May 31, 2011

Businessman's Bounce

Last Saturday, as on most Saturdays, I drove to the Moffett Field Rec Center, where I coach a jazz combo class. We were working up a tune at gradually increasing tempos, and ran into that familiar problem - some tempos are easier to hold than others. I think it has something to do with the average human pulse rate. I was reminded of a couple of tempo-related gig stories.

Businessman’s Bounce

Some years ago, I had a series of country-club gigs with a pianist, “Bob,” and a guitarist, “Tommy.” I forget who was on bass and drums. Bob played OK, but he only used one intro, which was I VI II V , two beats each, repeated twice. He used that on pretty much every song. He also played in just one tempo - what musicians call “businessman’s bounce,” or “hotel tempo.” That’s at a metronome setting of about 132-138 beats per minute. This tempo is pleasant, happy, and danceable, and plays very well with a country club audience. You might note that 138 BPM is just about twice the typical human pulse rate.

The lack of tempo variety eventually began to drive Bob's sidemen up the wall. Finally at one of these gigs, after 3 hours of the same intro and the same tempo, and with an hour still to go, Tommy decided to put it delicately to Bob: “Maybe we should play a ballad, just to change it up.”

Bob said, “That’s a great idea! We’ll play a ballad! Let’s play Body and Soul!”

So Bob started it off with an intro...I VI II V, repeated twice, at 138 BPM.

Auld Lang Syne

It was New Year’s Eve, 2000. As you may recall, it was a big deal - Y2K, a new millennium. The big band I played with at the time had a gig at the Pacific-Union Club in San Francisco. To say that this is a high-society club only begins to describe it. You have to at least look at the Wikipedia entry (scroll down for the “list of prominent members”), and perhaps read some of the Yelp reviews (“The first rule about the Pacific-Union Club is that you don’t talk about the Pacific-Union Club”). The membership overlaps considerably with the Bohemian Club (see this scholarly article). The club doesn't have a website, at least not one that you or Google can access. But I digress.

From about 7:30, I was with a quartet playing jazz standards at the bar. The piano player pointed out a former Secretary of State standing a few feet away, chatting. At about 9:00, we joined the big band in the ballroom for the dance sets, to usher in the new year. A special show was planned for midnight: At 11:45, there would be a Chinese lion dance, and then at the stroke of midnight, a bagpiper would walk in playing “Auld Lang Syne.” The band was instructed to join in, and the guests would all join in singing. We didn’t have a chart, and didn’t know what key the piper would be playing in.

So at 11:45 the lion dancers put on their show - very impressive. Then the guests were all brought to the floor of the ballroom facing the band, we counted down the seconds, and at the stroke of midnight the bagpiper walked in, playing “Auld Lang Syne.”

We caught the key immediately - he was playing in Bb, which fortunately is an easy key for a big band. However, the bagpiper had a sense of tempo that was, let’s say, extremely flexible. The music was quite chaotic, with the band trying to match a constantly shifting “one.” This Youtube video will give you a rough idea. Start at 0:45 in, and imagine a piper that is far more tempo-challenged. I don’t think the guests had much luck singing along.


  1. When playing for dancers, we play the tempos they prefer, not what we the leader/sideman prefer. Never-the-less, dancers like some variety as well. The BB, a foxtrot ballad, waltz, swing, and some latin...

  2. I played a gig with 'Bob' (the one-intro pianist) (there couldn't be two of them) at a dive in the Northern Sierras. A barroom brawl broke out right by him and unnerved him pretty badly. But we just kept playing of course.