Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 5, 2011

Got to Pay Your Dues

“Got to pay your dues if you wanna play the blues, and you know it don’t come easy.”

Thus sang one of the 20th Century’s leading philosophers, the man we know as Ringo. Every musician knows what he meant, although the precise definition of “paying dues” varies according to which kind of “blues” one aspires to play. If we take “the blues” in its strictest sense to be a certain four-beat, 12- or 16-bar musical form that is primarily based upon the tonic, 4th and 5th tones of any given scale, then “paying dues” consists of being poor, preferably African-American, and probably living either in a remote rural part of the U.S. or else having migrated from such a place, living in an invariably a cold, hostile city. Once there, one hangs about for endless years, playing music on street corners, picking up odd jobs playing music at car washes and church socials and Tea Party conventions, until Mick Jagger or John Lennon or Eric Clapton discovers you and records your music and then two decades later, you’re a star!’

If we consider a wider definition which includes other musical genres, there are other dues-paying paths, which include being in the audience holding your mandolin when Bill Monroe’s backup player suddenly has a disagreement about his pay onstage in the middle of a summer heat wave in a state park in Indiana and Bill spots you and calls you to the stage. You might be an aspiring cellist busy polishing the bumpers on the music director’s limousine when word comes that Yo-Yo Ma’s plane has been delayed and he won’t be able to perform that evening’s program of Bach and Philip Glass. As it happens, you’ve just devoted 2,000 hours of practice to “Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello,” and, since no one understands Glass, anyway, you figure you can fake it and you step up to the music director and tell her that you’re her huckleberry.

No matter what dues one pays in whatever line of the music biz, there comes a moment when one has to step onto a stage of some sort. It might be the battered boards of a WPA-era auditorium, the basketball court at a local Jr. High, the bed of a flatbed truck parked in a clover field at the annual Charleston Petunia Festival or a flimsy plywood stage covered  with carpet remnants and wedged into the corner of The Fuzz Club in Newport, Kentucky. Wherever it is, and whether the audience is a bunch of hooch-drinking yokels or parents just waiting for the dance recital portion of the show, you are going to have to take your place on the stand, look around to see if the drummer is awake and upright, catch the eye of the singer or lead guitarist to make certain that they display evidence of inhabiting the same space-time continuum you occupy, get the key, and PLAY. Make no mistake, my friends; the first time you do it, the word for this experience is “terror.”

If you’re lucky, someone gives you a chance early in your musical matriculation to practice playing in a group. You’ll have noticed that a large number of accomplished musicians come from musical families. What this means, in addition to having someone stick an instrument into your hands as soon as you put down your pacifier, and aside from any genetic predisposition to being musical, is that kids from musical families get an apprenticeship in making music with other people, often with their relatives and close friends of the family, making the notion of performing a lot less threatening than doing it for the first time before strangers. They learn how to listen to one another; they learn how to understand how everyone in the group knows that the next two verses belong to the guitar, and then the banjo, and then the piano. By the time they’re in that club a block off Clark Street in Chicago or somewhere in the ratty outskirts of Memphis with their first chance to play with strangers, they’ve already got a clue about how things work up there on the other side of the microphone.

Right after I moved to Los Angeles — when The Counselor and I were a brand-new item — I told her I’d like to go play in a blues jam I’d read about out on the Santa Monica Pier. On a weekday night, we drove up the coast and found our way to Rusty’s Surf Ranch. I figured any place with a view of the Pacific Ocean had to be a big step up from the Fuzz Club, with almost a view of the Ohio River. The trick to this gig was that it was run by Rich and Maureen Del Grosso, who I had met a dozen years before at the wonderful Augusta Blues Week in Elkins, West Virginia. I am pleased to report that The Counselor was astounded. She saw me step onto the little platform with a few other musicians, saw Rich call out something like, “‘Can’t Be Satisfied’ in G” and there I was, playing harmonica in a group of people I didn’t know, with no rehearsal, no music, and no obvious way for the uninitiated observer to know WHAT THE HECK was going on.

Now she knows that it was a cheap trick, and no big deal. If you A) know five blues numbers, you know every every blues song (except “Stormy Monday”), and if you B) know your  scales, you can play any number in any key. If you do not know A and B, then don’t show up.

With the advent of the electronic cottage and the decline in front-porch sitting, there are fewer places for a young person to learn to jam with other musicians that aren’t bars. Not every fourteen year-old has parents that will accompany them to the local pub so that they can learn something about live performance (and I don’t blame them). Not every venue of that sort is extremely tolerant of rank beginners, either. A newcomer trying to get a shot at playing with total strangers is paying some dues, indeed.

All this is prelude to describing a great scene from earlier this week. The first Monday of every month, the place where I take my guitar lessons puts on an informal blues jam for their students. The instructors stage this informal event to give their students some experience in the terrifying and daunting challenge of getting up before other people and improvising music. While music lessons focus the student on learning scales, mastering instrumental technique and polishing the performance of set pieces of music, transferring those skills to live performance, and especially to playing en ensemble is difficult enough if one is aiming to become a classically trained musician playing in an orchestra of any size. It’s another matter entirely when, as in a jam session, there is no written music, when the order of solos and background playing is a dynamic, constantly changing assignment of roles in live improvisation. THAT is what blues players mean by “paying dues.” You spend a lot of time playing in the background before you get the chance to step out and command the attention of the audience.

Each month at this little jam, the mix of players varies, but the focus is on giving the students — almost invariably teenagers — some experience in live improvisation. Sometimes there’ll be four or five young guitar players waiting their turn to play in the jam. With any luck there’ll be a drummer or two, and sometimes one of the brass or sax students will show up. This month, it was a small turnout. There were no student drummers, so the professional who teaches at the place sat on the throne (and, man, that guy could play anywhere). A couple of the school’s guitar instructors, as always, were there to provide as much guitar expertise as you’ll find in this world, and Dave, the ringer who always shows up to play piano was at the baby grand. Since there were no bass players in evidence, either pro or student, I took that spot, because I can count to four and I know at least three notes in every key: skill enough for blues bass. We had one student: a guitar player, maybe 14 or so, and that seemed to be the jam for that evening. We got through a couple of numbers, and the pros who run the jam did a great job of making sure that our guitar student had plenty of help in knowing when it was his turn, supporting him through his solos, and keeping things moving. And, I’m pleased to say, he rocked.

Then we realized that two girls, maybe 10 and 7, sitting by the side of the group, holding, respectively, a clarinet and a flute, were there to jam, though they were too shy to say so. Now, this school is pretty serious about turning out accomplished woodwind players. They regularly send their young charges in flute and clarinet to successful careers in college music programs as they graduate from high school. Typically, these students pursue extremely demanding, classically oriented programs that stress … well … all that classical stuff. But, here were the two girls, and they had come to jam. And so they would.

Sandy, the guitar instructor who leads the jam, determined that these girls (sisters, I think), had a fundamental grasp of the primary scale for their instruments (B-flat for clarinet, C for flute), and not much else. OK. He explained that we were going to play a song in a certain key, and that blues songs are based on a progression of three tones, and gave them those three notes to play. He had them play those notes. All good. Their job, he explained, was to listen to the band, and to play those tones as they heard them in the sequence of the song.

We played, and they improvised. We made music. As they heard the notes they were playing, fit into the chords of the song, and got more comfortable with the rhythm, they played more notes, in different patterns. They were jamming! I had as much fun watching and listening to those two brand-new blues musicians play simple scales as I have had, ever, playing music.

Here you have musicians at their best. Yes, one can wander into a performance or rehearsal or jam session anywhere in this world in which a single egotistical idiot can make life miserable for anyone else on the stand. That, in my experience, is the exception. Music (from Greek for “Muse”), as all musicians know, is an art, not a science, and it is fostered by the energy and creativity of the people who create it. Unplayed sheet music is just a sheet of paper, and an unplayed blues song can’t really be said to exist at all, except in some idealist otherworld. They have to be played. Without exception, good musicians know that, however excellent a musician you are, introducing more people to what you love, and giving them a chance to share that artistry and practice making music with someone else increases the amount of good in the world. I know what I know about music because my mother, my siblings, my grandfather and Rich and Maureen, Pigmeat Jarrett and Harmonica Phil and Madcat Ruth all set aside the fact that they were better musicians than I, and showed me something new. That’s why it’s important to introduce the next round of players.

Welcome to the stage, kids. You take it from here.

© 2013 Brad Nixon



  1. Love this!


  2. Wow! Great blog!


  3. Great blog, Brad! Enjoyed it very much.


  4. Nice post Brad! Reading this I began to think about my own various levels of performance anxiety. As a young songwriter I’d go on stage with a new song and about halfway through the tune suddently realize I didn’t really know the song yet. Jen Smith of Naked Blue told me she never played a song onstage unless she’d played it at least 35 times. I adopted her rule for my own and now it occasionally looks like I know what I’m doing. I met a musician in Chicago (Johnny Burnett) who told me I had to go out on the street to play to really get confidence in my songs. That was way harder than the stage for me. And actually now that I think about it, both the stage and the street are easier for me than playing at home. I’m more inhibited at home in front of family and have to consciously work to step out of my ‘at home mask’ in order to play the songs right.


  5. Well done. Money-Changers and the Petunia Festival, indeed.


  6. I too thought it was a special night. I knew it would be a light turnout right after the holidays but those two little girls made it worth the effort. That’s the way it works!


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