Hand Signals For Jazz Sets

Caution_Jazz_HandsOn a recent gig with the Low-Down Sires our music director had another job out of town and Mick, our cornet player, ended up taking over the direction duties for this show. While rehearsing for this show we got into a conversation about different hand signals that directors will give to keep the musicians together. Here is a list of ones, mostly compiled by Mick (mainly duplicated from here), but with a couple added by Mick and me. Some are pretty standard, but others were new to me. A few of them are a little more specific to the trad jazz style (such as the ones referring to “ensemble choruses”). Some of these are also used by big band directors as well, so even if you don’t play fake gigs they are worth learning about.

  1. The concert key of a song (or key change for the next chorus) is indicated by the number of  fingers held out. The number of fingers held down indicates the number of flats in a key signature. Two fingers held down indicate Concert Bb. Concert C is usually indicated by making a zero or C with two fingers.* The sharp in Concert G would be indicated by extending up one finger.
  2. Your solo. When the player points at you, it means the next solo will be yours. (Don’t jump in immediately; wait until the current chorus is complete.)
  3. I don’t want one. If you don’t want to solo, just shake your head no.
  4. Take two. When two fingers are held up, that means to take two complete solo choruses. This occurs usually on fast tunes in which choruses are very short, so it gives the solo player a chance to stretch out.
  5. Half solos. The X sign, with crossed hands or crossed fingers means to split the solos in half and share them. In other words, instead of a 16-bar solo, you play 8 bars and pass it on to the next soloist. This happens often in large jam sets to allow everyone to have a short solo.
  6. Trade fours (or twos). When one player establishes eye contact with another player, holds up four fingers, and points them back and forth between the two players, it indicates, “Let’s trade four-bar solo phrases” or “Trade fours.” Of course, you can do the same thing with two fingers to indicate trading two bar phrases, although this is trickier to pull off.
  7. Everyone in. When the cornet player holds up one finger and moves it in a round-up circle, it means, “Everyone in, this is an ensemble chorus.” This is usually the sign to end solo choruses.
  8. Last chorus. A fist held up means “this is the last chorus.” Go out at the end.
  9. Go to the top. Touching an open palm to the top of the head means, “Go to the top,”  which usually indicates going back to the verse, first stanza, or sometimes even introduction of the given tune.
  10. Get down. A flat hand held down at knee level indicates that the next chorus is going to be played in a restrained style, at a pianissimo level. This may also be called a “chatter” chorus.
  11. One down/one up. As a band is nearing the last ensemble choruses, the cornet may give a hand signal, pointing down with one finger, then up. That means to play a quiet and restrained chorus, followed by a loud and exuberant final chorus.
  12. Four bar drum break. When four fingers are held up to the drummer, usually in the final chorus of a tune, that indicates that the drummer is to take a four-bar extemporaneous solo, followed by the band playing a variation on the final four bars of the song. It is critical to listen to the cornet player to catch the shape of these last four.
  13. Jump to the bridge. The leader may point to the bridge of his nose. Done frequently on ballads or longer form tunes after solos to keep a tune from going too long. Sometimes used to help get the band back together if someone zones out and looses track of the form.
  14. Open repeats. The leader makes an “O” shape with one or both hands. Used to indicate that this section will repeat until cued out, usually to let a soloist or soloists stretch out and play additional choruses. The cue to go on to the next section is usually done by holding up a fist a bit before the next section.
  15. Play backgrounds or riffs behind a soloist. The leader points at and sort of waves his finger at a section or group of players to indicate that in the next repeat the players should play backgrounds behind the soloist. In a fake gig the leader or another horn player might quietly play or sing a riff to the rest of the players before they enter to get the riff established, if the backgrounds are improvised.

* Several years ago I was playing a dance set with a big band where the leader wanted the band to improvise a medley of bossa novas. He got the band started off on a standard tune with one horn player performing the melody. After that melody the rhythm section was instructed to play a 4 measure transition to the next tune and the hand signals were used to tell them what key to transition to (e.g., two fingers held down to modulate to Bb, etc.). It got around to me and I called Black Orpheus/Carnaval/Day In the Life of a Fool (three different titles for same tune), which is typically played in A minor. I realized as I called the key that I didn’t know a hand signal for A minor. I tried to verbally get the word over to the leader and rhythm section, but because I was way over on the other side of the stage they ended up going to C major instead. Fortunately this rhythm section was on top of things and immediately recognized the tune, but it was an unusual modulation, to say the least.

Who knows an appropriate hand signal for A minor? What hand signals did we leave out?

Thanks for compiling those, Mick!

Paul T.

Good stuff, Dave. I’m unaware of any specific signals for major and minor: in the circles I’ve seen, the key signature is what’s important, and the musicians are supposed to know whether the tune is major or minor (simply by virtue of knowing the tune).

Sometimes, this is a significant advantage. For instance, some players might consider a song like “Autumn Leaves” to be in G minor while others may say it’s in Bb major. But by holding down two fingers (for “two flats”), there’s no possibility for error: both groups will understand which key you mean.

Dave

Yeah, the key signature should be sufficient, but in the case of C major/A minor it’s a little murky. In the situation I mentioned above the rhythm section was waiting for the key to modulate to and couldn’t always hear the title of the tune from across the bandstand (this was a big band and I was all the way on the other side of the stage from them).

spinality

Some east coast big bands (e.g. Skitch Henderson’s) used to indicate sharps/flats in the reverse, i.e. two fingers up meant Bb. I don’t know if anybody still does this but it can obviously lead to surprises when doing a sub.

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