Though it chagrins me to admit it, I’ve recommended friends and colleagues for musical activities that are simply impossible. Whether passing a wretched gig to an unsuspecting bassist hungry for work or giving out a colleague’s name to a bass student who will almost certainly be nothing but trouble, I’ve done my share of musical bad deeds. There’s one particular bad gig pass that still makes me cringe, however. This one wasn’t even really my fault, though I should certainly have gotten a little more information from the involved parties before foisting it on my colleague.
A few years ago, the university where I used to teach (I’ll leave their name out of it, though it should take folks about a second-and-a-half to figure out the institution to which I’m referring) had the opportunity to bring in the Guarneri String Quartet for a day of master classes and performances. This was a huge coup for the university’s string department, and they made sure to make the most out of this opportunity, promoting this event across the region and encouraging interested high school orchestras to come out for the event (thus also serving as an effective recruiting tool).
Not wanting to leave out the double basses, the faculty inquired whether I might be able to run a bass master class during the day. Oh yeah…and perhaps a class on jazz. The jazz program was very strong at this school, after all, and letting visiting students know about this aspect of the school would be a good recruiting move as well.
I assumed, naturally, that they meant a class about jazz bass–my first big mistake, but a natural one. After all, why would I want to let the violas know about how killer the big band is? Have violas been added to the big band roster when I wasn’t looking?
Looking at my calendar, I realized that I was booked that weekend at one of my 10,000 other jobs. This disappointed me, but it was clear that it would be impossible for me to participate–I think that I was going to be about 800 miles away that morning, so no dice.
The string faculty asked me who I recommended, and I passed along the name of a very talented colleague who played both classical and jazz bass. I’d even had him up at the university to run a master class a few years prior, so he was familiar with the school’s layout and knew several of the students–a perfect match. I told him he’d be doing two master classes–one for bass technique and one for jazz.
Now, I can be a bit of a salesman when I’m trying to pass off a gig, even with one like this for which I really bore no responsibility for securing a replacement. I’m sure that I emphasized that it would be totally easy, a walk in the park, just teaching technique to a few bassists and showing them some jazz lines. Easy as pie.
My second big mistake.
As it turns out, the university faculty was envisioning a ‘Jazz for Dummies’ class for all the attending string players. We’re talking violins, violas, and cellos as well as basses. This is a radically different set-up than what I had presented to my colleague. Now, should the university have more clearly communicated this? Perhaps. After all, I only gave them his phone number–they handled all the other correspondence. Still, I can just hear myself in full-on salesman mode assuring him that it would be no big deal.
The Guarneri String Day came, and turnout was massive–well over 100 string students (plus teachers and parents) mobbed the music school facilities, dumping instruments and coats all over the building and filling the recital hall to listen with rapt attention to the marvelous quartet. My colleague buzzed up to the university, getting set up and teaching the double bass technique class without incident. As expected, four or five bass players showed up, and they drilled scales, shifting, bow strokes, and other straightforward skills for about an hour.
One of the school’s string faculty members dashed up to my colleague just as he was wrapping up the class.
“OK,” he said. “We’ve got 115 kids in your room for the jazz class. Do you need anything photocopied before you start?”
The poor bass teacher’s jaw dropped as he looked down at the sheets of jazz bass exercises he’d written out. “Uuuhhh… say that again?”
“We’ve got 115 kids for you to teach. What have you got for them?”
He handed over his bass exercises.
The string professor looked at them like someone just handed him a pile of dog crap. “Uuuh, these are in bass clef. Yeah, uh, that’s going to be a problem for the violins…”
“Well, that’s what I’ve got,” said my colleague. With that, he turned around and walked outside, pacing furiously and trying to come up with some possible way to teach 115 kids jazz.
Several of my students happened to be sitting in on the following class, which gave me a few sources about what transpired next.
Five minutes before the start of the class, 115 kids were packed into a rehearsal room at the university, using every chair and stand in sight, crammed up against each other, without a teacher in sight. The aforementioned string professor looked around the room, his eyebrows rising alarmingly.
“Where’s Mr. _____?” he asked.
“Uh, I don’t know,” replied one of my students.
The professor vanished in a puff of smoke, dashing off down the hallway to find my colleague, no doubt worried that he’d thrown his hands up in defeat and was now halfway back to Chicago.
This was not the case–my colleague was simply in the building’s foyer coming up with a battle plan. The string professor escorted him to the [execution chamber] classroom.
My colleague walked in, gazing at a sea of squirming violinists, violists, and cellists (with a few basses wedged in the back).
Time for jazz!
He began to pass his photocopies around the room, no doubt full of nerves and, I’m sure, cursing my name the whole time.
The outcry quickly began.
“Hey, these are in… bass clef!”
“Wassup wit’ this? I cain’t read dis! Yo, man, wassup?”
“Yo chief! Wassup wich ya music? Dang, man, givin’ me bass clef an’ every ol’ thing…”
My colleague tried to reign them all in, with limited success. He began writing the exercises on the board in treble clef, a good idea but one that had limited effectiveness given the size of the group.
“OK, we’re going to learn about jazz. I’ll call out the notes, and you play along with me.”
Like a confused dinosaur, the massive string ensemble sawed its way through the exercises, with cellists and bassists sailing through them while the violinists and violists struggled with the clef and with hearing my colleague’s instructions over the din of the ensemble.
Being a very talented musician and an excellent teacher, my colleague managed to wrench this situation into a constructive one, giving students a chance to take turns playing blues solos over the rest of the vamping ensemble. As is the case with any group of 100+ musicians, several of these string players already knew something about jazz, and he found a way to showcase these students and use them as examples.
Later that day, I got a very irritated phone call from my colleague. Though I felt terrible about this whole situation, knowing that he was flung unknowingly into a situation for which he had no preparation, that evil part of me cackled like a hyena over the phone as he described he proceeding scenario.
I knew that, though this was a painful bit of business, this would be a story that both of us would remember for some time. That is one of the real pleasures of having a blog with a healthy readership–it provides for a place to tell these tales, making me think that all the crazy scenarios I’ve gone through (or put people through, in this case) are worth it.
I wonder if my colleague feels the same way? I’ll bet that he’s still irritated with me over this. Yet, that hyena-like evil side of me can’t help but smile every time I think about him up there, trying to teach jazz to the violas.