The worst gig of my life (2014)

A while back, I confessed to dropping the ball on jazz gigs in my late teens, and considered telling a story about one bad gig in particular. Some of you responded and said yes, I should tell this story.

But I had only told it to my spouse and about three of my closest friends. Other than that, I’ve avoided telling it for several years.

The lead-up

My story is pretty tame. No one got physically hurt and no one’s rights were infringed upon. For sure, the worst gigs in many people’s lives can be much worse than the one I’m about to describe. While growing up, I’ve struggled to be a consistently good person in my own music scene. I’ve worn a lot of my growing pains on my sleeve and continue to process that experience. Thank you to everyone who has given me some patience along the way!

When you take time to support any kind of local music, it’s often the most fun when you feel like you know everybody. You can only count on that feeling in a tiny community.

This is the story of a night where I felt destroyed by the community I grew up in. I will use pseudonyms because it’s my account of a Vancouver jazz story.

That night

I bumped into Pianist on my way out of the rehearsal room. Pianist was an instructor in my jazz university and well-regarded in the field; in fact, he was one of my favourite personalities in the program when I was a student. He said he had a gig next month and needed a bass player.

My three rehearsal-mates watched for my reaction. I accepted Pianist’s offer without lifting my eyes up from the floor. He thanked me, and my rehearsal-mates cheered. What a cool opportunity for a young bass player!

Pianist said I should email him, and over the following three weeks I did that four times. No response.

One week before the gig, in the same rehearsal, I asked Guitarist for advice.

Guitarist was quite close to the people involved in this gig but had no advice for me, saying only that following up with people was an important professional skill.

I replied yes, I’m a teenager with time to learn about being on the scene. I called Pianist that night while SkyTraining home. Nothing.

Now it’s that night, and I have heard nothing from Pianist about the gig. If you’re not a musician reading this, know that this is totally unacceptable. Thankfully I’m good at Googling and can find where and when the gig is.

Needing to be prepared for anything, I wear a suit and pack a tie. I bring my upright bass and my amp onto the SkyTrain like all the other hundreds of times, and I carry a music stand as well.

Arriving

I take the elevator, get out on the correct floor, and see Guitarist, who I know isn’t playing with me but confirms that I’m in the right place.

Pianist comes into the lobby, and I learn from him that we’ll play with Drummer tonight. I love the way Pianist plays and Drummer is also a favourite of mine, so this is when the adrenaline kicks in.

Pianist tells me that we’ll play standards. No surprises there. I start naming some standards I’m most comfortable with, and Pianist nods along.

I reflect on what brought me here. I’ve been studying hard, and it’s time to show this audience of Vancouver jazz VIPs what I’m all about.

Performing

Pianist, Drummer, and I take the stage. Pianist, after introducing us, breaks right into the improvised intro of a tune. I wait for him to cue me, but he looks at me funny before I notice any cue. Then, I realized that Pianist isn’t playing an intro—he’s playing a tune that I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s called and don’t know how it goes. He didn’t say what it was.

Expert jazz musicians can deal with this situation. I can get by because I understand harmony, but if you know this kind of music then you know that I’m out to lunch.

I make it through the tune in one piece with applause and thank-yous. Next tune. I also don’t know it, and Pianist also didn’t say what it was. Same with the one after. And the one after.

Pianist led me through a whole set of tunes I didn’t know, offering me as little help as possible. I didn’t know what to do about it, so I tried to survive and not rock the boat. Drummer seemed puzzled.

At some point in the middle of that hour, which felt longer than the couple years I’d been playing jazz to date, Pianist re-introduced the band.

“Will Chernoff, he’s doing his best tonight on the bass. Give him a hand!”

Aftermath

In the throes of humiliation, I had to get off the stage and out of there as quickly as possible before crying. I was voted off the island of Vancouver jazz and could never be welcomed back. I didn’t tell anyone about it, hoping that those who didn’t attend would never know. I’ve said few words to Pianist since then, but I forgive him and doubt he’d do it again at this point in his life.

When I got home, I finished the bottle of Alberta Premium that I kept in the sideways bookshelf behind my bed. The reason that I bring up this instance of alcohol use is because I suspect that alcohol may have contributed to the behaviour of people who would treat me this way. Thankfully I don’t abuse alcohol, because I know that if I did, there’s a chance that I would treat someone this badly.

I felt destroyed, so for the next few years I made folk music and not jazz the centre of my work. I also went to Europe on a sort of pilgrimage, making friends that had no idea who I was and whom I would forget after returning home.

Wrapping up

Why did that happen, that night? If you’re ready to offer the response that this experience is common for young artists—or that many great jazz musicians have experienced it in their youth—thank you for engaging with my story. I have only one thing to say back to this response: I’m not interested in participating in any industry or academy where being treated this way is commonplace, and I hope you agree.

Yes, the events on stage were brutal and unacceptable. But the lead-up was also unacceptable, and in hindsight I think that I should have opted out of the gig when I had such difficulty getting information about it.

I want to say that if you put me back there today, I would walk off the stage and disrupt the whole ordeal. But it’s best to say that I never would have agreed to get up there in the first place.


Thank you for sharing this story with me! I also talk about this subject in an episode of the Rhythm Changes Podcast: David Blake – The Tangent Café Era. Dive into that if you listen to podcasts.