Featured Columnist: Patrick BuzbyA Coversation with Steve Hashimoto
Musicians like Steve Hashimoto may not appear in Rolling Stone, but they are the lifeblood of any
major city's music scene. Almost every day, sometimes two or three times a day, Steve can be found playing
jazz in Chicago's bars, or helping to provide whatever sort of music might be required at parties and other
public and private events around the city.
A few years back, my musical partner Ethan Sellers and I decided to try tapping into Chicago's network of
freelance musicians to fill out our band Tautologic. Steve was one of the respondents to our bass ad, and
it has been my pleasure to share rhythm section duties with him and hear some of his stories in the years
This meeting also led to my getting on the list for "News from the Trenches," Steve's weekly gig list and
forum. He has never been reluctant to be candid about his experiences as a jobbing musician, and his e-mail
prefaces, including the notorious "Book of Jobbing," have led to opportunities to speak his mind in other
print and online sources.
Steve may sometimes seem cantankerous in his e-mails and in parts of our interview, but behind this is a
bassist whose conscientiousness matches his skill, unlike some players in his field with a "jaded pro"
attitude. When Ethan and I hired him for gigs with our group, he put in as much rehearsal time as his
schedule permitted and went so far as to make his own Finale-generated parts to replace our sometimes smudgy
This is the first section of a recent phone conversation we had. If you're curious about the
e-mail list or the Book of Jobbing (or, as Steve might want me to add, if you're looking for a bassist for a
Chicago-area gig!), visit www.stevehashimoto.com.
PB: How long have you been doing this for a living?
SH: It's difficult to say. I started playing [originally on trumpet] professionally in 1969 and did
make my living doing that for maybe a couple of years, because I was just a kid, of course. After that I
spent many years working various day gigs and playing gigs on the side. And then I would say that, around
1987 or '88, my last full-time day gig collapsed on me and I just decided to see if it was possible to make a
living doing this. So I'd say I've been a fulltime musician since about then, 1988 or so.
PB: Okay, so it was about ten or fifteen years of juggling day and night gigs.
SH: But I was always fortunate in that my day gigs were in the advertising and publishing business and I
had extremely flexible hours, so it wasn't as difficult a juggling feat as it is for other people
who are locked into regular nine-to-five-type gigs. But I definitely was not making the majority of my
income in those years playing music.
PB: Your day gigs sort of collapsed in the late 80's and you were thrust into the musician's lifestyle.
SH: Yes, and I had six months of unemployment cushioning, so at the very least I had six months to
figure out if it was a feasible plan or not, and it turned out to be okay. Because I had so much
flexibility with my day gigs, I was already playing a lot. I was playing maybe five or six gigs a week by
that point. [Going pro] kind of gave me the push I needed to start leading my own bands and to be able to
take absolutely any gig that came my way and to actively look for other things to be doing.
PB: So you were able to get it going pretty quickly when you had the six months.
SH: I don't know if it was just the timing with the business – the jazz and nightclub businesses seemed to
be in a strong period at that time and there was an awful lot of work available, not a lot of it very
good, of course, but basically I started to let people know in no uncertain terms that I was ready and
willing to play anywhere, anytime. I think that was really an important thing, that people knew that if
their bass player didn't show up for a gig and they called me and I was home and not working that night,
that I would get my shit together and get to the club as soon as I could. Or, literally, that if somebody
had a five or ten-dollar gig somewhere, that I would play it in the hopes of meeting some new musicians or
getting to play some sort of music that I hadn't played before or that it would eventually lead into
something better than a five or ten-dollar gig! And I still do that. To me the money isn't as important as
playing with good players or playing something new or different and learning something different. Often the
way it works in the business is that you get paid more for having less fun. [laughs]
PB: When you talk about having fun at a gig, is it primarily a question of the type of music you get to
play or the environment?
SH: It's a whole lot of things. It could be playing fairly horrible music but with very good players,
where it comes down to satisfaction with being a very good craftsman. Or it could be playing challenging
music and not doing it very well but at least trying to. Of course, I would much rather be playing a jazz
gig or any kind of gig where you can use more of your skills. With improvisation, you get to use your
knowledge and reflexes and command of the instrument, whereas, say, if I'm playing a big band gig, the main
skills I'm using are sightreading and being able to play the instrument.
PB: With some of the players on your level that I've met, I've gotten an "I want to be doing as little work
as possible" attitude.
SH: I have a real problem with that, because I know a whole bunch of guys like that, and to be truthful, the
jobbing scene in particular is just filled with that kind of attitude. And, to me, that's one reason why
disc jockeys are taking over that particular field, because there's a range of tuxedo-type bands, not all
of them by any means, but there's a lot where the attitude is "We'll take the money and run and we'll do
the minimum acceptable amount of work." If a client calls and says, "Can you guys do country music?," the
leader will say, "Sure," and he'll figure, "Okay, we'll do 'Achy Breaky Heart' and that's country
music," and they'll get to the gig and try to fake their way through two or three other country songs and
just do their regular thing for the rest of the gig. The country music sounds terrible, the rest is not
what the client wants, and everybody gets pissed off. And the next time they're thinking of hiring a band,
they'll say, "We saw this ad for a country DJ."
PB: The weekly e-mail thing you do has been very interesting both as a source of information about that
jobbing world and as a self-promotion tool. When did you start doing that?
SH: It's been at least five or six years now. A lot of people lose sight of the fact that the primary
reason for it is to try to get people out to my gigs! It's become not only that, but a tool to find work for
nights that I'm not working, to tell the sidemen on my leader gigs that yes, they have a gig this week and
here's where it is, and to let other leaders know that yes, I remember I have a gig with you. (laughs)
PB: And plus, you get to speak your mind on a topic of your choice each week.
SH: That wasn't really my idea at all in the very beginning – the first couple of months it was just
"Here's where I'm playing." I think what happened is that, one night I came home from a gig and I was
walking my dog and the first chapter of the Book of Jobbing just appeared in my head complete, and I went
back in and wrote it out and sent it out to a bunch of friends. At that point my e-mail list was only about
twenty people. Within about a month, I was getting e-mail messages from Malaysia and studio musicians in
Los Angeles and jazz guys in New York saying that it was funny. I decided that maybe if I wrote something,
hopefully, funny every week that it would get people to read the gig list. Now it's become a monster – every week I have to come up with something to write for this thing.
PB: It doesn't look too effortful to me.
SH: Well, fortunately, I've had a very checkered career so that I have plenty of things to write about,
but sometimes it takes two or three stabs before I figure out something that seems like worthwhile
reading. Sometimes it isn't, you know.
PB: I figure that at worst, it's only a minute of my time that I spent reading it.
SH: Yes, that's my point, too. Sometimes I get crabby about people who send me snotty messages saying, "Take
me off of your f-ing list!" I get as much spam as anybody else, and it takes me a minute and a half to
go through my e-mails every day and say, "Here's 10 out of 47 that I may want to check out." What's the
PB: So you almost accidentally discovered a community to be serviced that wasn't being addressed. I don't
know of many others speaking for jobbing musicians.
SH: Yes, and the reason for that is that I'm a bit unique in that, although I do a fair amount of
jobbing, it isn't my bread and butter. Some weeks I actually make quite a bit more money playing jazz than
jobbing, and that's unusual. So I'm not that afraid of offending guys in the jobbing world, whereas guys
who are doing 100% jobbing.
PB: They don't want to bite the hand that feeds.
SH: It can be a vengeful community! Especially as the business gets harder and harder and leaders are
competing harder for a dwindling amount of gigs.It used to be that if you got pissed off at a leader, you
could just say "I'm quitting!" and move over to another band, and some other guy could say the same
thing to his leader and move to your band. But you can't do that anymore. Several years ago I saw the
way things were going in the jobbing world, and it happened to coincide with my getting fired from the
jobbing band I was in. I'd already considered myself to be a jazz musician, or musician who does creative
music whether it's jazz or rock or world music or whatever, so I decided to make more of a concerted
effort to do that.
I knew that in order to do serious music, you have to do it all the time. You can't play wedding gigs
during the weekend and maybe do one or two jazz gigs a month and call yourself a jazz musician. It's not
enough to just know the material. Improvising is so close to athletics in that it's not just a command of
the instrument but it's your reflexes and it's that athletic thing of being in the Zone. It's like
Michael Jordan being able to say, "The whole game was moving in slow motion and I knew exactly where I
needed to be." That's how you have to look at improvisation.
PB: Is there another way to work at it than doing gigs?
SH: I truly don't think that there is, although lots of people would argue, including the entire academic
community. It's true that you have to have theoretical knowledge if you want to be a jazz
improviser. You have to have the vocabulary of whatever genre you're working in. But to be able to
access that knowledge and do something new with it, I think the only way to go about it is to do it. You
can read about it and watch videos until you die, but until you do it, you can't know if you're able to do
it and you can't know what those thought processes are that come together to make a successful improvisation.
Of course, it depends on who you're playing with, too. Every new person that you add to the mix
theoretically, if it's good improvisation, will radically alter what's going to happen. If it
doesn't, to me, it means that somebody's not listening.
PB: What are your regular jazz gigs now?
SH: I've got the Green Mill Friday night jam session, for one, and then I have various semi-steady gigs for
my bands. I've got the Leopard Lounge on the first Tuesday of the month, Quenchers with Sueon the
fourth Tuesday of the month, Simon's with my quartet on the third Sunday of the month, and the Poetry Slam
on the first Sunday of the month [also at Green Mill], which, although it's not primarily a jazz gig, is
definitely a total improvisational gig. It's improvisation at a level that's sometimes pretty
remarkable, because it is improvising with a band and with whatever poet is standing in front of us, and
there's no preparation at all. You have to have a comprehensive knowledge of dozens of genres because
you don't know what they're going to ask for. They might ask, "Can you play something that sounds like a
60's sitcom theme song?" My favorite thing is that quite a few poets have said, "Play me some desert
music." Now, we're smart enough to ask, "Which desert, specifically?" (laughs) Once we started off
playing a Laurence of Arabia kind of thing and the poem was about cowboys. (laughs)
PB: With a band like that, do you talk before or after the gig about what happened or do you leave it?
SH: Sometimes we'll talk about how something didn't really work and that there was a different option we
could have taken. Of course, it's all hindsight. Sometimes there are technical things that you have to
talk about. Generally, it's just after every poem that we'll look at each other and say that it worked
or it didn't. There really isn't any time. Sometimes we might have 10 seconds to discuss it on the
bandstand, like the guitar player will say, "I'm going to do Sabbath in E minor," or I'll say, "This is going
to be in F minor," and that's about it.