“Do You Know . . . ?” The Jazz Repertoire: An Overview

(with Robert R. Faulkner)

We start with a simple problem. In thousands of places, every night, in Europe, North America, and many other places in the world, this scene takes place. Several musicians who may not know each other, meet to play a musical engagement. They play for several hours, without rehearsal, with only the most rudimentary written music (if they have any at all, and often they don’t), and perform quite well, to the satisfaction of their employers and audiences. Our question is: how can they do that? What knowledge and skills do they need to successfully perform this wonderful feat of coordinated activity? We suppose, and will suggest later, that the solution of this problem provides a model for similar problems in a variety of other areas of human collective action.

We thought this was a simple question, and we thought we knew the simple answer, which is: this feat of coordinated activity can occur because everyone involved—all these players all over the world—know the same songs, so that one has only to say the name of the song (“call a tune”) and all the players present, who already know it, will be able to play it. They will know what key to play it in, what background figures might conventionally accompany the melody, and the “right” tempo to play it at. We thought of this collection of songs that “everyone knows“ as the jazz repertoire.

Not so fast. Like all common-sense answers, this has an element of truth, but is not the whole story, and therefore is misleading. This expression supposes that there is one (and only one) repertoire and that its contents are known to everyone, or at least to all competent members of the jazz community who play these engagements. In fact, as our first field work showed us, the people who participate in these musical events do not all know the same songs. We witnessed and heard about multiple occasions on which one or more players did not know a song the other players present knew, so that the group could not play the proposed song. In fact, we noticed, as soon as we paid attention, that quite often one of the players proposed playing something with this question: “Do you know . . . ?” followed by the name of a tune. And often enough the answer was: “No, but how about . . . “ and the name of another tune. Through such informal negotiations, they arrived at the name of the tune they were going to play next, weeding out those which were not common property.

There are further complications. “What key?” The songs whose names they were discussing have “standard keys,” that is, keys “known” by “everyone” to be the proper key to play them in. And one of the players may say that he knows the tune in G, but not in other keys. Some players have no trouble with this potential problem, but some do. “What tempo?” Players may disagree on this or not be able to perform the piece comfortably at the tempo someone else thinks proper.

If the repertoire is not known to everyone involved in the collective activity we’re studying—musical performances by groups of people who need not know each other well or at all—then a large number of questions need further research. This paper reports our preliminary thinking about some of these problems.

Repertoire exists at several levels, all related to one another, each with its own processes of maintenance, renewal, and enlargement, which we now consider.

The Local Musical Repertoire

Think first of all the players who might participate in this collective activity as comprising a work community—a pool of people who may on occasion be called on to play together with minimal or no rehearsal. This community can itself be thought of at several levels.

The local community consists of all the players who live in comfortable proximity to a particular collection of venues in which they might be called on to play. The venues include bars and restaurants which have musical entertainment, night clubs of various kinds, jazz clubs, parties held to celebrate weddings, bar mitzvahs and other festive occasions, concerts, and so on. Each venue has its own kind of clientele and its own, somewhat specific musical requirements. In some, the musicians play so that the audience can dance. In others, they create “background” music, interesting if you listen to it, but not so intrusive as to disturb diners who want to talk to each other.

Usually, the owner or manager of the venue hires the musicians and will have his or her own ideas about what should be played. This can be a constraint or a benefit. Thus, a pianist who told us that he tells his audiences that he plays requests, but only for songs written before 1954 (thus no pop music of the Sixties or later), says that he can make a living this way because there is a generation of restaurant owners who like jazz and want to hear it played in their establishments. Their preferences create a shelter for the music he prefers.

They perform together more or less frequently and though a participant may not have originally known all the tunes that others know, they come eventually to share a substantial body of material that is more or less known to all, material that has proved to be acceptable for the jobs they play and the people they work for. This local culture is available to be drawn on in specific performances.

The local repertoire can be even more localized, being specific to a particular group and/or venue. As they play in the same venue repeatedly, each contributes what he can or is allowed to by the others to the effort to meet that job’s requirements.Thus, a group playing together repeatedly in the same setting may acquire a specialized, site-specific repertoire which responds to the requirements of that place and that employer, and is not necessarily known to other players in the local community. This repertoire may be useful only in this one setting, but the band will eventually work in other venues and bring their “band” repertoire with them to play in the new venue. The band’s members will work with other musicians in other settings and may propose tunes from the site- and band-specific repertoire to their new colleagues. If these colleagues don’t know the new material, the player who proposes it may offer to teach it to them or to provide a lead sheet. Players often make such offers and, because the players are easily bored by playing the same songs again and again they will often accept the offer and incorporate the song into their own repertoire, at least for the night and often beyond. In that way, the more or less idiosyncratic components of a site-specific repertoire feed into the local community’s repertoire.

National and International Musical Repertoires

But players often travel and they often move between communities, so that they will find themselves working with players from other such local communities in a regional community. A player from Massachusetts might occasionally work in New York or Maine, with players from those local communities. Or he might move to Chicago or San Francisco, and have to find a place in the working arrangements of that local community. The repertoire may differ between these communities, as a result of history and coincidence as well as regional differences in public taste and employer requirement, so the new arrival will not immediately know all the repertoire required. But new players usually learn unfamiliar repertoire quickly, since it is the price of easy integration into the new local community.

As a result of continual movement of this kind, there also exists a national and even international community which is the repository of a national and international jazz repertoire. Although the United States has historically been the locus of jazz performance and the source of most of the repertoire, the increasing integration of local and regional worlds has made the jazz repertoire itself more international, drawing on more than what is so often called “The Great American Songbook.” The integration of Brazilian bossa nova into the world repertoire is a major case in point. This process has been hastened by so-called “fake books,” sometimes known as “The Real Book,” which contain the melody, harmony, and words for a large number of songs in the contemporary repertoire. A player who has a copy of the Real Book is seldom at a loss to play the most common, and many less common, songs.

Individual Repertoire

Repertoire exists at the personal level too. Individual players find themselves in a world which was there before their arrival, in which thousands and thousands of songs from all sorts of local and national communities (but the majority of this repertoire always, it must be said, American) are known to most, but not necessarily all, of the current participants. To find jobs and other opportunities to play with others, they must learn what the others know and take for granted that a competent player will be able to perform. No one is born knowing all this material. It must be learned, and that can be done in many ways: learning on the job, learning from printed music, and learning from listening to recordings are the principal methods.

Individual players work on their own repertoire. Faulkner, reporting elsewhere on how jazz players practice, says that most players devote a substantial amount of their practice time to learning new material. From the earliest exposure to popular music and jazz, players begin to acquire tunes, often simply by virtue of being a teenager interested in music, and usually well before they have any idea that they will become professional players. They continue to enlarge their repertoire over the years, and also lose some elements (though it’s likely that they never lose any song completely, and can recover lost material from their memories when it’s essential or interesting).

As players meet in specific work settings, each of which has its own performance requirements—what you have to play there, what you don’t have to play but can if you want, what you mustn’t play no matter what—and they learn the job-specific repertoire appropriate to that setting. They learn “what we play here.” They learn things they didn’t know from the people they are working with in this place and add this new material to their personal repertoire. This doesn’t mean they necessarily like these songs or want to play them, only that their work interactions have taughtg them this material too. Since they often (because of the instability of music employment) change who they work with, they often find themselves playing with other players in other places with other requirements.

They enlarge their repertoires, also, because musicians characteristically do not like to play the same thing again and again. Though many kinds of work (many crafts, for instance) prize the mastery and calm that accompany repetitive work, jazz players quickly tire of songs, keys, tempi, etc., and actively work to add new material to their repertoires. Some players do this more than others and often actively teach new tunes to their colleagues (sometimes they are called “tune hounds”).

As a result, every player has a somewhat unique collection of tunes in his repertoire. They come from what he learned growing up in a milieu where popular music was ubiquitous (this varies for every player, depending on his family of origin, some families being more involved with this music than others); from what he has learned playing with different people in different venues and groups; and from what he has searched out himself in written music or recordings and learned that way.

The Levels Interact

These levels of repertoire invention, maintenance, and transmission connect by a series of feedback loops, each providing feedback to and receiving it from the other levels. Thus, individual players can start the process of a new song entering the repertoire by hearing it or seeing it somewhere and learning it, thus putting it into their personal repertoire. Since they like it well enough to have learned it, they may then try to teach it to others, friends, players they work with occasionaly or regularly or even just once. In this way, it can enter the repertoire of a particular group, perhaps for just a night but perhaps as a more regular part of the set lists they construct. Since players play with many different people, most of the players in that locale might learn it. And since players move from community to community, they may take some of that local repertoire with them to a new community and a new group of players.

Conversely, when a player moves to a new community or works with a new group of players he will probably be introduced to the repertoire of “standards” they all know and take for granted and , if he continues to play with them, will be expected to learn them.

In this way, individual learning and experimentation feeds new material to larger groups and what is common knowledge in the larger groups feeds into the repertoire each player accumulates. In this continuous process of learning, teaching, and communication, the repertoire can be seen not as a fixed entity, but as something which changes all the time. This means, among other things, that any notion of “the standards” or “The Great American Song Book” as a fixed entity is empirically unfounded.

Putting The Repertoire To Work On The Job

So far we have spoken of what musicians know, have played, and are prepared to play again. Everything we have talked about is preparation for the moment of performance. And this brings us to another kind of determination of what actually gets played: the interactions and negotiations at the moment when the work has to be done, the songs chosen, their order determined, and then played. This is where a strong element of chance or, if not chance, coincidence and randomness enters into the process.

Whenever the band is in front of the audience, they have to do something, play something and then play the next something, and so on for the duration of the job. The leader, if the group has such a person, may decide this unilaterally, and may arrive at the workplace with a list (a “set list,” perhaps more common among rock than jazz musicians) of what will be played already written out, a choice among the tunes he knows his musicians can play.

But, quite often, musicians find this moment of choice, collectively as well as individually, difficult. They can’t think of what they want to play, they can’t choose between things that are available, and will spend a lot of time (it seems longer to the band, probably, than to the audience) arriving at a decision. Someone offers a suggestion, someone else says he doesn’t know it or doesn’t like it, someone else suggests something else, and on and on until they agree on what to do, often jumping at a suggestion just to be able to start.

Enacting the repertoire takes place in three steps. The players first select elements (songs) from the pool of available resources, the array of songs they all know or think the others might know. Each player brings a different personal repertoire to this negotiation, but most of them will have in mind some core of what they think it likely everyone else knows. (If the band has played together before, they may have a site-specific repertoire they can call on.) It often happens, however, that someone doesn’t know what others think he should know, and so they have to keep making offers until something is found that will work.

This process is still more complex, because there are degrees of “knowing” a song. Without going into too much detail, we can say that a person may know and have practiced repeatedly the melody and harmony of a song, or may know the melody and harmony but perhaps not well enough to improvise on at length, or not know it but feel capable of playing it if someone else plays it first, or tells them the harmonies as they play, or feel sure that they will be able to find what is appropriate just by listening.

Those are negative principles of choice, which tell you what cannot be played but do not tell you what you should play. At times they will search for some link external to the music itself to choose the set: playing a set of tunes whose titles are feminine first names (“Stella By Starlight,” “Nancy With the Laughing Face,” “When Sunny Gets Blue,” etc.), or containing the names of months (“April in Paris,” “September Song,” ““Sleighride in July,” etc.), or having been written by the same composer (Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, etc.).

In a second stage, enacting the repertoire consists of ordering the selected songs into a working set, a list of what will actually be played. This typically consists of invoking some common rules of set construction. For example, most musicians would see it as so obvious as to not require discussion that they should follow a tune played at a fast tempo with something slower—the origin of this principle may lie in the music having once and perhaps still been played for dancing. Most players would also agree that they should not play several songs in succession in the same key—the origin of this principle may lie in the idea that a musician’s ideas for improvisation tend to be linked to a key and that it is a good idea to avoid repetition of ideas by avoiding repeating keys.

Players do not necessarily arrive at this list first and then perform it. Often enough, they construct the list as they move from song to song, picking something to play next only after they have finished the last one, taking into account any feedback they may have received while they were playing it.

Finally, the players adapt, tailor, and assimilate the working set to the demands of the situation. requirements of the organizer’s environment, such as audiences, regulators, and other agents of social control. At this stage, all kinds of external forces come into play. A drunken guest at a party may insist on hearing a specific song (a crisis occurs when no one knows the requested song and the drunk will not accept that excuse). The owner or manager of a bar insists that the band play something even though the customers present want something else. Whatever these demands are, the players will take them into account (although they may not give in to them) when they choose what they will play and play it.

Generalizing the Process

Why should a sociologist who has no interest in jazz repertoires be interested in the processes that make the jazz repertoire what it is?

The process of repertoire formation focuses on what people know, what they think others know, and what they have to know in common to work together.  These can be thought of as basic elements common to all activities, from hunting, gathering, and agriculture, through craft, manufacturing and all other contexts of work. “Do you know” and the processes that invokes are closely linked to “what do we do” and “what do we do together” leads to “what do we know and can do in order to do things.”  That leads to the general processes of playing, performing, and improvising together, but also to a variety of other activities, suggested by this list of words:

play, perform, organize, buy, rent, move, hire, heal, help, write

Seeing repertoire as process and practice leads to understanding the foundations of business (to buy, to sell, to produce, as in White’s production interface markets), of collective action (to revolt, get pissed off, stage a hunger strike, petition The House of Commons, as in Tilly’s explanations of collective action), of discrimination against stigmatized citizens, of residential mobility (as in Rossi’s Why People Move), of politics and voting, of sickness and healing, and of writing and otgher forms of communication. All those behaviors, forms of concerted activity, are centered on actual decisions made by social actors in realistic social contexts, and all involve selections from a pool of possible resources, mobilization of those resources, prioritizing, and making up set lists and blueprints, and more.  The processes we are outlining and deepening are thus useful to sociologists not trained nor interested in jazz musicians and their music.

We have made this argument regarding repertoire in a variety of contexts, as well at a number of different levels of analysis.  The argument has two basic implications for researchers.  First, to understand the dynamics of social organizations, in the arts and elsewhere, it is important to see how resources, such as tunes, are thought about, used, and enacted in concrete situations.  Further, the argument raises a methodological issue.  It is unwise to restrict analysis of repertoire to events that have already occurred and infer decision making processes of the actors from those events.  Often, it can be quite revealing to observe a repertoire in action and then interview informants and respondents and get their interpretations of the social behaviors they have just been part of producing.

Many studies of repertoire formation and maintenance are far removed from the actual decisions actors make and the processes those decisions involve, as they occur in their full social contexts.  Studying repertoire in action can point us in the direction of studying not only the jazz repertoire but also the repertoires of medical practice, of revolutionary activities, and of such economic activities as buying, selling, and investing. E.g., recent work shows that firms have to conform to a particular business profile and groove before they will be covered by analysts (a nice example of how pooling, selecting, ordering, prioritizing, and set list guide capital flows in the economy).  Tilly’s analyses of contentious political activities in Britain and France is better understood from the point of view advocated here.