Kelly and I went to The Afterthought in Little Rock last night for the Monday night jazz show. They’ve been running Monday night jazz at The Afterthought for 14 years now. Before that it was at a place called The Oyster Bar (that was when I lived in Little Rock and briefly played jazz music here).

The same people were there that were there last time. They had more gray in their hair, but it was a familiar scene.

The striking familiarity wasn’t the people, though. It was the structure of the event. I never noticed it before (maybe a case of not seeing the forest for the trees), but jazz gigs typically follow a common structure and share a set of common traits:

  • It was scheduled to start at 8. Nobody was there at 8. It started at 8:30.
  • The band had obviously rehearsed 0 times for the gig. They didn’t know what songs they were going to play until right before each song started. Improvisation to the max.
  • Without rehearsal or a set list, they picked songs that everyone knew. This means they picked the same songs we’ve all played a million times.
  • They started with a bossa nova. They followed that with a waltz. Then (as I felt the same internal strife they apparently did) I heard the band leader say to the drummer, “I’m not sure what we should play next, but it should be a swing tune. We’ve already done a bossa and a waltz.” Jazz people have an unwritten rule that you have to play a blues, something with a beat, a waltz, a ballad, and a swing tune in a set. It’s as if the set is not properly balanced otherwise and the jazz police will arrest them for producing an unbalanced set.
  • They had someone sit in and played a song nobody else knew, so they all got the fakebooks out and read along.
  • In every song, every band member played a solo in the same order. In every song at the end of the solos, the saxophone played “traded fours” with the drummer. Trading fours is when an instrumentalist improvises for four measures and then the band drops out for the drummer to improvise for four measures, until they get once or twice through the form of the tune. I can count the number of instances of trading fours I’ve enjoyed as a listener on the fingers of one hand.
  • After the “last song” before the break, they played the standard set break tune, which is a song originally done by Miles Davis that sounds like the closing tag of a circus show. I can’t remember the name of it, and they probably can’t either. It’s meant to be transitional music over which the band says “thank you and we’ll be right back” but it usually lasts 5 minutes or more. It lasted 5 minutes or more.
  • The entire band ran immediately outside to smoke.
  • We left, but they probably took a break that lasted nearly as long as they had played.

That’s a whole lot of ritual. And the funny thing is that I bet none of the band members enjoy most of it and I know the audience doesn’t care about any of it. The whole routine is constrained by a set of rules that aren’t done in the name of either the customer (audience) or the supplier (musician). They’re done for no one.

I have done all of these things countless times and I have not ever enjoyed the constraints. It’s only now that I’ve been away from it that I realize the constraints even exist.

I wonder what sort of things I do now that hindsight will reveal to be pointless ritual.