Pull Up & Play Right
New York City as seen by young jazz musicians.
By Becky Miller
It’s summer, Saturday night, Smalls Jazz Club. Caleb Tobocman, a seasoned jazz bassist and sophomore at the Manhattan School of Music, is on the bandstand, and tonight he has sets at 10:30 p.m. and midnight. There’s a line around the block. People are packing into the club’s tiny basement: Attention is on him, his supporting instrument, and tonight’s collective of players. During one of these sets, Grammy-winning jazz drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts leaves his seat in the audience and announces he’ll be on drums for this one. Tobocman plays it cool, performs alongside one of his idols, and gets his ass kicked. It’s a dream come true; his 15 minutes of fame have arrived, his forehead dripping with sweat, his fingers calloused from plucking strings. He lives in a different New York than the rest of us. Tobocman’s friend Brandon Suarez, a saxophonist, put it best: “We’re in a fairyland, almost. It’s, like, not even real life.”
Tobocman and his friends sometimes gig at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where Charlie Parker used to jam until the sun came up. It was there that, according to Ralph Ellison, the greats “formulated the chordal progressions and the hide-and-seek melodic methods of modern jazz.” Tobocman and Suarez, just college kids, jam in the same spot. They frequent the same haunts, play the same music, and discuss their musical predecessors with zeal and distance: Those guys, as they say, were on another level.
Our protagonists know jazz history. Tobocman and Surez recognize the musical freedom in jazz’s improvisational form and understand that their tunes are situated in a rich history of creative expression. Jazz, an African American conception, has its origins in political expression. These guys see their opportunities to play as chances to further this tradition, to speak from the center of a choir. Their instruments are brass megaphones that release their philosophies into heavy basement air. “You want to express yourself through your instrument,” Suarez said, “and you only really understand who someone else is once you hear them play theirs.”
Their gigging styles are as individual as their jazz metaphysics. Because Tobocman is a practitioner of an in-demand instrument like the bass, he is booked almost every day. Suarez gigs less: “If you love it enough, the money will come.” At MSM, they study music theory, receive coaching from legendary players, and practice up to six hours a day. But the school offers little practical support concerning landing gigs—which is pretty much all these guys think about sunup to sundown.
Tobocman gigs at both restaurants and jazz clubs, but he’s rarely the main show; he’s a casual entertainer, hired by a leading instrument to play background and set a vibe. He takes his work seriously, wearing a coat jacket and a straight face as he explained his music’s legacy. But on stage, he’s there to live and breathe the culture, form strategic career connections, hone his craft, and, of course, take advantage of the free drink tickets. “If I’m there with a trio—like drums, bass, a piano player—and I get a free burger and a hundred bucks, I could do that for the rest of my life.”
Their gigs are bereft of any prior formal rehearsals or setlists. The crew shares passed-down knowledge of a couple hundred jazz standards—familiar tunes all good players should know and play. A leading instrument calls each one in turns. If the sax starts a tune and the bassist doesn’t know it, it’s up to them to figure it out and improvise. Their ears are their intuition: To recover from a blindside, they’ll go home post-show and listen to ten versions of the tune they hadn’t known and commit it to heart. Next time someone calls it, they’ll be ready. It’s a team sport, and each player has to play right.
Not knowing a tune means more than a little onstage embarrassment—it’s a means of expanding their musical vocabularies, and thus showing more respect for jazz’s foundation, for their heroes. These young players project a tenderness for their art form that’s visible on the bandstand. At a recent gig at Silvana, I watched the drummer stare at his cymbal with nothing short of admiration. After the show, he zipped the instrument into a gigantic case and carried it in his lap on the subway ride home. Even sweeter, these players care for each other—working until they sweat to perfect their collective sound, spending late nights jamming together at Mezzrow or Smalls, talking endlessly about Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. They share a true love for each other and for their art. Tobocman pointed at Suarez and told me, “I hear John Coltrane differently because this guy is my friend.”