Hand Gestures in Jazz

Unlike most other styles of western music, jazz players use a shit ton of hand gestures.  There’s hand gestures to tell what key you’re gonna be playing in, hand gestures to jump to a certain part of a song, hand gestures to co-ordinate rubato (playing out of beat, but together), and hand gestures for when the booking agent refuses to pay you (which are very similar to the hand gestures used in driving).

From this page, you’ll be able to navigate some of the articles I’m putting up about hand gestures in jazz.  Knowing hand gestures are important because as a vocalist, you are often the band leader, in a way.  You have to quickly establish key, feel, structure/form, if you wanna solo or pass on soloing, if you want someone else to solo, and how the song is gonna end or begin.  A veritble plethora of these things have silent hand gestures so we’re not yelling all up and down the bandstand.

If you try this with non-jazz people, they will not know what you are talking about and they might find them disconcerting or think you’re having a seizure. I’ve recently been working with theatre based singing and they do not understand our signals like AT ALL.  And, in fact, find them distracting or offensive.  But in jazz, we tend to not plan out in too much detail how we’re going to do the song in full at the beginning. We might talk about intros, feel, tempo, and possibly the ending, but the rest we make up as we go along.  Whether we do solos for twenty forms (form=1 run through of the song) or cut it short cause the audience hates it or it’s 11pm at the Moose Lodge will depend on a lot of things and what the emotional situation is on the ground with the band and the audience at the exact moments the song is going down.  And for that reason, these hand gestures are super important to maintaining the tunes we’re playing as jazz.

Theatre singers also like to do “jazz standards” (but not sung as jazz) and one of the salient differences between a jazz rendition and a theatre rendition is that the theatre rendition is going to be totally planned out come hell or high water.  In jazz, if a tune is well-received and going well, we might play it for longer than we thought we would. If we are inspired to improvize on the song, it might go longer. One time a friend of mine and I were in a bar and the juke box was pure shit. And we only had $1.50. So we put on a John Coltrane song where he solos over the form many many times and got 15 minutes of respite from hearing Mustang Sally. That’s jazz – it goes as long as it needs to go to say what we want, or it goes home early cause we’re not feelin it. In theatre, they are doing it exactly as planned end of story.  This gets to the very heart of one of the hallmarks of jazz: improvization.

I’ll be posting different articles on different hand gestures and put the index to the articles below for you guys.  LEARN YOUR HAND GESTURES, they are fundamental to the nature of jazz and will ground you in the genre.  If you do not use them, the band will be confused and the old dude who leads the them (“And an old dude shall lead them”), who backed Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, will yell at you between sets.  But in a nice old dude who backed Ella and Sarah way. I shit you not.




Hand Gestures Article Index

Calling A Key