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April 1990 - Nightflying Column (Ampside Chat) - Sittin' In
by Lee Tomboulian

Howdy, folks! It's once again time for that warm old purveyor of homespun wisdom, Tommy Lee Boulian, to talk about musical fool-osophy 'n stuff. This week, Tommy Lee's a-gonna talk about sittin' in.


Sittin' in is certainly one of the best and cheapest ways for the musical community to check out new members, and with a minimum of risk. After all, if a player sitting in is more ambitious than accomplished , then the paid players can "gong" him or her off the stage without prolonging the agony. That is, if the player is not too "high on ignorance." (Thanks, Rick!) I mean, at times, to get certain players off the stage you need a crowbar---they know who they are. Subtlety is lost on them. I can say, "We'd like to thank Mr. Brad Goombah for sitting in with us this evening, yay!" several times and they might not get it. I start to think "the hook" wasn't such a bad idea.

Trombonists are genetically predisposed to this.

Once upon a time, at a weekly jazz gig in a college town, a professor, gentle and caring in all other respects, used to drive his trombone like a wedge between the music and good taste, seperating them for the rest of the evening. One night,without even asking the leader of the band if it was okay , he strode down to the bandstand in midtune, parked his case, slowly and dramatically assembled his "glorious instrument," planted his left foot on the stone fountain, and raised the bell of his horn to the sky. Before I knew what I was doing, I shouted, "NO!" and raised my left hand like a traffic cop. He packed up and stormed off to relieved applause.


I've recently stumbled across the old idea, namely, that if you treat sitting in as an opportunity to compliment the music, or expand it, then bandleaders can sense that, and are more likely to let you into their musical circle. Of course, if the time is not right for it, then they will hint at that, or, rarely, tell you flat out. Audiences can tell immediately, even faster than bandleaders, when a musician is playing merely for ego gratification or the betterment of the music. If you get up there, and your playing isn't happening, you owe it to yourself and the band to exit with grace. What's even harder is to edit yourself out,when you're cooking. Sometimes they'll make it clear that you're welcome for the rest of the night. If so, great. Just be sure.

This is not to suggest wimpiness. Some nights, when talking to bandleaders, I've been so vague, I never got it across exactly what I wanted, until it was too late. Other nights, when I gave in to pressure from friends to ask to sit in, the players could sense I just wanted to impress my friends. So I was refused. I mean, it's okay to want to impress your friends, but don't let on that you want to, even to yourself. Wait 'til you get home.

I went to San Diego recently on a musical vacation. I hoped to sit in with great players, test myself, shake out some cobwebs, become a star instantly. My friend Phil, a drummer, knew Kevin, the bass player, at club no. 1, so I figured I was a shoo-in. The band was great, and Kevin said he looked forward to hearing me play. I said, "Wonderful." I looked around and realized I was the only guy in the room with a beard (uncool) and a little tail in the back of my neck (totally uncool--it just went out of style, as I'm sure you know). I smelled trouble, and sure enough, when the MC with the clipboard) announced me finally, I was grouped with some other nerds equally desperate to sit in, and Kevin was nowhere to be seen. I let myself get rattled to the point that even though my volume was too low, I thought I was blasting. I could've been Herbie Hancock (haha), but nobody could've known.

My week in Californ-i-ay was saved when I got to sit in at Croce's, Jim Croce's widow's jazz club. I talked to the leader, who said it was okay with him if it was okay with the pianist. Then I met the pianist, who was a great player, incidentally. He was kind of reserved and doubtful, but since he hadn't eaten yet that day and needed to eat, he and the leader let me sit in for a couple songs. That turned into one-and-a-half sets, on the leader's request. I felt pretty darn good about that, but it was fun just to play. Even when this fantastic drummer that was sitting in, brushed me off the piano bench and proceeded to blow us all away on piano. After awhile, I didn't mind. It was like this: We were all there, the cats.

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