One thing I always wondered as a young bassist was, “How do you get gigs?” Truth is, there are a lot of things I learned early regarding music. But the early lessons typically revolved around the notes (scales, chords, practice routines, etc.). What was harder for me to discern was how you go about getting and keeping good gigs. While I’m still learning I thought it might help some to share my experience. Not guaranteed to reduce pain or swelling from lack of work. Results may vary. Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer…
Of course, is starts with your playing. Actually, your preparation, in terms of your playing ability, is the most important element of getting a good gig. However, I think most of us know this, so I’m not going to spend much time here. Just know that if you can’t play, you won’t get good gigs. Get in the woodshed and emerge when you think you’re ready.
I actually think there is another important element to getting and keeping a good gig. Billy Higgins once told me, “Before they hire you, they’ve got to like you.” This was his way of saying that no one wants to travel to the far reaches of the world with someone that they don’t like. Think about it further. Music, best played, is a deeply emotional thing. As a rhythm section player, my job is to link the harmony and rhythm into a foundation of support for the soloist or featured artist. If I’m really connecting with the featured artist I can send him melodic or harmonic ideas through the music which he can choose to inspire his playing. How can I lay this foundation or send these ideas if I hate the person I’m “supporting”? Likewise, how can he completely trust the support I’m offering if we just had a fight on the bus? Yeah, we can fake it on the ensemble parts, but jazz is far too personal for such ill will. Billy’s point is that it works best if it’s obvious that you’re a good musician and a good person. Let me know if you need more on this, but I’ll leave it there for now.
Lesson 1: Always offer your best
I was offered a trial with the Count Basie Orchestra by the band’s Musical Director, Scotty Barnhart. For several years Scotty has been the musical and spokesperson leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. I met him through a friend; a drummer named Clayton Cameron (aka The Brushmaster, look him up!). Clayton recommend me for a club date that Scotty doing in Los Angeles featuring the music of Clifford Brown. I knew Scotty was the Musical Director of the Count Basie Orchestra, but this wasn’t the Orchestra. It was just a quartet gig. No pressure for me. I just wanted to play.
I recall Scotty sending me copies of the music and texting me about it before the gig. I also recall how Scotty presented the music; with a dignity that elevated the purpose of the evening. It was almost regal.
I didn’t think it was the best I’d played, but the music was swinging. One night of good music and we moved on. I followed up with the polite “thank you” text and moved on. A year later I received a text from Scotty saying,
“Hey Trevor, Trying to get in touch with you. Give me a call asap regarding the bass chair with Basie....thanks!!
Of course, I almost fell out of my chair (glad I was sitting). I tried to keep my cool.
Lesson 2: Be about the music
I called Scotty as soon as I could get to a quiet place. We talked that afternoon. I listened carefully. He was offering me 2 trips with the orchestra as an “audition” of sorts to see if the band and I were a fit. It sounded exciting and I responded,
I'm both thankful and excited following our conversation this afternoon. I'm already listening. I know the band recorded recently at Capitol. Any chance I can get copies of the tracks to help me prep?"
From out of the gate, even though there was a month before I’d play a note with the band I started preparing. Scotty prepared for me 2 CDs with nearly 30 songs from the band’s current playlist. I listened carefully, trying to find commonalities between the songs. I also spent a lot of time on YouTube listening to various recordings. I felt it important, in a band with such history, to understand the lineage of bassists who’s played in the band. In the modern era, there were two bassists that I listened to most, in part because of the longevity of each (both had over a decade with the band. I figured their style of playing was what the band liked.); in part because I enjoy their style of playing. They are Cleve Eaton and James Leary. However, I also enjoyed Lynn Seaton, John Clayton, Walter Page, Marcus McLaurine, and many others.