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The Real Jazz World – The Auditioning Process

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The Real Jazz World – The Auditioning Process
Image by Ahkeem Hopkins from Pixabay

by Todd Coolman

Chances are, amateur or professional musician, that you will have to audition from time to time for playing in situations that you want to be part of. In my years of playing and teaching, I have experienced the audition process from many vantage points. I have been both the evaluator and evaluated, as well as hearing anecdotal accounts of auditions of all kinds. I’ll take a moment here and free associate on several impressions I have had about the audition process and illustrate some of the most common formulas for success and failure that I have either experienced personally or through others. I hope you will find my accounts both informative and entertaining.

Jam Sessions in New York

The first couple of auditions I had after moving to New York in the fall of 1978 were informal. In fact, I didn’t even know I was auditioning. I spent most of my early days going over to guys’ lofts for daily jam sessions. When I moved to New York there were literally scores of young players like myself who were always looking to jam. It was the way we were honing our craft. Typically, I would go to a friend’s place and while there, I was able to meet and network with a whole group of players that were as yet unknown to me. I was not a very businesslike person at the time as I recall; I simply wanted to play with good players and have a good time. It never really occurred to me that the guys I was playing with were already somewhat established in the city and had gigs of their own. I was quite naive.

The jam session atmosphere was quite informal with lots of jokes and good humor, guys relaxing with a beer on the breaks, etc…In reality, my new colleagues were most observant, not only of my playing but of my attitude and musical philosophy. I was auditioning right then and there and was unaware of it. The informality of the situation made it appear otherwise. I realize today that you are “auditioning” every time you play your instrument. You should approach every situation as if you are in Carnegie Hall because you never know who is listening. As it turns out, I received quite a few recommendations for gigs from guys that I played with informally during the day. I believe one such recommendation led to my first audition with Gerry Mulligan.

I had heard that Mulligan was quite particular about how his charts were played and that his writing should be adhered to “by the book.” So, I was invited to a rehearsal and I had to do a lot of sight-reading. Fortunately, I had played in all kinds of ensembles including big bands and symphony orchestras, so my reading was pretty decent. Even so, I tried to really understand the essence of each chart, play my part faithfully without being “fancy,” and tried to make my part fit into the whole. I was most attentive to Gerry’s comments, even if they were not directed at me because I knew they would have something to do with what he wanted to hear overall. Many times what a bandleader says to someone else can be as insightful as if he had said it to you. I think Gerry could sense my alert attitude and willingness to adjust. I got the gig.

Formal Auditions

Some auditions are in fact, quite formal. I was called to audition for Horace Silver in 1979. He called about two weeks before the audition. Immediately after hanging up the phone, I went directly to the nearest record store and bought every Horace Silver record I didn’t already own. For the next two weeks, I learned every tune and every arrangement on every record by ear. I imagine I was either practicing with or listening to those records sixteen hours a day for two weeks. By the time I went to the audition, I was well prepared. I had virtually memorized all of the music.

I went to the rehearsal studio at my appointed time and entered the room. Horace and his quintet were there, sheet music was everywhere, and there were nine other bass players seated along the wall. It was weird. One by one Horace would call us up to play a couple of tunes with the band while the other bass players watched and listened. I felt like I was in a fishbowl. Many of the bassists in the room were fine players who I personally knew. As I listened to the others, I realized almost immediately that I had an edge. Most of them appeared to be sight-reading the charts and were not nearly as familiar with the music and arrangements as I was. I was stunned to see some of my peers actually having to read a chart to a tune like “Song For My Father.” It didn’t seem like they knew much about Horace’s music. I believe that Horace interpreted this as not caring. I don’t think that I was the best bassist in that room on that day, but I was by far the best prepared. I got the gig. Preparation was the reason. That was a valuable lesson that has stayed with me all my life.

Auditioning for Benny Goodman

I have not always been so fortunate. I auditioned for Benny Goodman at his apartment in the mid-1980s with some other good young players. I had heard some of his records but was largely unfamiliar with his repertoire. I didn’t know the tunes he liked to play. About three tunes into the audition he looked at me and said point-blank, “You don’t know these tunes, do you, young man?” I had to admit that I really didn’t. He replied, “That will be all…thank you.” Although I was embarrassed and humiliated, I stopped at a record store on the way home, got some of his recordings, and started learning some of those tunes that the older guys referred to as the “old chestnuts.” I figured they would come in handy someday.

That day came about nine months later. I got a call from Goodman’s office to be a last-minute replacement on a concert in Pittsburgh that included Andre Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Luckily, neither Benny nor his office remembered me from my earlier disaster. I didn’t see Benny until we actually took the stage that night…there had been bad weather that delayed my flight and we had no time to rehearse or soundcheck. Benny turned around and counted off the first tune, “Don’t Be That Way.” I was amused as he stared at me for a moment, trying in vain to place me. In his advanced age, he simply couldn’t remember where he had seen me before (lucky for me!). Anyway, the concert went well, I knew every tune he called (preparation again…) and I wound up staying in his band for the next nine months. Another lesson learned.

Informal Auditions

One of the more unique auditions I ever played was for James Moody. We lived very near one another in New Jersey at the time (1985) and he called me on the phone one day. He said, “I’m looking for a bass player and I’m wondering if I can come to your place in twenty minutes and play two tunes with you.” Naturally, I was stunned, but I said, “Sure.” Twenty minutes later on the dot, Moody rang my doorbell. There we were, just the two of us, tenor saxophone and bass, without drums, piano, etc. I remember thinking, “What should I do with this?” All I could figure was to play in such a way as to make him comfortable and provide him with as simple and basic a strong foundation as I could. I guess that is what he wanted. He handed me a plane ticket to Indianapolis for the following Saturday and thus began our association, now in its eighteenth year.

Student Auditions

In more recent times, I have found myself in the position of holding auditions for others, mainly students. By the time you read this, I will have heard about 50 of the 100 auditions this spring for students seeking admission to the Purchase College (SUNY) Jazz Studies Program that I direct. It is interesting being on the “other side of the table” so to speak. I have witnessed auditions that have exhibited all levels of success and failure.

I think the most common mistake I see in student auditions is the desire to impress evaluator(s). The purpose of an audition is not to impress anyone. The purpose, in my view, is to simply demonstrate a solid command of the jazz idiom or language and to play in a clear, concise, and straightforward manner. It is best to simply demonstrate your potential.

If you should find yourself in an audition situation, whether formal or informal, here are a few suggestions, in no particular order that you might find helpful:

•Remember that you have nothing to lose.

•Be aware that nervousness can be good as long as it is not debilitating. Some nerves will get the adrenaline flowing and actually make you more alert. Again, if you realize that you will live to fight another day regardless of the outcome, you should not be overly uptight. The greatest players have experienced failure and disappointment…it is part of the process. You can’t hit a home run every time you are at-bat. Go for a good batting average.

•Play within your means. An audition is not the time to experiment.

•Be as prepared as you can be and use your preparation as the foundation of your confidence.

•Take the time to wear something nice and be well-groomed. Clark Terry always reminds me, “They see you before they hear you.”

•Demonstrate a solid command of the essential aspects of music-making; sound quality, rhythm…rhythm…rhythm (my emphasis), intonation, expressivity, and control. If you possess good basic skills, people will know that with time and nurturing, you will mature. Good command of fundamentals will impress more than an occasional flurry of brilliance.

•Be genuine and be yourself. Don’t try to be anyone or anything that you are not.

•If you have a choice of material to prepare, play the things that you love most and have a passion for. If you do not have a passion for say, “Giant Steps,” don’t bother playing it. Your detachment and insincerity will show.

•Try not to stop and start repeatedly. Once you begin, carry on.

•Do not offer any explanations or excuses for anything that you play. They are meaningless.

•Try to have fun and demonstrate your joy and enthusiasm for music-making, as long as that is sincerely how you feel about music. I would hope that would be the case.

•It is better to err on the side of slower rather than faster tempos. Playing a bit slowly, but with control is much more desirable than playing too fast and botching things.

•If sight-reading is involved, examine the piece carefully before you begin to take in as much essential information as you can; key, time signature, style, form repeats, codas, endings, etc. Try to play all the rhythms accurately, even at the expense of a few notes, rather than the other way around. Most people have more trouble sight reading rhythm rather than pitch.

I’m sure that there are other suggestions that you might obtain from other sources that will be equally helpful. The list I have provided here is based on my observations of the things that most frequently occur in the auditions I have witnessed.

I have found that auditioning is a skill that one develops over time. Every audition should be thought of as part of the learning process. The more you learn of the process, the better you become executing it.

I hope this information will be helpful to you and that you experience some success in the near future. See you next time as I report to you from “The Real World.”

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