Setting the Beat

by Trumpet of Doom

First published

Saturday night on the bandstand.

Octavia moonlights as a jazz bassist on weekends when she doesn't have a Canterlot Symphony Orchestra performance.

This is the end of one such Saturday night.


Winner of the Most Controversial award in the Writeoff Association's Closing Time short story contest!
"Reading this story is like listening to jazz." - Everyday
"They say to 'write what you know,' and this is a good example of why." - horizon
"Somebody here knows their craft, and I'm starting to feel ashamed of my own entry." - Bradel

Setting the Beat

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Two more tunes after this. Just two, and then I can pack up, go home, and go to sleep.

It was the wee hours of Sunday morning in Canterlot, and Octavia Melody was practically dead on her hooves. Earth ponies were not meant to stand solely on their hind legs like this for extended periods, no pony was, but as a cellist and bassist without the benefit of unicorn magic, she had to in order to even play.

She and a jazz combo were playing the last set of the night at the Canter Club, the “last place in town on a Saturday night.” The claim was no idle boast; while Canterlot proper had laws in place preventing bars and nightclubs from being open past two in the morning (though twenty-four-hour restaurants like Pony Joe’s were exempt), the Canter was in the separately incorporated neighborhood of Pinto Point. As it was technically not in Canterlot, the Canterlot laws didn’t apply, and so the Canter was able to stay open until four. It was past 3:45 now, and the club was still filled with ponies who didn’t want to be doing anything else but staying there.

On a weeknight, Octavia wouldn’t even be here. Her rehearsal schedule with the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra meant that if she stayed up late, she’d barely be functional when the orchestra was learning some of the most demanding pieces in the literature and she needed all of her attention focused on her cello. However, they didn’t rehearse weekends, so she could pick up a book of lead sheets, grab her double bass, go down to the Canter or somewhere else, and play chord changes while the horn players took solos for as long as they could come up with things to do.

The times when the Symphony had weekend performances, she wouldn’t do both, but her fellow jazz musicians generally had day jobs of their own and understood when she couldn’t join them on the bandstand due to scheduling conflicts.

The horn section came back in for the head of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” The band would play through the melody one last time, and then the piece would be done. Octavia had always liked Cannon Ball’s tunes, but this was definitely her favorite, especially for things to be playing after 3:30. It was nice and slow and didn’t change chords very often.

The band hit the final chord of the piece and held it while Floor Tom played a solo that covered every drum in his arsenal. Octavia had to restrike her note in the chord a few times just to make sure it lasted the entire length. Eventually, Tom reached what sounded like a stopping point, and with one last drum hit, the band cut off.

“What’s next?” asked Diminished Fifth from her seat behind the piano. She refilled her glass of whiskey and took a drink, setting the nearly empty bottle back on top of the piano.

Octavia had played with Diminished Fifth before. The fire-red pegasus mare was one of the best jazz pianists she’d ever gotten to work in the same rhythm section as, her borderline alcoholism notwithstanding. She understood that rests were just as important as notes, though she wouldn’t phrase it that way if you asked. She was probably skilled enough to play classically… though now that Octavia thought about it, she wasn’t actually sure if Fifth knew how to read sheet music, or if she just knew what keys the different chord symbols meant she had to press and when they were supposed to happen. She probably could read notes, at least to some extent, since Octavia couldn’t think of a time she was supposed to play a specific figure and didn’t; then again, that could just have meant she was very good at playing by ear. Certainly there were musicians who could just hear something and play it back perfectly. The other problem, of course, was that classical performances tended to frown on drinking during concerts. Afterwards was no problem, and most conductors and audiences would turn a blind eye to imbibing beforehoof as long as you could still play properly, but if you were going to drink during the show, you had to hide it very well, and Fifth just wasn’t interested in doing that.

“How do you feel about Hippology?” Noteworthy suggested, alto sax dangling from his neck.

Octavia felt her eyebrows rise in surprise. “You think you and Overtone can play it full speed right now?” she asked. “Hippology” was a notoriously fast bebop tune that Dizzy Bullespie had helped write at the Griffon’s Nest nearly seventy years ago, intended for players with manual dexterity beyond that of hooves. She knew Noteworthy could play fast for an earth pony, but it took a special kind of skill to play a sax part that was written for a griffon. She’d never met Overtone; the yellow unicorn holding the trumpet in her magic was a friend of Noteworthy’s, and he was the only one who’d played with her before. Octavia supposed a unicorn ought to be able to play the minotaur’s trumpet part, at least in theory, and she’d certainly been playing well all night.

“Hay, what about Glissando?” Floor Tom chimed in. “The slide on that trombone’s not gonna move itself.” Tom had gotten famous as the drummer in Sapphire Shores’s band when she was first hitting the scene, but he’d started out in rock and roll, playing in a bunch of garage bands in the Hosston area. For somepony who’d been around as long as he had, he was still quite active, even though sales of the soundtrack he wrote to the third Power Ponies movie had probably made him enough money to retire. Octavia suspected he kept playing for the same reason that she had stuck with jazz after high school, even during her training at the Manehattan Conservatory: Jazz was fun. Sure, her classical training taught her better technique and new things to do with her instrument, and it was good to have structure at times, but sometimes you just wanted to cut loose and play without worrying about how it sounded.

The slate-gray pegasus Tom had mentioned was looking over the music as they spoke. “Eh, I should be able to make it work,” he said, miming with his right foreleg the slide positions he would need. “Hey, Dim, can you give me a B-flat right quick?”

Had it been anyone else calling her that, Octavia knew, Diminished Fifth wouldn’t even have waited until after the set was over to beat them senseless. Even calling her “Mini” was likely to incite some abuse. But Glissando was Fifth’s ex, and the sire of her foals, which allowed him to get away with a lot that other ponies couldn’t. Octavia didn’t know much about Gliss other than that he was a rock-solid trombonist, especially for a pony with a non-musical special talent. She thought he had some sort of stunningly boring day job like “insurance salesman” or “geology professor”, but exactly what, she couldn’t recall.

“Sure, Sandy,” Fifth called back, a grin on her face. “I don’t know that any of them are in tune, though. You want one that’s a little sharp, a little flat, or a lot flat?”

“So, Hippology?” Noteworthy tried to bring them back to the original question.

“I’m fine with that,” Fifth said.

“Works for me,” said Tom.

Octavia thought for a brief moment. It’s a bit late to be doing a fast tune, but never let it be said that Octavia Melody backed down from a challenge. “Sure. Let’s do it.”

Tom took a moment to establish the tempo in his head, then called out a two-measure count-off: “One, two, one two three four!”

“Hippology”, like many jazz pieces intended for combo performance, had a thirty-two-bar structure that could be fairly easily divided into four groups of eight. The first, second, and fourth such groups were more or less the same, with slight variations at the end; the middle eight featured a different idea and different chord changes underneath it.

That said, “Hippology” was really intended as a chance for the melody instruments to make a statement with screamingly fast eighth-note runs, and for the first eight measures, the rhythm section was happy to let them completely take the spotlight. Octavia and Fifth still played the chords, but only on the beats where they changed, and Tom only kept time by providing beats two and four of every measure on the hi-hat. Overtone nailed the runs, and Octavia was pleased to hear that Noteworthy and Glissando were able to keep up.

As they hit the second eight bars, Octavia reverted to a more traditional walking bass line, and she felt Tom and Fifth drop into more standard timekeeping as well. The quarter notes she was playing still flew by — “Hippology” was one of the fastest pieces Octavia had ever played, if the performers were doing it right, and tonight was no exception — and the chord changes came about every two beats, but she didn’t mind. Anything that kept her on her toes this late at night was a good thing.

The middle eight allowed her to take a short breather, only changing chords every two bars instead of every two beats; she still needed to play a note every beat, but they didn’t have to be the root of the chord every time, and the bass line could walk a bit more freely. As they returned to the final A section of the AABA form, she settled down. Now that she had refamiliarized herself with the piece, she could play slightly different bass lines later on — still providing the written chords, because the horn players would need those for their solos, but getting there in different ways.

One chorus down, she thought as they went back to the top of the tune, how many to go?

After another chorus where the melody instruments played the head, with Noteworthy adding in what Octavia might have chosen to believe were deliberate embellishments to the written melody but which were more likely wrong notes, the solos started. The order and length of each solo hadn’t been worked out ahead of time; they’d be decided by audibles among the musicians. Octavia’s job for the next however many choruses was simple: help the soloists, don’t distract them. That was fine by her; she didn’t play jazz for the glory of it, she got plenty of that as the Symphony’s principal cellist. She played jazz for the sake of making music with other people who wanted to make music.

Noteworthy took the first solo, apparently on the grounds that since Griffon Parker took the first solo back when he played at the Nest, alto sax players would always and forever solo first on “Hippology”. Octavia wasn’t sure she agreed with the logic, but she wasn’t inclined to keep him from the solo, and she had to admit his two choruses sounded like he knew what he was doing. Overtone then spent two choruses of her own trying to do her best Bullespie impression. If Octavia was any judge, it sounded like Overtone was getting a bit tired. Not entirely surprising, considering how long they’d already been playing that night. Glissando took one chorus and sounded like he could still go another few hours. Noteworthy and Overtone traded eights for two choruses — Noteworthy played eight measures, then Overtone played eight measures, repeat — and they built off each other well enough that if Octavia hadn’t known the two had played together before, she would have been able to guess it just from hearing them.

As Fifth started to play a piano solo, Octavia became aware that Glissando had walked over to her. “What’s up?” she asked.

“You want to take the next one?” Gliss asked back.

“Uh… Sure.”

“Cool.”

That was all they needed to say. Bass solos weren’t terribly common, but they weren’t exactly unheard of either, and she’d already taken a couple tonight. That wasn’t nearly as many as any of the horn players had taken, or even as many as Fifth had, but she was fine with that. Certainly, it had been a while since the last one, and they were getting close to the end of the night; one more wouldn’t hurt.

Gliss walked over to the piano, presumably to tell Fifth that the next chorus would be a bass solo. Octavia couldn’t tell that Fifth had acknowledged him in any meaningful way, but he headed back to his music stand, apparently satisfied that the message had been received. Well, that would have to do.

Then the piano solo ended, and she was up.

She laid a blistering scale down in the first few measures, noting as she played that Fifth had dropped out. It would just be her and Tom playing this chorus. That meant she wouldn’t have to do anything crazy to be heard over the rest of the band, and she wasn’t cornered in the top of her range. Good. The more notes she had to work with, the easier it was for her to work with them. She would probably still stay away from the really low notes, just because they were farther apart on the instrument and she could only move her hoof so fast — her time at the conservatory had taught her speed, but on a smaller instrument.

She kept going, making sure to try to outline the chords that were written when she had time to do so. Admittedly, in a tune like “Hippology”, that wasn’t very often. When she only had four eighth notes before the next chord change, she didn’t have a lot of time, and the bass was not an instrument that was conducive to simply playing every note in the chord in an arpeggio. Thirds were not built into the instrument.

The other thing she tried to do when she got the chance was take short rests. Unlike some instruments, she didn’t need to stop playing to breathe, but that didn’t mean it didn’t add something to the melodic line to have spots for the audience (and the performer) to gather themselves.

She finally reached the end of the chorus, and the horns came back in at the head. Thank Celestia, we’re nearly done, she thought. I love this tune, but it’s a lot of notes. After one last chorus through the melody, the piece was over.

“We’ve got time for one more, it looks like,” Overtone said, looking at the clock on the back wall. “Any suggestions?”

“Something slow,” Octavia responded, shaking out her hoof to get her blood flowing again. An idea occurred to her. “Does everypony know That’s Life? I don’t know if you’d have sheets for it, but it’s a classic.”

“Classic, sure,” Overtone agreed, “but it’s kind of a long blow, and I don’t know how much more I’ve got left.”

“We can do something else—” Octavia started to suggest, but Overtone cut her off.

“No, if I take it easy, I can probably get through it.” She turned to Noteworthy. “What do you think?”

“Sure, I know it, and I can fake an arrangement of it.” The blue earth pony glanced around the ensemble. Glissando and Floor Tom nodded agreement. Fifth didn’t respond. Noteworthy asked, “Fifth, you know That’s Life?”

Fifth laughed. “Do I know a Flank Sinatra tune, he asks? I grew up on his records. I could play it in my sleep.”

“That’s that, I guess,” Noteworthy said.

The melody instruments got set to play. Floor Tom switched from holding sticks to metal brushes, then counted them in: “A-one. A-two. A-one, two, three—” and the horn players were in with a pickup on the “and” of beat three.

Unlike “Hippology”, “That’s Life” was a slow, almost plodding shuffle, which felt even slower than it actually was because the horns were making an effort to stay slightly behind the beat that Octavia and Tom were giving them. Count Neighsie’s big band was one of the most famous of its time, and this had been their closer when they were playing in nightclubs, though as far as Octavia knew, they’d never actually recorded it themselves. Noteworthy, Overtone, and Glissando were each trying to cover multiple parts, with some help from the piano player, and Octavia had to admit they were doing a fine job of it, even considering that Overtone was running on fumes at this point in the night.

Octavia looked over at Glissando and was reminded why the trombone was such a good instrument for pegasi: It didn’t have valves or keys, so they could just hold the slide with a hoof, and they could reach a wing around to put in front of the bell for a wah-wah sound effect. Glissando was, in fact, doing exactly that, as Noteworthy and Overtone had ceded the melody to him for a few phrases.

No, wait, that wasn’t the melody she knew to this tune. Even at the end of the night, there were still solos to be had.

As the piece finally finished, Octavia let herself become aware of the audience for the first time since the start of the set. She never paid attention to them during a performance, orchestral or otherwise, as they were a distraction, but it was the end of the night and she wasn’t going to be playing anything else before she got some sleep.

The drunk crowd seems to like it, anyway. Not that they were good judges, necessarily, but audience approval was generally preferable to the alternative.

“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” rang out the voice of the bartender. Octavia had never actually gotten his name, but he looked like the kind of pony who had been working here since before you were born and would still be working here after you died.

The patrons filed towards the door, and the musicians went to go pack up. For most of them, it didn’t take very long. The piano stayed at the club, of course — that wasn’t the sort of thing you just carried somewhere. Trumpet, trombone, and alto sax didn’t require much disassembly, and double bass didn’t require any (though Octavia still had to wrangle the thing into its case without breaking it). The only thing that might take a while was Floor Tom’s drum set, but he refused to let anyone else touch it.

The manager came over with their payment for the night. It had been a good night, even when they split the proceeds six ways. More than she would have made a lot of other places, certainly. Octavia supposed that was the tradeoff of being up two hours later than everywhere else. She took the money, thanked the club manager, and headed out to go home.

Princess Luna really does a wonderful job with the night sky, Octavia thought, looking up as she walked down the Canterlot streets. I wonder if she saves the more experimental ideas for this late at night, when nopony’s awake to see them if they don’t work? I don’t think she hears how good her work looks very often. I know Night Court still doesn’t have a lot of ponies showing up to it, not like Day Court. Maybe I should drop by sometime?

It wasn’t going to be tonight, she knew that, but… yes, she should tell Princess Luna how much she liked seeing the night sky.

Octavia reached her apartment, went inside, set her bass down, and crawled into bed. As she went to sleep, she reflected on her night. Doing something she loved for people that loved it, getting paid for it, seeing the beauty of the stars overhead… she wouldn’t trade this life for anything.