May 24, 2022

The worst jazz gig of my life

Today, I muster up the courage to tell you about the worst gig of my life. We’ll go from the lead-up all the way to the aftermath.

My story is pretty tame. No one got physically hurt and no one’s rights were infringed upon. For sure, the worst gigs in many people’s lives can be much worse than the one I’m about to describe.

While growing up, I've struggled to be a consistently good person in my own music scene. I’ve worn a lot of my growing pains on my sleeve and continue to process that experience. Thank you to everyone who’s given me some patience along the way!

When you take time to support any kind of local music, it’s often the most fun when you feel like you know everybody. You can only count on that feeling in a tiny community.

This is the story of a night where I felt destroyed by the community I grew up in. I will use pseudonyms because it’s my account of a Vancouver jazz story.

Also, I intend for you to take this story as fiction, with a grain of salt; it's my anecdote of something that happened to me, but I can't promise you that I remember every detail accurately.

Part 1: the lead-up

I bumped into Pianist on my way out of the rehearsal room. Pianist said he had a gig next month and needed a bass player.

The three rehearsal-mates watched for my reaction. I accepted Pianist’s offer without lifting my eyes up from the floor. He thanked me, and my rehearsal-mates cheered.

Pianist said I should email him, and over the following three weeks, I did. No response.

One week before the gig, in the same rehearsal, I asked Guitarist what was going on. Guitarist was quite close to the people involved in this gig but had no advice for me, saying only that following up with people was an important professional skill.

I replied yes, I’m a teenager with time to learn about being on the scene. I called Pianist while SkyTraining home, and I got nothing.

Part 2: the night of

Still, I have heard nothing from Pianist about the gig. If you’re not a musician reading this, know that this is totally unacceptable. Thankfully I’m good at Googling and can find where and when the gig is.

Needing to be prepared for anything, I wear a suit and pack a tie. I bring my upright bass and my amp onto the SkyTrain like all the other hundreds of times, and I carry a music stand as well.

I take the elevator, get out on the correct floor, and see Guitarist, who I know isn’t playing with me but confirms that I’m in the right place.

I find Pianist in the lobby and learn from him that we’ll play with Drummer tonight. I love the way Pianist plays, but Drummer is also a favourite of mine, so the adrenaline comes.

Pianist tells me we’ll play standards. No surprises there. I start naming some standards I’m most comfortable with, and Pianist nods along.

I reflect on what brought me here. I’ve been studying hard, and it’s time to show this audience of Vancouver jazz VIPs what I’m all about.

Pianist, Drummer, and I take the stage. Pianist, after introducing us, breaks right into the improvised intro of a tune. I wait for him to cue me, but he looks at me funny before I notice any cue. Then, I realized that Pianist isn’t playing an intro: he’s playing a tune that I don’t know. Don’t know what it’s called, don’t know how it goes. He didn’t say what it was.

Expert jazz musicians can deal with this situation. I can get by, because I understand harmony, but if you know this kind of music you know that I’m out to lunch.

I make it through the tune in one piece, applause, thank-yous. Next tune. I also don’t know it, and Pianist also didn’t say what it was. Same with the one after. And the one after.

Pianist led me through a whole set of tunes I didn’t know, offering me as little help as possible. I didn’t know what to do about it, so I tried to survive and not rock the boat. Drummer seemed puzzled.

At some point in the middle of that hour, which felt longer than the couple years I’d been playing jazz to date, Pianist re-introduced the band.

“Will Chernoff, he’s doing his best tonight on the bass. Give him a hand!”

Part 3: the aftermath

I had to get off the stage and out of there as quickly as possible before crying. Around this time, I was abusing alcohol that I kept in the sideways bookshelf behind my bed. This night was a particularly bad one for me on that front.

I was voted off the island of Vancouver jazz and could never be welcomed back. I didn’t tell anyone about it, hoping that those who didn’t attend would never know. I’ve never talked to Pianist since then, but I forgive him and doubt he’d do it again at this point in his life.

But I still felt destroyed, so I made folk music and not jazz the centre of my work for the next few years. I also went to Europe on a sort of pilgrimage.

Why did that happen, that night?

The worst gig of my life sucked, but I’m happy to have processed it fully and put it to rest. As always, I used it as fuel for composing new music. I hope that any musicians who had a similar experience can find their way through it too.