Through a lot of effort, I'm gradually beginning to find more gigs as a soloist and with On the Cool Side and Allen, Vinton, and Godfrey. These projects are very important to me, but I also like to cultivate relationships outside of my regular bands, especially big bands.
I'm the "other guitar player" for the Atlanta Swing Orchestra and the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I absolutely love playing big band rhythm guitar. It's very different from small group playing in that the guitar player is rarely called upon to play a solo. Instead, the guitarist plays a very specific role in the rhythm section, helping to keep time and filling in harmonies in the middle register. In a small group, the guitar has the freedom to alter chords, but in a big band, the guitarist is expected to play exactly the chord that is written. In a small group, the guitarist will often play little fills to complement a singer or horn player, but in a big band, that's the piano player's job. In a sense, the guitar player is an extension of the drums. For the guitarist, it's common to play nothing but quarter notes for an entire chart, a la Freddie Green. When I play rhythm guitar in a jazz band, I focus on staying in sync with the hi-hat as I chunk through my quarter notes. You might think it would be boring to play quarter notes all night, until you take a look at the parts and realize you don't stand a chance unless you know a LOT of chords. You also need to be a good reader. Many guitarists avoid learning to read music, which baffles me. As long as you're playing your own music or you can puzzle out something in TAB, I guess you don't need to read, but if you sit down to play in a big band and you can't read, you're in for a long night.
Someday I hope to "the" guy instead of the "other" guy in a jazz band. For now, I'm content to sub. Since I sub in two bands, I usually get a chance to play in a rehearsal once or twice a month to keep up my big band rhythm chops. An added benefit to subbing is that I have the opportunity to meet other musicians. I tend not to say a lot in rehearsals, and I'm not a big schmoozer. I keep my eyes open, my mouth shut, and play my part. Simply by being friendly and competent, I've met people who have helped me in my quest to relaunch my performance career.
When I think of helpful musicians, Dan Turner comes to mind. He's the piano player in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. He's pointed me to a couple low-key restaurant gigs, as well as some better paying gigs playing dinner music at SJO dances. I was able to return the favor last fall by hiring him for a duo job at a wedding rehearsal dinner, and I plan on returning the favor again in the future as I eventually enjoy more success. I've also gotten work as a result of my relationship with the Atlanta Swing Orchestra, including a couple combo gigs, some nice restaurant gigs, and a big band job.
So, "other guy" status can pay off, as long as you're respectful and competent. Even if I rarely get to play with the full band, some doors have opened simply by playing in rehearsals. Last month I had two paid gigs as a result of being the other guitar player, and I have three such gigs this month. That's why I'm happy to sub anywhere, anytime. I'll continue cultivating my own projects, but it's equally important to get out there and meet new musicians.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.