Watch Your Step: A Big Mistake

by Stanton Kesler

The legendary pseudo rock band Spinal Tap once appeared on The David Letterman Show and addressed the subject of jazz. "Jazz is just a bunch of mistakes", one member remarked. Another followed with, "Yes, that's why they play so soft, to hide the mistakes". While this was all tongue in cheek, is has a certain ring of truth. Do you know a mistake when you hear one and does it matter?

It has been said that there are no mistakes in jazz. I beg to differ. Most musicians can hear them. The question is, can the casual listener? If there is a wrong note and you don't notice, is it still wrong? Most folks don't know the difference, which might be a good thing, especially for me! Do we need music police, uniformed officers who will pull someone off of the stage if they exceed an established quota of blunders? Probably not, but there are those musicians who secretly wish it were so.

In the end, if you are entertained it's a good thing. If you leave a venue feeling better than when you came, mission accomplished. However, you can understand why those of us who have worked our tails off trying to achieve a level of excellence sometimes find the lack of minimal standards disturbing.

Nevertheless, we all make mistakes and plenty of them. The famous Glenn Miller said, "If you're going to make a mistake, make it a big one." In other words, be aggressive, not timid. The trick is to never make the same one twice, much like life itself.

A physical error on the bandstand, such as a split note or squeak, is much more forgivable than a mental gaff. Mental mistakes occur due to a lack of focus or preparation. Physical ones sometimes just happen regardless. Many feel that the imperfections make the music more “soulful”. I get that and agree, up to a point. Each of us has our own level of toleration, purely a subjective endeavor.

I love the old recordings because the mistakes are still there. There was no editing, no redo with the help of technology. It makes the music feel more human. It gives those of us who are less than perfect a modicum of hope. There is plenty of imperfection. This is partially due to the fact that the music is difficult and they rarely did more than two takes of any one song, usually just one. In may instances they are sight reading, or there was one brief rehearsal in the studio. It's easy enough to give these cats a pass since everything else is so unbelievably brilliant.

So, what constitutes a mistake in jazz? Wouldn't you like to know? If not, do not read any further, it may ruin your next experience at a jazz club.

Many problems occur due to improper intonation. In other words, the poor sod is just out of tune. If it's off pitch, technically, it's wrong. To the trained ear, it can actually be painful. However, it is seldom noticed by the casual listener.

A similarly offensive act is when a player cannot perform in time, that is, in the groove with the rest of the band. It's pretty obvious when the drummer has time problems, however, other players seem to somehow get a pass because it’s less apparent. Musicians have a harder time (pun) with bad time, as it makes performing even more difficult. A wise teacher once said, "If it's not in time, it's wrong." I'm still working on that one.

Harmonic mistakes can be much more subtle and difficult to detect, especially when the notes are flying by at light speed. In jazz, a particular note in a specific spot can sound great or horrible. It's all about context and intent. If you are passing through a "wrong" note on your way to somewhere else, it's permissible. If you sit on that note while it clashes with the chord, you're in trouble. The question is, will anyone notice or care?

Screwing up the form is a big no no, for which there is no plausible excuse. The most common cause is that the person is simply not paying attention. This mistake can be detected even by the novice fan, but only if they are truly following the action. The rest of the players on stage will know immediately. One sure sign is when all the musicians except the guilty party suddenly look up and around at each other with that "what the hell?" expression on their faces. This is known "telegraphing a mistake”, a gaff that we are trained to avoid, and one that I have been guilty of many times. In theory, if you don’t show it, they won’t know it.

There are some mistakes that are just plain bad taste. One example is playing stylistically incorrectly. For instance, you wouldn't want to play like Dave Douglas on a blues gig. You shouldn’t play like Coltrane on In The Mood.

Now, I certainly don’t suggest that you listen for flaws in peoples' performances. That would be a big mistake. Just enjoy yourself and remember that we're all human and most of us are trying our best to perform at a high level while enjoying ourselves as well. Hopefully, you won't even notice the mistakes, especially mine.