Thursday, 9 September 2010

Book Review - "Do you know...?" : the Jazz repertoire in action

"Do you know...?" : the Jazz repertoire in action by Robert R. Faulkner & Howard S. Becker

Published in 2009 by The University of Chicago Press     ISBN 9780226239217

This fascinating book is actually a work of sociology, although you might also find it in the music section of your local academic library.

The authors, both semi-professional jazz musicians (Faulkner on trumpet, Becker on piano), set out to answer the question - how do musicians work out what to play together, when the may only play together as a group on one occasion?

Their research, both personal (making records of performances over a period of three years) and observational (interviewing about 60 performers), reveals how sets of music are constructed, and how that process has changed in recent years.

The book describes how bandstand activity takes place, the negotiations that occur to reach a mutally agreed playlist, the to-and-fro of suggesting, accepting or rejecting songs, and the fakery that can take place if one person in the band doesn't know a song that the group plays regardless.

A large portion of the book deals with how musicians learn their repertoire, be it on the bandstand itself, from records or radio, or from sheet music. Faulkner and Becker go on to describe the changes that have occurred in this process from about the '60s on - before that time there were a large group of tunes that "everybody" knew, known as the Great American Songbook. However, in the post-bop age, and with the fragmentation of radio stations and music in general (no hit parade that all musicians would listen to), the idea of a common pool of tunes has diminished, consequently it becomes much harder for a group of players to have tunes in common. This has made the negotiation of a set between musicians that don't know each other that much more difficult.

The change in the amount of playing also has had an effect - Becker explains that in the '40s, he played on bandstands in bars for approximately 43 hours per week - something which is almost impossible to do today. This amount of time playing, and the conditions in which it was played (background music in a bar), enabled the players of that era to experiment more, and learn songs "on the job". That has become harder now.

As a hack musician myself, I found this book fascinating, if somewhat academic (why do sociological books have to be written in such a plodding style?). If you've ever wondered how musicians can get up and play something without having necessarily rehearsed, read this book. You can get it via Amazon, The Book Depository, or check out your local library.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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