A Pianist’s Gig From Hell

George Colligan remembers one particularly dismal gig performing behind a vocalist. Photo courtesy George Colligan

by George Colligan

One of my worst-ever gigs took place about twenty years ago when I still lived in Maryland and was working a lot with vocalists. Working with jazz singers can be great because there are many skills you can learn on a singer’s gig that you can’t pick up on an instrumental gig. You need know many more songs—in the singer’s key—and you have to be able to read her (or his) arrangements. You’re required to invent intros and outros on the fly and do justice to a ballad. You need to be able to support. I take pride in my ability to do those things, in my own limited way. Much of that ability stems from my work with singers like Gail Marten, Iris Benjamin, Heidi Martin, Ethel Ennis, Sunny Sumter, Vanessa Rubin, Cassandra Wilson, Janis Siegel, and Sinne Eeg (a wonderful Danish vocalist), among others.

Professional musicians can be mercenary, and sometimes you just accept gigs because your calendar is blank, and don’t care whether the leader gives you any musical thrills. Well, I took a gig with a singer who shall remain nameless. She had a very quiet speaking voice and singing voice. Even the microphone didn’t help. She was, in the Seinfeldian lingo, a “low talker.” And I would say “low singer” but that would imply that she was a female baritone, which is not true. (She was not, as far I could tell, a member of the East German Olympic team.) Actually, I don’t remember her vocal range because I could never really hear her.

This vocalist, let’s call her Mrs. Fourth, was in the habit of singing every tune a fourth away from the key. I don’t mean that she sang a fourth away from the original key (female keys are typically a fourth away from the male key). I mean she sang a fourth away from the key in which we were supposed to be playing! What made the gig really difficult was that she had arrangements from her teacher that were heavily re-harmonized and arranged. So I felt it was safer just to play the arrangement and hope she would figure it out eventually—which she rarely did.

It was quite difficult to figure out what to play, because this whispering voice in a strange key was fighting chord changes that obscured the tunes beyond recognition. This unique performance took place at a local sports bar. Let’s get this clear: sports bars and jazz music mix about as well as sports bars and anything else not sports related. So we were already set up to fail in many ways.

Then things took a turn for the worse. The bassist who had been hired was an older gentleman who had toured with famous big bands—in the 1930s. And that was the last time his upright bass had been played, because when he went to tune up, he could not turn the tuning pegs. They were almost rusted shut! (Maybe the bassist had arthritis. If so, I apologize.) He could not tune his bass to the keyboard. To top it off, he wouldn’t read the charts; he would play the changes he knew from the ’30s.

Imagine this Charles Ivesish scenario: Mrs. Fourth whispering in C, while I played a cornucopia of random harmonies in G, while the bassist played, in F# or G#, some other song from days of yore. And did I mention that we were in a sports bar?

I should also mention that there was a drummer aboard our rapidly sinking musical ship. He is a good friend of mine and will also remain nameless. My friend the drummer—a very good musician—was also in mercenary mode, and he could hear what was going on as well as I could. This was too much for his sensitive drummer’s heart, so he went to the bar, looked at the drink menu, and said, “OK”—meaning he was not half in the bag, he was all the way in the bag. I think he drank the bag. . . .

The icing on the cake was that one of my dear teachers, who knew me as a trumpeter and had never heard me play jazz piano before, showed up to the gig because he lived nearby. Talk about embarrassment! I just played it cool, and my teacher was very gracious. I will end on a positive note and say that I did get paid for the gig—as a mercenary should.

And Mrs. Fourth, if you should ever read this and recognize yourself, I mean no disrespect. I will tell you that I recently tried to sing on a gig and I sounded like Alvin and The Chipmunks on crack! Singing is not as easy as it seems.

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