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Pre-show Rituals
From The Backstage of Jazz

Blog
Pre-show Rituals From The Backstage of Jazz

12.11.2018

Text: Leyla Aksu

From those abstaining from food or touching people to those meditating to find calm and focus, the backstage rituals and pre-concert habits of musicians have been a great source of interest for music lovers over the years. Developed and perfected for any number of reasons, whether it be superstition or even stage fright, these calming and sometimes elaborate routines can go on for hours at a time. Now we’re taking a quick peek behind the stage curtain, bringing you the pre-show rituals and unusual practices from a few of jazz’s biggest names.

-One of the biggest figures in jazz history, Louis Armstrong’s pre- and post-show habits evolved into an intricate ritual throughout his career. Making a rule to arrive at any concert venue at least two hours before the show, already showered and dressed, Armstrong would reportedly never eat dinner before a show and would hole up in his dressing room to apply a series of remedies, one by one, to which he attributed his success: Glycerin and honey to clean out his pipes, Maalox for occasional stomach pains, ethyl nitrite for his face, purgatives to rid him of toxins, and, finally, a special balm, prepared specifically by a German trombonist, to alleviate his chronic lip ailments and keep them strong.

-A legend not only in the world of jazz but popular music and film as well, Peggy Lee is another artist to have developed her own very specific routine to complete before taking the stage. First withdrawing to her hotel room to apply her makeup, do up her hair, and don her gown to become “the Peggy Lee,” the singer would then head backstage. Once there, she would hug and kiss all the musicians that would accompany her on stage for good luck, then slowly start to relax, first taking a swig of cognac, immediately followed by a cool glass of water. Lee would then quietly say a prayer to herself behind the curtain while the band would start to set up on stage, then, in order, let out a scream, stomp her foot once, and, now ready, head into the spotlight.

-Jazz legend Miles Davis was also an artist whose list of pre-show preparations came to be relatively extensive. A fan of boxing since childhood, with an avid interest in the discipline of the sport, Davis would later come to take on some of the pre-fight practices of his favorite fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. Leaving himself hungry and unsatisfied before all his performances by abstaining from food and going celibate, the trumpeter would also make a point of not shaking anyone’s hand before going on stage. Davis did not want oil from anyone else to touch his hands before playing, and if absolutely necessary, would then extend only his left hand. Additionally, wearing shoes one size too small to his performances in order to feel that his feet were fırmly planted on the ground, he would also tie his shoes as tightly as he possibly could before setting foot on the stage.

-Stunning audiences with his vocal abilities for years, Bobby McFerrin, on the other hand, transfers his calm and joyful onstage energy to his backstage practices as well.  Mostly quiet and keeping to himself while on the road, McFerrin prefers to see performing as a natural part of his day, rather than a special occasion. Going about his usual regimen, the artist says he first completes his sound check before the show, after which he always enjoys a meal with his sound engineer, the routine helping him prepare to get up onstage and engage audiences purely and directly as himself.

-Finding himself amongst jazz’s most talked about artists at a very young age, Wynton Marsalis has also developed a rather calming ritual for himself before performing onstage. As such, before every concert, the multiple-Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer takes out his ironing board. Marsalis views performance evenings as a sort of ceremony and preparing and ironing his outfit is a serious part of that nightly ritual. Preparing by ironing not just his shirt but his entire suit in his hotel room, Marsalis stated that audiences take a lot of time to come and see a performance, so if he puts effort into his appearance, he feels that even if it doesn’t end up going well, audiences could say, “at least he was clean.”

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