Merrily Provides Tips for Making Parties More Musical

Merrily Jackson. Photo by Corie English

In her novel Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen takes us to a party with bad music. Really, really bad music, being supplied by our heroine’s clueless sister, who has commandeered the piano forte and is favoring the crowd with a song. 

The music is so horrendous, in fact, the girl’s father takes matters into his own hands, dressing her down before a roomful of guests with the classic rebuke: “You have delighted us long enough.” 

In Regency England and every civilization before and after, music has had the power to make or break a social gathering. Of course, it’s a lot easier to have good music now than in 1813, when P & P was published. Anyone with a laptop, cheap speakers, and an internet connection can provide music that is right for every occasion. 

But arranging for live music—good live music—heightens the sense of occasion and shows a distinct generosity of spirit on the host’s part. Live musicians add a certain je ne sais quoi you just can’t get from a recording. Here are some recommendations for hiring musicians that will rock your house.

Pianists Add Tone to the Joint
A pianist sitting at a keyboard tickling the ivories can make the most ordinary gathering seem magical. Hire a pianist to play at your next cocktail party and your guests will feel the love the moment they walk in the door. “Even if you don’t know anybody, you can always talk to the piano player,” says my talented pal Tim Whitmer, who has been playing the piano at private parties—and Kansas City’s hottest night spots—for many years. 

If you have a tuned piano in your home, perfect. But if you don’t, many pianists can bring their own little portable keyboards, which sound darn good. 

String ’em Along
A single classical or jazz guitarist is another very simple option for subtle, exquisite background music at a smaller gathering. Roger Pitts and Jim Lammers are both fabulous and highly professional guitarists.

Friends with Benefits
Judy Garland, it’s said, used to get annoyed when, as a party guest, she would be asked to sing a number or two. But if she wasn’t asked, she positively fumed. If you have friends who are temperamental professional musicians, bear that in mind when they are guests at your party. 

If you have friends who are good amateur musicians, by all means ask them to liven up your gathering with a song or two, so long as it doesn’t bring the entire party to a halt, as can happen. If you have children who play a musical instrument, reserve their performance for recitals and close family gatherings. 

Host a Musicale
My music-loving friends Terry Anderson and Michael Henry have a gorgeous bubinga wood grand piano in the living room of their elegant home. Occasionally they take a notion to host cocktails, followed by an organized (but not overly so) musicale. They sometimes will hire a pianist, or they will conscript one of their talented friends to play while others perform. Everyone usually ends up standing around the piano, belting out show tunes, some of us a little off-key. It is utter perfection.

Somewhere on YouTube there exists a little video of my husband and me breakin’ it down to Mack the Knife at Terry and Michael’s after a couple of martinis. I’m afraid to see it. If you have, please don’t tell me.

Dance Band or DJ?
At some point in our lives, most of us—either independently or as a member of some silly committee—must decide whether to hire a band or a DJ for a larger party or reception. 

Nothing compares to a live band in terms of sound quality, excitement, and the ability to engage the crowd. A band can vary the speed of the songs, depending on the vagaries of your guests and the ambience you want to create. 

On the other hand, a band’s performance can seem more like a concert than dance music. Before hiring a band, always go to one of their gigs so you can judge for yourself their ability to get the crowd up and shakin’ their groove thangs. Bands can cost several thousands more than DJs, and the set-up logistics are always more complicated.

A Final Word From the Hospitality Committee
Remember that musicians need to take an occasional break. In advance of your party, make arrangements for some sort of music to continue while they go out for a smoke or a text or whatever. This is particularly important with a dance band. When the music stops, people start looking at their watches and it can have a disastrous effect on the party.

Also remember (not that you wouldn’t) to feed them din-din if they are playing over the dinner hour, and to tip them. Twenty percent is the standard, but if you love them and can afford more, dig a little deeper. 


Musicians of Note 

Merrily’s Highly Subjective List
Our town is replete with highly talented professional entertainers. This is Kansas City, after all. Here are some of my favorite musicians who play private parties.

Pianists
Tim Whitmer
Candace Evans (vocalist, too)
Piano tuner: Ted Horowitz 

Strings
Jim Lammers—solo guitarist
Roger Pitts—solo guitarist

Dance bands
Disco Dick & the Mirrorballsdisco
Fountain City 45’sthe best late and great dance hits
Kokomoclassic cover
Lost Waxpop, rock, hip-hop, and blues
Patrick Lentz Bandrock, soul, hip-hop and more
The Zeros80s new wave cover band