The Calamity Of The 'Clam,' Every Musician's Headache

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As part of an All Things Considered series on trade lingo, music producer Don Was explains the word "clam" — a mistake made by a musical performer.


We wrap up this hour with a bit of musical Trade Lingo. We've been asking about words that are terms of the trade in a particular line of work - words that might stump anybody else. And today, our trade lingo is offered up by musician and producer Don Was. It's a word musicians use when they screw up.

DON WAS: If you play a mistake it's called a clam.

BLOCK: Why is it called a clam?

WAS: That's a good one. I don't know. (Laughter) I should know. It's probably rooted in something unsavory. I'm trying to think what the origin could be. You know, they're just sort of, like, floppy (Laughter) you know, like a clam.

BLOCK: So clams are wrong notes - something audibly wrong that makes you wince and maybe enrages a bandleader. Clams come up again and again in a legendary tirade by the jazz drummer Buddy Rich excoriating his band. Rich was recorded secretly on his tour bus in the early 1980s by his pianist Lee Musiker.


BUDDY RICH: Look, I'm trying to play. What do you play - clams? You guys know where the [bleep] next set goes. If I hear one [bleep] clam from anybody, you've had it. One clam and this whole [bleep] band is through - tonight. Try me.

BLOCK: That's drummer Buddy Rich reeling about the clam. Now we're told that clam can be used as a noun or verb. Oh, that was a horrendous clam. Or let's do that again, I clammed a note. If there are any musicians out there with ideas of why it's called the clam, please let us know. We're on Facebook and Twitter - @npratc.

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