fun and maybe create some music and some meaning in a world bereft of enough gigs. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but that is the beauty of the improvising life.

Jonathan runs The Orange Tree Open Mic Every Thursday 8pm in The Cellar Bar, The Orange Tree, Richmond ( Opp Richmond station) . Instrumental Open Mic to start Sunday 25th March 1pm

Categories: miscellaneous

3 replies »

  1. About 3 years ago I started playing jazz, and found everything from the wide open friendly welcome which drew me in, to an elitist, hide-bound approach which had always put me off.
    Interestingly for me the skills I use most seem to be the 'following' skills I honed since childhood at church concerts – listening, trusting my own judgement, recognising the values that others bring to performances judged technically poor by the standards of my classical upbringing.

  2. I'm a hobby bassist, competent but no Pastorius, who is increasingly trying to improve my jazz bass techniques. I was, I'll admit, always put off going to open mics because I perceived that I needed to reach a level of competence first, to be able to compete with the experienced players. Logic, of course, dictates that you only get competence through playing – so there was an element of chicken and egg.

    Through the London Jazz Meetup, which I run, I've spoken to a number of great musicians who've all encouraged me to get out there and do a jam session/open mic night, and assured me that there's room for every level.

    For the past eight weeks, I've been going every Monday to the jazz workshop (an open mic with a degree of instruction) run by Duncan Eagles at The Hideaway. I was a little nervous, but after getting up and holding my own – thanks to guidance from bassist Max Phelps – I feel I'm learning one new thing a week and looking forward to getting up and testing myself out.

    Recognising that there will be a mixture of standards is crucial, I think, because those of us with our jazz L-plates on appreciate experienced players sharing their knowledge …. and patience!

  3. Thanks,

    I really enjoyed this as it very accurately sums up my experience as the house bassist on an East London weekly jam where we endeavour to be as inclusive as possible.

    Performances do waver from the sublime to the slightly less sublime, but we have seen vocalists and instrumentalist progress from first public performances to gigging musicians, something that is very satisfying.

    As a rhythm section we always try to be as accommodating and musically supportive to our jammers as we can. We only really give advice if asked or if we think a little help with instructing your band or 'protocol' would be useful.

    Rob, you'd be more than welcome to come and hone your playing with us.

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