Do you jam?
Do you ever let loose and ply your craft just for the hell of it?
Do you play when no one is listening, write code when no one is paying, or draw when no one has asked you to?
Just for the joy of it?
Go do that, today, right after work.
Trust me on this.
For years, I lived by that well-worn code: “No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
I did all my writing on client assignments, and only on client assignments. Which was a mistake.
Yeah, I became adept at writing case studies and marketing literature for networking products and scripts for insurance videos. I could write a killer home page.
But I rarely came up with anything new. Something dazzling and fresh that would make clients blink twice and say, “Now, that I like.”
I grew lame at writing with real juice. (Otherwise, right about here, you’d be feeling a lot more steam rising off this post.)
Then I heard the story of Minton’s Playhouse, the jazz club in New York’s Cecil Hotel.
Minton’s is closed down now. But in the late ’40′s and ’50′s, jazz musicians from all over the city would gather there on Monday nights. Just to play.
They weren’t there for the money. They played for the hell of it.
We’re talking about jazz names like Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Dozens more. Any jazz fan would know them.
These guys were working musicians. They had paying jobs in clubs, in swing bands, on the radio, in recording studios. These were pros with no need to prove anything.
But on the traditional musician’s night off, Monday night, the really good ones, the ones with music in their bones, they brought their instruments to Minton’s Playhouse just for a chance to play.
(It is telling that in English we use the same word for ‘playing’ a saxophone, and ‘playing’ with friends in the park.)
On these wild Monday nights, they would hold ‘cutting contests’ which was the jazz version of ‘king of the hill’. You sat in and played, until somebody outplayed you. Then you left the stage.
There were legendary trumpet duels between Larry Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. The newbies and hopefuls, with no chance of sitting in, would still come to listen.
Other nights, the players would improvise and riff on old standards. Or make up new stuff, entirely in the moment.
They all came to work the same smoky stage with the best in the business.
Mind you, this was all on their nights off. The musician’s union actually threatened to fine them all $500 for playing without pay. But they played anyway.
Because at Minton’s on Monday nights, they were free to explore and experiment. To try things without the constipating influence of canned arrangements. They could close their eyes and let their fingers fly.
They could riff and play off each other. They could play and play until, maybe once or twice in the evening, something unheard of and utterly unexpected would emerge mysteriously from their horns. Something startling and magical.
Of course, while at it, they all honed their chops. They got better and better, and more skillful, masterful, and technically brilliant.
I can picture them heading home at 4 am, with their fingers sore, their embouchures aching, their eyes burning from the cigarette smoke. But a little bit sharper that day for having put in the hours.
Did these freewheeling jams inform and enhance their regular gigs? Did they find things they could use back on their paying jobs? Maybe.
I like to think they walked out with some licks or riffs or patterns that would work in the studio the next day. Things that listeners and fans and record buyers really liked.
Even more important, in all this playing and enjoying, these Monday night jammers invented a whole new style of jazz. People called it bebop. Look it up.
Interestingly, bebop didn’t hold much commercial promise at the time. The rhythms weren’t good for dancing. You couldn’t hum bepob while painting the fence. Bebop was a player’s style, intricate and complex, and unconventional for the time. Maybe a little show-offy.
It was the kind of music that musicians played when they were playing for the bliss of it. A player’s style that grew out of simply playing.
But still, Thelonius Monk went on to make records in this new style of jazz. Jamming was a good career move.
One evening, my friend Bill asked me to write some vamps for him, some clever stories, bits, jokes or interludes to entertain the audience while his band redeployed between sets.
“Do whatever,” he said. “Just make it fun.” All he needed was three minutes of something, anything imaginative, to fill the void between sets. Maybe three or four versions.
I sat down to type. I touched fingertips to forehead and waited.
But I couldn’t fucking do it.
I grunted and farted at the keyboard, but I came up with nothing but the most embarrassing crap.
That scared the hell out of me. Without a template, a format, a list of product features, I floundered. I had lost the ability to spin yarn out of nothing but air.
You can bet I jam now, and plenty. Which is part of what The Freelancery is about. (Even if it’s crap, it’s crap I made up on my own.)
What jamming will do is help you reconnect to why you love what you do. (That big fat pad of brandy-new, all blank paper? The package of markers with the caps still on?)
It will also point you to what you should be doing. What your brain really wants to be working on.
Is this just something you do for a few bucks? Just a day job? Or is it deeper than that? This may be scary to find out.
(Do accountants jam? Physical Therapists, actuaries, or insurance underwriters? I know chefs jam. So do firefighters. Programmers. Stand-up comics and storytellers and wood carvers. But Account Planners?)
Jamming will also help you find things you can use to delight people with your work. Stuff you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Here’s what to do.
Put the kids to bed. Shut down the router and the wi-fi. Shut down the email. Put all the paperwork under a box somewhere.
Then close your eyes and play.