I got back last night at 5am. It was one of those special evenings that only happen once in a long while, but is so inspiring that it changes the course of your life.
The night started off at Genghis Cohen. My buddy from Minneapolis (now in Nashville) Elliott Blaufuss (Eric Hutchinson‘s MD, guitarist/keyboardist) setup this last minute show for his short trip to LA. On the bill was Alt-Americana songstress Jessie Payo, Elliott and me. I played first and towards the end of my set I noticed how many heavy hitting musicians were in the house.
It’s a small room, holds maybe 50 at capacity. I asked a few of them to join me for my last song. I had co-written a song a few months back with power house singer/songwriter Nina Storey. She was there so I decided to play our song last. Drummer Rob Humphreys who played my last big Hotel Cafe show was in the house and there was a house kit setup, but he didn’t have any of his gear because he wasn’t playing on the night (just came to say hi). But fellow drummer Kiel Feher was there (having just returned from tour with Selena Gomez) and lent Rob some sticks.
I’ve sat in on a couple shows that Kiel has been on. Never officially done a show together, but played together and cross paths frequently nonetheless. See, after awhile of being in the same town, in the same scene, all serious musicians get to know each other and constantly cross paths. Kiel and Rob both came up and shared the kit for our New Orleans influenced song. I called Elliott up as well to rip on the guitar. He grabbed the house amp from off stage and set it up during the start of the song.
I guess this foreshadowed the night to come.
The rest of the show was solid. More musicians showed up. At one point Casey Abrams (of American Idol fame) got up and sang a tune with Elliott. Jessie Payo and Elliott shared the band and stage for most of each others’ sets.
Their bassist, Frank Abraham told us about a jam he co-hosts at The Federal in NoHo affectionately called The Federal Affair. I’d heard of it before from guys I’ve played with, but had never checked it out. For a late-night Wednesday night jam, it was a solid turnout. Hell, for a Saturday it would have been a solid turnout. What I’m trying to say is, the place was packed. And most people in the house were musicians.
For all intents and purposes it was just a jam. Various singers – most star quality pipes – got up, called out a tune and the band played it (Frank on bass is a beast. His repertoire seems limitless). Guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboardists, saxophonists, and even a vibraphonist (the incomparable Justin Thomas) all traded in and out. The hosts of the night invited their musician friends up to do their thing. My jaw virtually stayed on the floor.
And then, right when I was finally able to pick it up, lock it back into place on my face, they called a tap dancer to the stage. They put a couple mics on the ground, and then the full band jammed with the dancer. Turns out this tap dancer is Sarah Reich who has been a featured dancer on So You Think You Can Dance multiple times and has millions upon millions of views on her YouTube videos (with Postmodern Jukebox). She regularly gets flown around the world for workshops and performances. She’s now on tour with PMJ. It’s safe to say she is one of the best tap dancers in the world. Well, see for yourself.
This was definitely a first for me: a tap dance infused musical jam. And not only did she have style, attitude and grace, her complex, syncopated rhythms rivaled some of the best living percussionists. She’s a force. A star. A once in a lifetime talent. And she was just another (amazing) artist on stage for the weekly Wednesday jam.
And as full-circle to the night, Jessie Payo led Elliott, Rob and Frank in a sultry funk version of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He.”
This isn’t a “gig” per se. This is a jam. A free one at that. There’s no cover. The Federal pays the house band a small guarantee. But the players are there for the hang and for the artistic fulfillment. It’s a safe space where musicians can get back to why they got into music in the first place. It was never for the paycheck. Or for the fame. Frank Abraham told me The Federal Affair is “an opportunity to play good music with your friends.”
“It’s an opportunity to play good music with your friends.” – Frank Abraham, The Federal Affair house bassist
These musicians, are some of LA’s premier young freelancers. It seemed nearly every player was in their 20s or 30s. And they regularly hop on and off tours bouncing around from arenas to clubs and everywhere in between. When you become known in a city as a solid (and reliable) player, the work starts to flow.
I got a list from Abraham of some of the musicians who were there this past Wednesday. These cats have played with everyone from Eminem and Dr. Dre to Kimbra, Earth Wind and Fire, Jennifer Lopez, Jessy J, Beyonce, Mary J Blige, George Duke, Gnarles Barkley, Whitney Houston, Jamie Foxx, 50 Cent and various American Idol winers. To name just a few. Basically, these are the A-list freelancers of LA.
A true family affair. Sly Stone would be proud.
This jam was where it happens. It’s where drummers can hang with drummers. Guitarists can hang with guitarists. Keyboardists can hang with keyboardists. Saxophonists, well you get the point. Because these players are the hired guns in other artists’ bands, they don’t get to hang out with their own kind very often.
But that’s the thing. If a player can’t make a gig, she’ll want someone solid who can seamlessly take her place. And who do you think she’s going to refer? Someone who’s not just a solid player, but a good hang. And who is the first person she’s going to think of? The player she met three years ago on a shared bill or the dude she just took a shot with at the bar last night and whose amp she shared?
You have to stay top of mind. If my guitarist can’t make a gig, I ask him for recommendations. I don’t turn to Craigslist. Every freelancer gets asked for recommendations of other solid players on their instrument. Because drummers are rarely on the same gig as other drummers, they compile their mental list from jams, hangs and shared bills. I never have to audition players recommended by other players (who I trust). These cats know their reputations are on the line as well so they won’t refer me players who can’t cut it. I typically hire them off of a text. Once you’re an accepted member of the A-list circle, you only refer (and play with) A-list talent. But A-listers work often. So, often times the go-to players are booked. Hence the need for constant referrals.
The more often you put yourself out there the more work you will receive.
Even if you’re not a freelancer. I got one of the most interesting gigs of my career last month from a friend’s referral. I had just hung out with her so I was top of mind when the organizer of the event asked her for a singer/songwriter for his event.
The best musicians won’t always get the gig. It’s those who are easy to work with and put themselves out there who work the most.
Whether you’re a band, a singer/songwriter or a freelance player, you must find your jam. Find your scene. Find your hang. And once you do, prove yourself, and the work will follow.