For a period of about two years, I was the resident bassist at a local jazz jam session and during this time; I was seen as a newbie to jazz playing and was often put down by the bandleader as being an inadequate substitute for other more able players. The only reason I happened to be part of the residency was because I was the only bass player who was available to play jazz amid the array of RnB/gospel players who had no interest in playing walking basslines or jazz standard repertoire.
I was more than grateful for the opportunity to play residency at the session, because at this stage of my development I would’ve done anything (including endure countless verbal insults and inappropriate comparisons to better bass players) to grow as a musician. Perhaps the insults were due to my unassuming demeanour and insecurity about my own playing. Whether or not the insecurity came as a result of the condescension or out of my own unfamiliarity with the form, I can’t fully answer – but I do know that my problem area was that of conviction.
My whole life I have been the subject of ridicule and bullying, whether this was on the playground or in my neighbourhood (where I was known as the white kid who drank too much milk – I grew up in a coloured area), or at the boys’ school where myself and countless other juniors were subjected to verbal and sometimes physical abuse by the older boys. I think my lack on conviction in most things is to blame for my being a pushover. I would rather avoid a confrontation or stand up for what I believe in, for fear of escalating a situation.
In the face of my experience with the jam sessions, I would often brush off or laugh at inappropriate statements and avoid getting worked up just to save face. At many of the sessions, I would often play little more than one or two songs on certain occasions just so that the bandleader could play with more experienced players who were irregular visitors from out of town. When visitors would show up, I would often have to hear how they are better at bass than me and how I’d do well to be able to play bass like so and so. I was relegated as “the guy who plays rock music” – since I was the only jammer who played in rock bands and had at that time just started putting together my rock band Brother & Brother. I would often have to sit out of the jam for hours on end and in these moments I would find a comfortable couch and fall asleep. Most times I wouldn’t be able to leave since they were using MY bass amp and I didn’t have a car of my own. My sense of conviction took a massive knock.
The Turning Point
Last week I was trying to record myself doing a solo over an unfamiliar jazz standard. I was a little pressed for time so I tried to get a solo out of something like 5 takes. The first 3 were horrible. That’s when it hit me like a pile of bricks. If I did it in one take and pretended that this was the last solo I’d ever do on earth, then that should be enough to see me through.
The common denominator amongst the previous failed attempts was a sense that I wasn’t sure of what I was playing and that I wasn’t “digging in” enough. I decided to do it again with conviction this time. It worked. The solo sounded great by my standards.
This particular incident reminded me of something that happened to me a few years ago that changed my mind about my approach to music.
In 2010 I played a gig in the middle of nowhere with a pop rock band. The entire gig was done by the book and I played exactly what I had practiced.
A few minutes after we got off stage, I was approached by a guy from one of the metal bands that was sharing the bill with us (for the sake of this post, I’m going to refer to this guy as the Metal-Head).
The Metal-Head absolutely loved our performance and could do nothing but sing my praises as a bass player. I wondered why – I mean I played well I thought, but there were no solos and I don’t think I played as if I was trying to impress anyone. What he said to me went something like this:
“Dude, what a performance! You are by far the best bassist I’ve ever seen! But, you’re missing one thing. One thing that will make you or break you: conviction. Dude, the notes are there, the groove is there, but I don’t believe you! When you play, you need to show us that you are enjoying the moment and that you’re feeling it in the very heart of you!”
I was stumped. This guy, this Metal-Head had just told me everything I needed to hear and said it in the words that I have often and more than occasionally forgotten, because I was too afraid to believe in my God-given talent. In the times when I was at my lowest point, these musician “friends” saw it fit to step on me with their negativity and today, they continue doing so – and for what, a laugh?
I decided to take the Metal-Head’s advice to heart and with it, I would go to the next jam session and play the sh*t out of my instrument!
The Regular Crowd
At the jam sessions there would often be a regular crowd – a group of older unmarried or divorced gentlemen in their 40’s who made it their weekly ritual to attend the session and get sloshed in the process. These men had attended the jam sessions since its inception ’til the day it finally ended. These men knew me as the young blood – and the one who never really got any kind of recognition as a bass player.
This particular day I went to the session of the mind that I would rip up a killer bass extravaganza – and so I did. When I played, I played with an urgency and fire that I’d never employed before. Half of what I was doing was faking it to the max, with contorted facial expressions and dilated pelvic movements to boot – the rest was a big fat TAKE THAT WORLD!
Shorty after the jam had ended, the older gentleman were so impressed with my playing that they crowded around me like I was some sort of celebrity. They wanted to know how I could’ve improved so much within the space of one week! Was I practicing for 8 hours a day? What was my secret? What kind of miracle had pulled me from my bass trepidation?
“Wow, Josh. You really pulled out all the stops today, pal!”
What I’m trying to say is that conviction was the fundamental essence of what I required all along. Perhaps if I was certain of my skills and my mission in life from the get go, I wouldn’t have to have been the butt of jokes and ridicule for such a long time. Perhaps if I knew who I was, I would’ve been way more assertive about who has the right to talk crap about me and who didn’t.
What’s your opinion?