Rules of Conduct for Open Mic

This is a list of rules for jazz jam sessions. I developed this list over many years working in house bands and from sitting in at sessions with other house bands. Any resemblance between the behavior depicted in these rules and any particular performer is purely an unlucky coincidence.
  1. Be prepared. Before stepping up to the bandstand, pick a tune. Don't amble up and pore over your list with your back to the crowd. Walk up, say the tune and key, and count off the tempo.
  2. Don't blow in the microphone to see if it's working or ask for echo effects. The band did a sound check and got everything working properly before you got there.
  3. Have a second tune ready, but don't expect to do two tunes. The leader has to balance the schedule with the number of sit-ins. If the leader wants you to do another tune, he'll tell you, If not, don't get your shorts in a pucker. It doesn't relect on your talent. Most likely.
  4. Don't do two ballads in a row. The crowd can't spend money if they aren't awake.
  5. Know your key. At least once you might have to negotiate the key for a tune. Only once, however. Even if you don't know what E-flat means, if they tell you E-flat is your key for "Your Feet's Too Big," write it down.
  6. Don't ask to sing "Love Potion Number Nine" or the like. That ain't a jazz tune and chances are the band doesn't know it or won't admit it so they won't have to play it.
  7. Do not assume that you should always come back in on the bridge of the second chorus and finish the tune. Sure, that's how Dinah Shore did it, but Dinah was limited to the constraints of a 78rpm record. This is a jam session. Give every player an opportunity to play a chorus. The leader will tell you when to come in.
  8. At all times, follow the leader. If he signals you back in, don't be magnanimous and defer to the bass player for a bass solo. He might not like "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane" and would rather just get it over with.
  9. If you sing, know the words.
  10. If you are not trained in music theory, don't scat. If you are trained in music theory, don't scat very often.
  11. Don't use the microphone to announce the names of each player after he plays a solo. The crowd already knows who they are. You aren't fooling anybody. All that practice does is draw attention to yourself and away from the next player.
  12. If the band misses a change during your tune, don't make an issue out of it to deflect the blame from yourself. Nobody told them they were going to have to play "Sophisticated Lady" in D-flat without charts.
  13. Speaking of charts, don't bring complex arrangements to a jam session. Know some standards; the band can play them from memory. Many session bandstands have inadequate lighting. Many jazz players don't read well. Many vocal arrangements are too bad to be played.
  14. Avoid physical schtick. Don't toss the microphone from hand to hand, gyrate all over the bandstand, or use extreme body language to convey your Vegas-style stage presence. You aren't Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Junior, or Madonna. Stand there and sing the tune.
  15. Don't sing or play a complex, contrived, show biz ending that you heard on a record. Use stock endings. Know what notes and vocal idioms signal tags and long endings to the band. If you hear the band playing an ending other that what you have in mind, go with the band. Why set up an unavoidable train wreck?
  16. Speaking of train wrecks, don't conduct from the bandstand. Don't do dramatic things that need conducting such as long, drawn-out rubatto passages at the end. Know the generic ways to sing and end a tune and use them.
  17. When singing "Hello Dolly" or "What a Wonderful World," don't use a gravelly timbre trying to impersonate Satchmo. He didn't sound like that, and it only makes people uncomfortable. Besides, you'll damage your vocal cords and won't be able to sing after a while. Hmm. On second thought...
  18. Horn players, don't walk up to the bandstand and start blowing until you are invited. Don't stay up there all night, either. Play a tune or two and get down unless the leader asks you to stay. If he asked you up last week, don't assume it's a perpetual invitation.
  19. Don't play nineteen choruses per tune just because that's what Clifford Brown did. Clifford knew nineteen ways to play a tune. You probably don't. Most players have said all they have to say in two choruses. For ballads, one chorus is plenty. Or one half.
  20. Learn to tune your instrument. "Close enough for jazz" isn't funny and it's annoying. If you play sax, for example, and someone says to you, "We're showing a little more cork this year" (or "less"), understand what they are telling you.
  21. Don't carry on bandstand conversations while others solo. That tells the audience the solo is not worth listening to. Pay others the same attention and respect you want for yourself.
  22. Don't noodle on your ax during other players' solos. Don't use the opportunity to tune your horn, learn the tune, or just draw attention to yourself. If you do it during the leader's solo, you might not be invited back.
  23. Learn what "fill" means during vocals. Don't play lots of notes or long tones when a singer is singing. Stay out of the way. If you must make noise during a vocal, do it during the pauses between lyric phrases. That's what "fill" means. But it's best to just stand by and wait your turn.
  24. Just because you can play like Buddy Rich or Art Tatum doesn't mean you should. You don't have to show everything you've got on every tune. It won't impress the other players. All they're interested in about your solo is when it will be over so they can play theirs and impress you.
  25. If you have to play or sing in the keys of D, E and A, find a country western bar that allows sit-ins. If your key is F# or B, consider joining the local community concert orchestra.
  26. If you don't understand harmony, don't participate in improvised backgrounds during vocals or instrumental solos. You are certain to play some wrong notes, which makes the whole performance sound bad.
  27. Despite what you've heard, musicians don't get their choice of the ladies. Neither do drummers.
  28. Don't say "Yeah!" or "I hear ya' talkin', man," when somebody just played a really lame chorus. That tells the rest of us you don't know what you are talking about, and it makes the lame player think he's getting the job done.
  29. If someone calls a tune you don't know, don't play a chorus. If you don't know it, give us a break and take a pass.
  30. Don't commandeer the microphone and give a speech. The crowd is there to hear music not an educational lecture. They don't care about who wrote the tune, who recorded it, when you first heard it, when you first performed it, who your musical mentor was, what your cat's name is, and all that.
  31. After performing, ask the musicians if you "hacked meter." Don't worry about what it means. If they say yes, don't ask to sit in with any band ever again.
  32. Don't get one of your friends to approach the leader saying, "We want to hear Gladys sing." Don't you approach either saying, "Mildred wants to hear me sing my special version of 'Louie, Louie.'" These are contrived devices to get you up there out of turn, and everybody knows it. If you are really good, you will be asked up often. (Also if you are sleeping with the leader.) If you are not really good, you get your turn because that's what's expected at open mic, but you should not get excess exposure.
  33. Don't continuously remind the leader that some particular performer has not been asked up yet. The leader is on top of it and does not need your help. There might even be a reason why someone is not being invited up.
  34. Don't exit the premises immediately after your turn on the stand. Stick around, listen to the other players, and spend some money so the owner sees a financial benefit to hosting open mic jam sessions.
  35. Don't schmooze the owner trying to get the gig. That practice might just find you facing an angry house band in the parking lot.
  36. Don't pass out business cards unless you are asked for them.
  37. Don't apologize all over the place for your performance. If you sucked, everyone already knows it and doesn't need you to remind them. If you did not, you are only fishing for compliments. Usually, you won't get one.
  38. The band plays for short bread and tips. Don't assume your performance exempts you from tipping. Quite the contrary, inviting you to sit in earns the band a generous tip. Put something in the jar, and do it conspicuously so everyone sees you do it.
  39. If these rules are not acceptable, consider making a karaoke bar your usual hangout.