Jazz Magic for Stand-ups.
The first time I was ever introduced to the concept of ‘jazz magic’ was by Daryl Easton in his excellent book ‘Secrets of a Puerto Rican Gambler. Daryl says the phrase was coined by Steven Minch. Minch mentions that Jon Racherbaumer mentioned such a concept in one of his sets of lecture notes. I’m really not much of an expert on the origins and history of magic. There are many magicians whose ability to trace magical roots and credits is almost uncanny in it’s precision and depth. In all honesty it sometimes inspires me and just about as often bores me to tears. To me the idea will always be associated with Daryl because it so deftly describes his unique performance style.
The basic concept behind this school of ‘jazz’ thinking is that you have plenty of extra knowledge of moves and sleights that you can use to achieve the magical effect that you are performing. Circumstances and angles change during a performance and so do your methods. Needless to say you need a lot of background knowledge and skills to be able to improvise and adapt to changing conditions in this manner.
The nice part of keeping your methods flexible is that it makes you much more observant about your work and keeps you firmly in the moment. When performed correctly this approach to performing should be scarcely noticeable to a lay audience, it is a very subtle thing indeed. Maybe this is why I like it so as much as I do– I am a big fan of subtle. It comes in just ahead of oblique in my book.
My very favorite thing to do in magic is to sit down with a regular deck of cards and perform an unplanned and unstructured set. This gives me enormous pleasure and if it paid a fraction as much as my stand-up comedy magic act does it would be my overwhelming choice as a magical vehicle. However, having supported myself in a nice style with my comedy magic show for over 40 years, it has become something of a luxury.
I have certainly not forgotten this ‘jazz’ principle over the years and have absorbed it into my work as a stand-up performer and I believe it has been a great addition to my skills as a performer. It can be very easy to settle into a groove (or rut) when performing a fairly consistent set list in your shows, and I have tried to fight this as much as possible.
When I walk onstage to perform I have a very clear vision of what my default show is and how I mean to accomplish the various effects that comprise this show. This doesn’t in any way interfere with the fact that I have usually got a dozen variations of the show at my fingertips. Not just different tricks to choose from but different ways to achieve the various effects that I choose to perform.
The only things that are unlikely to vary much in my show are my opening and closing pieces; these are two areas where I feel consistency is really an essential benefit to my overall performance. As for the rest of the show, I am free and easy to mix and match tricks and methods according to circumstances and whim. This gives a rather delightful sense of freedom to my performing instincts. It can also be beneficial in a more practical manner.
Sometimes a new circumstance presents itself just prior to show time that makes an adjustment necessary. Once in a while I am getting ready for a show and discover that even the minimal fire I use in my show is unacceptable. Instead of panicking I have an alternative method set and ready in my case. Equally importantly I have practiced the ‘fire-free’ method and know I can make it work.
As long as you are prepared and flexible then you can do your job without any awkward moments, and just like close-up ‘jazz magic’ no one is even aware that you have significantly changed your repertoire or methodology. You, however, can bask in the knowledge that you are more than just a magician—you are an alert, prepared and totally professional performer. This is a great feeling!