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Do You Know...?: The Jazz Repertoire in Action

Do You Know...?: The Jazz Repertoire in Action

by Robert R. Faulkner, Howard S. Becker

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Every night, somewhere in the world, three or four musicians will climb on stage together. Whether the gig is at a jazz club, a bar, or a bar mitzvah, the performance never begins with a note, but with a question. The trumpet player might turn to the bassist and ask, “Do you know ‘Body and Soul’?”—and from there the subtle craft of


Every night, somewhere in the world, three or four musicians will climb on stage together. Whether the gig is at a jazz club, a bar, or a bar mitzvah, the performance never begins with a note, but with a question. The trumpet player might turn to the bassist and ask, “Do you know ‘Body and Soul’?”—and from there the subtle craft of playing the jazz repertoire is tested in front of a live audience. These ordinary musicians may never have played together—they may never have met—so how do they smoothly put on a show without getting booed offstage.

In “Do You Know . . . ?” Robert R. Faulkner and Howard S. Becker—both jazz musicians with decades of experience performing—present the view from the bandstand, revealing the array of skills necessary for working musicians to do their jobs. While learning songs from sheet music or by ear helps, the jobbing musician’s lexicon is dauntingly massive: hundreds of thousands of tunes from jazz classics and pop standards to more exotic fare. Since it is impossible for anyone to memorize all of these songs, Faulkner and Becker show that musicians collectively negotiate and improvise their way to a successful performance. Players must explore each others’ areas of expertise, develop an ability to fake their way through unfamiliar territory, and respond to the unpredictable demands of their audience—whether an unexpected gang of polka fanatics or a tipsy father of the bride with an obscure favorite song.

“Do You Know . . . ?” dishes out entertaining stories and sharp insights drawn from the authors’ own experiences and observations as well as interviews with a range of musicians. Faulkner and Becker’s vivid, detailed portrait of the musician at work holds valuable lessons for anyone who has to think on the spot or under a spotlight.

Editorial Reviews

Paul Berliner

“Faulkner and Becker’s argument that repertoire is a process has broad implications for understanding collective action in different fields of endeavor and for rethinking the place of the art work in music studies. Writing with characteristic skill and wit, the authors illuminate the vital interplay between the factors shaping repertories and the cultivation of individual artistic voices. They take readers on an exacting journey through jazz musicians’ daily challenges as they prepare for performances and create music on the bandstand. Analyzing musical triumphs and failures, the authors illuminate the deep aural knowledge and skills of ‘ordinary’ musicians. This is a book that will inspire readers to listen with new admiration and attention.”--Paul F. Berliner, author of Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

Barry Kernfeld

“This book consists of a seamless blend of anecdotes and analysis, filled with delight and insight. Robert Faulkner and Howard Becker, writing from their twin perspectives of professional jazz players and renowned scholars, offer an unprecedented understanding of the interpersonal dynamics of jazz performance and the implications of using jazz as a model for understanding negotiations in other realms of human interaction.”

Mitchell Duneier

"Jazz musicians everywhere play together pretty easily, even when they don’t know all the same songs and have never rehearsed. Faulkner and Becker draw on their own long experience as musicians and sociologists to ask the right questions of other musicians and to discover even better questions and answers along the way. The result is a model of qualitative research that provides a master key to rethinking one of the great sociological puzzles: how people can work together effectively, or at all."

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Do You Know ...?"

The Jazz Repertoire in Action
By Robert R. Faulkner Howard S. Becker

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-23921-7

Chapter One

How Musicians Make Music Together

Every night, all over the United States and in many other parts of the world as well, this scene takes place. Several musicians walk into a club, a bar, a restaurant, a place for a party. They get their instruments out, warm up, and then without much discussion begin to play. They play popular songs of some kind—the kind varies and the variation is important—for several hours while the audience dances, drinks, eats, and socializes.

These players might never have met, though, depending on the locale, that's not very likely. It can happen that players in a large city like Chicago or New York haven't met, but in smaller locales, which do not support so vast a world of casual entertainment, and so contain fewer professional musicians, they probably will have met somewhere, sometime. But even players who know each other may not have played together. More likely still, this particular collection of players may never have rehearsed together and, almost surely, have not rehearsed what they will play on this occasion. But they do just fine, performing well enough for the occasion without noticeable difficulties.

How do several people who haven't prepared a musical performance nevertheless give one? How can they play together competently enough to satisfy the manager of a bar or the bride at a wedding or the mother of the bar mitzvah boy?

When we decided to study this phenomenon, we thought we knew the answer to that question. We have, each of us, played professionally for many years. Faulkner is still quite active. Becker plays, but not so much and not so professionally. No matter. Having each been in the situation we just described countless times, we "knew" that the answer to how strangers can play together so well is simple: it's because they all know the same songs. Right? No. Wrong. After our first fieldwork, when we wrote field notes describing what actually happened in such situations, we saw that that wasn't the answer, because it's not true. That isn't how it happens.

What happened more often—not always, but certainly in the extreme case we thought about as exemplifying the phenomenon in its purest form—was that one player turned to another and said, tentatively, "Do you know 'My Romance'?" The person so addressed might say, "In E[??]?" or, perhaps not knowing or feeling comfortable with that song, counter with an alternative: "How about 'Let's Fall in Love'?" adding hopefully that it's in the key of B?. And so on, until they found something they could agree on and began to play.

Incidents like that showed us that everyone doesn't know all the songs, that one player knows songs another player may not know, so that which song (musicians prefer the word "tune" and from now on we'll use the two interchangeably) they play depends on them finding one they both know. Only then can the answer to the question of how they do it be "because everyone knows it," and we can be sure that it won't be everyone, because the next time another player may not know the tune these two have just agreed on.

All this takes place "on the stand," where the musicians assemble and play for an audience. Before we begin a more formal analysis, we want readers to know in more specific detail the kind of place and event we're talking about. To that end, here are three lengthy descriptions of bands at work, two of them in places we know well. Becker describes a scene from the 1950s, a bar in Chicago where he and his colleagues in the Bobby Laine Trio put together nights of music in a way that could then have been found all over the country. Then Faulkner describes a contemporary scene in a New England restaurant and the very different way he and his colleagues did it in the early 2000s. Between the two we've summarized the elegant and detailed description Bruce MacLeod (1993) gave of a typical kind of musical work—the club date—he studied in the New York area in the 1970s and '80s.

(This is as good a place as any to note that we have used masculine pronouns throughout, because all of the people we observed or interviewed, with a few exceptions that we have noted, were men. The music business is overwhelmingly a male business, almost all the women involved being singers [some of whom play piano as well, often accompanying themselves]. An excellent discussion of this phenomenon appears in Buscatto 2007.)

The 504 Club, circa 1951 (Becker)

It sat just off the corner of 63rd Street, one of Chicago's longer business streets, and Normal Boulevard, in what was then a white, working-class neighborhood. Like many such corners in Chicago then, 63rd and Normal was a small neighborhood business community, with a complement of retail stores, a couple of small restaurants, and several bars. The 504 Club was, as its gaudy neon sign let you know, the biggest bar on the corner and the only one whose license let it stay open until four in the morning (five on Saturday night); the others all had to close at two (three on Saturday night). Figure 1 Howie Becker (piano), Dominic Jaconetti (drums), and Bobby Laine (tenor saxophone), at the 504 Club on Chicago's 63rd Street, circa 1950.

The back room of the bar filled up on busy weekends but otherwise was empty at night. During the day, it housed a thriving handbook, which took bets on horse racing and may have provided a sizeable share of whatever profi ts the club made. A door at the back led to a storeroom holding the bar's liquor stock, which consisted of twenty or thirty cases of something called "Old Philadelphia." Whatever the customers thought they were drinking, and no matter what the label on the bottle the bartender poured from, they were drinking "Old Philadelphia," which the bosses poured through a funnel into empty bottles of Seagram's Seven Crown and other local favorites.

The big boss, Joe Contino, was a small-time hoodlum who claimed to be the uncle of a well-known accordion-playing pop star (and he might have been). Joe wore expensive suits and had a (sort of) dapper air. His assistant, Ralph, did the dirty work, filling the bottles with Old Philadelphia and taking care of the horse-racing business in the afternoons. Joe had an "arrangement" with the local police. I didn't know the details, but I did on occasion see him quietly handing a police officer a roll of bills.

We played from a revolving bandstand in the middle of the long oval bar in the front room. It was just big enough to hold a small upright piano, a drum set, the saxophonist, a bass player if we had one and, early in my stay with the band, a trumpet player. Long-term, the band was a trio: Bobby Laine, tenor saxophone, singer, and leader; Howie Becker, piano; and a succession of very good drummers. Bob had been a pilot in WWII, and had lost an eye in combat. I was in my early twenties, had just finished a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago, and was wondering whether I wanted to be a sociologist or keep on playing the piano. I had studied piano with Lennie Tristano, who later became a sort of reclusive jazz legend, but thought, though I was certainly competent, it was unlikely that I would ever be a great jazz pianist.

We played forty minutes out of every hour. The twenty-minute break was long enough for a drink, a cigarette, even a run down to the corner for a quick hamburger.

We never rehearsed during the year and some months Bobby Laine and I worked together. We just got on the stand and played, one tune after another, for forty minutes. Bobby would call a tune, I'd play a four-bar introduction (eight bars if he needed to adjust his reed or something), and we'd start. He'd play a melody chorus and sing the second chorus, I'd play a somewhat more improvisatory chorus, and he'd finish with a last melody chorus. One of us might play two choruses now and then. Sometimes we played medleys: Bob would play a tune, I'd play another one, he'd play a third one, I'd do a fourth, and so on until we got tired of the tempo. Sometimes he snapped his fingers to set the tempo for the next song, sometimes I just started playing at whatever tempo seemed right to me. We did not discuss keys, we just played whatever we were going to play in the key we had played it before.

Sometimes one of us, usually me, wanted to play something we hadn't played before. If I had a written version I'd bring it, but more often I just played it and then taught it to Bob by playing the melody behind him until he had it. When he wanted to play something I didn't know he'd give me some specific indications (key, perhaps the nature of the harmony), but mostly I picked it up by trial and error.

The tunes we played came out of our shared background of songs that "everyone knew," from a more specialized selection of Irish songs and other material that might appeal specially to the crowd in that club, and from various sources of written music that we referred to when we needed to play something we didn't already know. In addition, I used to insist that Bob learn to play and, especially, to sing (he was a better singer than saxophonist) tunes I thought interesting, which I got from records and elsewhere.

Bobby sang, in addition to a variety of popular songs (and unusually for an Irish American of that day), blues, especially when he could work in some dirty lyrics. But he also did well with ballads and show tunes, and I undertook to enlarge his repertoire by teaching him the kinds of less-well-known songs in which I was becoming expert. He liked learning songs from what later came to be called "The Great American Song Book"—the tunes by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Arlen, and other composers now greatly admired. And he was also ready to pick up less-known ones, especially if the lyrics were a little suggestive. So, for instance, we often did "Do It Again." But the tunes didn't have to be dirty. I also remember teaching him "Walking My Baby Back Home."

Patrons of the bar sometimes made requests, which we did our best to ignore. They had trouble addressing us up on our revolving bandstand but could catch us during intermissions, asking for songs we usually reflexively decided we didn't want to play, although occasionally one of them redeemed himself by buying us a drink.

Mostly, however, the customers, busy drinking and socializing, ignored us completely. This amused Bobby, who tested his strong conviction that they didn't know what we were doing by making strange announcements from the stand: "We're having a big party here Saturday night and, if you can't come, just send the money," for instance. No one paid any attention to this or any of his other remarks, and for the most part completely ignored the blues lyrics and the changes he made to the lyrics of popular songs ("Little White Lies" became "Little White Thighs" and "I Only Have Eyes for You" turned into "I'll Open My Thighs for You").

There's a practical question here. How could we be playing all this stuff in a bar full of working-class people on Chicago's southwest side? They weren't aficionados of the Great American Song Book. When they made a request it was likely to be one of the standards we didn't much like, pop tunes of the twenties like "Melancholy Baby." We did that and tunes like it, assisted by a singing bartender who had become a fan of ours and used to follow us from job to job, turning up behind the bar in whatever tavern we were playing in, belting old-timers out in an authentic working-class style. He described himself as an "Irish tenor," had a good voice, sang in tune, and knew what key he sang things in, all of which made him pleasant to accompany (and it couldn't hurt to be on good terms with the bartender). His repertoire was limited to old favorites: "Angry," "Jealous," and some Chicago specials like "Back of the Yards" and "Heart of My Heart." We welcomed the diversion that accompanying him provided.

Once in a while someone would look up, puzzled by the more or less sophisticated repertoire we were playing. But mainly we just provided background noise for customers' drinking and socializing. That's how we got away with it.

As the night went on and the crowd got drunker, we tired out. Playing in a bar took a lot of energy, and around one o'clock fatigue competed with boredom to cause our playing to deteriorate (in Bob's case, his drinking contributed to that result). I would find myself falling asleep at the piano, though I never lost my place and continued to play (I sometimes lost my place when I woke unexpectedly and realized I didn't know what I was playing, what key we were in, or where I was in the song).

Playing such long hours, we would start to repeat ourselves, forgetting whether we had played this or that song already that evening. We tried to play without those repetitions, which meant that we played (calculating three minutes per song and 7 × 40 or 280 minutes a night) something like ninety songs a night. Our constantly changing repertoire was larger than that, but ninety represents the minimum we knew and more or less had to know to get through a night. I can't even guess what the total of different songs we played during a week was, because we didn't repeat ourselves completely from night to night. Even so, we often got bored, playing the same songs over and over (which is how it felt to us), and that led one or the other to suggest new tunes.

Joe, the boss, took an active interest in how well the bar did, and that created some difficulty for us. He often complained that, yes, the people in the bar were all drinking, but look at what they were drinking: "Beer!" When I asked him what he wanted them to drink, he said he wanted to see a bar full of people drinking scotch. That was pure fantasy; he couldn't have sold a case of scotch in that part of Chicago in a year. But he did fire us a few times so that he could try out groups he thought would do better for him: a Gypsy band one time, and an all-girl band (as they were called then) another time. This wasn't what the customers wanted and, after business fell off enough, he hired us back.

We played at a number of other bars on 63rd Street and elsewhere in Chicago: a bar farther west owned by an inexperienced proprietor who spent his receipts taking people (us among them) out to after-hours joints and got so far in debt that he finally robbed his own bar and the attached liquor store and went to prison; a club on Michigan Avenue across from Al Capone's old headquarters in the New Michigan Hotel; and other places in similar parts of town. We picked tunes to play the same way in all of them.

New York Parties (1978, as Described by Bruce Macleod)

Bruce MacLeod's ethnography of club date musicians (MacLeod 1993, especially 42–86 and 188–200) in the New York area in the 1970s and '80s describes a quite different scene. What follows summarizes (and occasionally quotes from) MacLeod's description of the typical setting in which these players worked, the kind of music they played, and how they played it, especially from his fieldwork in 1978; we'll return in a later chapter to his findings on the changes ten years brought to the business. (Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in MacLeod's book.)

Club date musicians played for private parties: weddings, debutante balls, bar mitzvahs (an important component of the music business in New York City with its large Jewish population), banquets, and parties given by charitable organizations or corporations. They provided background sound and played for dancing. Bands consisted of as few as three or four players to as many as twenty. MacLeod notes two astounding features of their performances: they played continuously for three or four hours, and they played what seemed to be complex multipart arrangements without any written music or rehearsals, even though some, perhaps many, of the players had never played together before. "The actual personnel in a bandleader's ensemble for one night could be quite different from the same bandleader's group on another night" (18).

Leaders watched the party guests, especially the dancers, to see what they liked and danced to, and shaped the evening's music in response. Most songs were played in medleys, which were

rarely prearranged. Without referring to written music, the band members switch from one song to another following signals from the bandleader, and the signal for the next number may come only during the final measures of a song. The musicians learn which songs are part of the medley only as the medley is being played.... The medley format is used for nearly all the repertoire, not just a small portion of it. Generally speaking, if the band begins a song suited to one particular dance style, it will segue to at least one or two similar songs before moving on to another rhythm. (37)


Excerpted from "Do You Know ...?" by Robert R. Faulkner Howard S. Becker Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert R. Faulkner is professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts and the author of Hollywood Studio Musicians and Music on Demand: Composers and Careers in the Hollywood Film Industry. Howard S. Becker is the author of several books, including Telling About Society, Tricks of the Trade, and Art Worlds. Together, with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, they are coeditors of Art from Start to Finish: Jazz, Painting, Writing, and Other Improvisations.

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