Calling A Key
(“Calling a key” means, like, “ Hey let’s do All of Me in A” – you called the key of A majour)
For the most part, you should be prepared to have charts (special jazz sheet music which we’ll cover in another article) in your keys – one copy for each band member (horn players need special charts which we may cover in another article). However, if you’re playing standards with some grey hairs (older instrumentalists who have a ton of experience and skill), you can often just call the tune’s title and key. This, of course, presupposes that you know what key you do the song in which is MUST KNOW information – there will be eyerolling if you call a tune but dunno the key you do it in.
There are hand gestures for each key. It helps if you know your key signatures (there’s a Wikipedia page on this – scroll to the bottom of the article. And give em $3 when they fund raise, why don’t ya). The key will be indicated by holding up or down a number of fingers which show the numbers of flats or sharps. Holding finger upright will be sharps and holding your hand upside down so the fingers point to the floor will be flats. The key of no sharps and no flats (C Maj or A minour) is indicated by making a zero shape with the fingers – or a C shape works as well. In case you’re not hip to the keys used in jazz, here’s the hand signals:
Key of C/A-*
Zero shape with fingers – key of 0 #/b (C Maj/a min)
* in jazz, a minus sign after a note name mean a minour chord/scale (A-=A minour)
1 finger held down – Key of one flat (F/D-)
2 fingers held down – key of 2 flats (Bb/G-)
3 fingers held down – key of 3 flats (Eb/C-)
4 fingers held down – key of 4 flats (Ab/F-)
5 singers held down – key of 5 flats (Db/Bb-)
Generally more than 5 flats are not used but if you have an exceptional band you can try 6 fingers held downwards for Gb which is a beautiful, rich key, but which the band will most likely kick to the curb and refuse to play or – worse – screw up – even if you have a chart.
Sharp keys are almost never used in jazz, as we covered above.
1 finger held up – Key of 1 # (G/E-)
2 fingers held up – Key of 2 #s (D/B-)
3 Fingers held up – Key of 3 #s (A/F#-) Generally, this is as many sharps as it’s ever prudent to call…IF you even wanna call it at all
4 Fingers held up – Key of 4 #s (E/C#-) Avoid calling this key. Many players will make errors playing this key
5 Fingers held up – Key of 5 #s (B/G#-) – Sometimes I call a difficult tune in B and then when the band leader is trying to put on their nice face and explain to to the totally inept chick singer that B is not a good key for Lush Life, I say “Just kidding”, they all laugh and we’re all buddies after that. So that shoud tell you why you don’t wanna call this key – I use it mainly as a punch line.
Do not use any keys with more than 5 sharps unless you are fucking with someone. Jazz players generally don’t get a lot of airtime playing in sharp keys and anything with more than 5 #s is a guaranteed trainwreck and the band will hate you and tell sexist chick singer jokes behind your back. I’m not making this up. See my primer on keys used in jazz.