Just for the fun of it

One of the compliments I most enjoy receiving, when finishing up a gig with my big band, the Toronto Jazz Orchestra, is: "You look like you're having so much fun!" And frankly, it's true - on almost every gig, we're having a blast. To go along with great music there's lots of joking on the bandstand, bad jokes being told on the microphone (you're welcome...) and an overall relaxed vibe. I'm not sure I'd be in the music business if I wasn't having fun so much of the time.

I got to see some musical fun this week when I ventured out to The Painted Lady at Dundas and Ossington to catch the Heavyweights Brass Band. Made up of five outstanding emerging jazz talents - Jon Challoner (trumpet), Bobby Hsu (saxes, sitting in for Paul Metcalfe), Christopher Butcher (trombone), Rob Teehan (sousaphone) and Lowell Whitty (drums) - the Heavyweights' repertoire ranges from New Orleans classics such as St. Louis Blues to hip arrangements of Justin Bieber (yes, that Justin Bieber) and Lady Gaga (yes, that Lady Gaga). Now, I likes me a good brass band...and the Heavyweights did not disappoint. Not only did they sound great, they looked like they were having a blast on stage. And as an audience member, it was hard to sit still and hard not to be engaged by the party vibe.

So I got to thinking - is there a correlation between how much fun the musicians are having and how good the music is? Based (as usual) on completely unscientific evidence - my own experience as a musician and an audience member - I think the answer is yes: you just can't have one without the other. More specifically, I don't think you can make good music without having fun.

Let me try to give some examples. Freelance musicians play a lot of "jobbing" gigs - typically gigs with small ensembles, playing in the background for a wedding reception of some corporate function. Going into a jobbing gig, we know as musicians that we're not the main event; we're there to add a certain element and it's likely that few people will be paying attention to us. No problem - we know that going in. It's what happens once we arrive that will determine whether or not the gig is fun, and therefore whether or not the music is good. Jobbing gigs can fall into two basic categories: gigs where the musicians are left alone to do their thing; and gigs where the musicians are constantly being asked to turn down, play certain tunes, stop suddenly for speeches, start suddenly because the best man has passed out - that sort of thing. I can tell you that musicians who play gigs in category A (left alone) have a much better time than when playing gigs in category B...and as a result we feel much more satisfied with the gig, and the clients get much better music and possibly even a lower bar tab.

When it comes to actual concert settings, I can't think of a single occasion where, as an audience member, I've enjoyed a concert when the musicians on stage looked like they were hating being there. In a concert setting, much depends on the audience...and an audience is very good at picking up the energy coming from the stage. It can be a bit of a vicious circle: if the performing musicians aren't enjoying themselves, the audience will be less inclined to respond enthusiastically, which will make the musicians even less enthusiastic, etc. And, as a musician and band leader, it's very difficult to put on a good show if the musicians aren't having a good time. Maybe it's something that happened offstage - a fight with a partner, shoddy treatment by the venue, being pulled onto the bandstand before finishing that fourth pint - or something is just not sitting right...either way, a bad vibe on stage permeates and can lead to poorer concentration, unforced errors, and ultimately a lower-quality performance.

If I think back to the ten days of music that I experienced during the festival, I realize that each of the outstanding musical moments occurred when the musicians were having a good time on stage. That doesn't mean that the musicians were laughing openly and making jokes on the microphone; nor am I suggesting that it's the artist's responsibility necessarily to ensure that the audience has a good time (that's a whooole other discussion). But even the most serious, cerebral of music-making happened within an overall vibe of positivity (far out, man...). Keith Jarrett is an intense (to the nth degree) musician...but I think everyone in the audience will agree that, but for a few minutes, the trio was having a blast on stage - one doesn't play three encores if one is in a bad mood! Or take Herbie Hancock: one of the most respected jazz musicians in the world, one might expect him to be a bit aloof on stage...I can't remember one moment during his performance where he wasn't smiling, making eye contact with his musical colleagues, and obviously having a great time. And the band sanded fantastic.

Let's face it - there aren't a whole lot of millionaires in jazz. We aren't in it for the money. We love the music, we love the art, and we have so much fun! There's a reason jazz musicians have a reputation for wicked senses of humour...

What do you think? What stands out as being your most memorable - and fun - jazz moment?


P.S. - need proof of the jazz sense of humour? Check out this little bit of silliness:

Or, for a more profound discussion, check out:

And we can't forget Hans Groiner...

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