The Challenge of Appreciation
I have to say Marcus Lewis is responsible for a lot of the deep thoughts I’ve been having lately. In fact he’s somewhat responsible for Take Five Music Productions existing at all, but that’s a story for another time. Recently he posed a question on Facebook:
Musicians! What are some ways that we can get our audience to be invested/a part of the scene? #squad
Now, I’m not a musician (ok, I can play a couple instruments, just not in public) but this really got me thinking. There are some obvious suggestions that I’ve made before as an observer/club owner - things that some players and bands seem to just have as part of their nature, while others might struggle a bit to incorporate - read your room, play to your audience, be conversational, shake hands. And that’s exactly how I responded to Marcus’ post, but towards the end of writing that response something else hit me.
Jazz as a genre really does NOT lend itself to audience participation. Sure, an audience member with broader knowledge of the jazz catalog will catch a reference to another song thrown into a solo and chuckle to themselves about it, but “participating” in jazz as a newbie isn’t exactly straightforward. You almost have to have a more experienced audience member as a mentor to figure it out:
Newbie: Why are people clapping in the middle of a song?
Mentor: They’re clapping after a solo.
Newbie: Cool! I get it! (starts clapping after a short solo by the drummer)
Mentor: No, not there, they’re trading fours. The drum solo isn’t done yet.
Newbie: Uh, what?
I’m dwelling on this today because for me, the best live music experiences are the ones that draw me in as a participant with the band - ones where it feels like everyone in the room has been swept away to the same place - and after ten years closely watching and participating in the jazz scene I understand just how hard that can be at a jazz show. Even a band with a jazz vocalist, where lyrics to sing along to usually are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, has it harder. I mean, have YOU ever tried to sing along with an Ella Fitzgerald tune? I mean, I do, but again not in public. Plus, singing along at a jazz show isn’t part of the traditional decorum.
So Marcus’ question is deep - really deep. Getting an audience to participate in jazz puts a heavier burden on the band members because they don’t have the usual crowd “hooks”, so they have to resort to other means. Storytelling from the stage, a good sense of humor, an unexpected cover song in the set list, engaging with their audience during break or after the show; even some of the biggest jazz artists today employ these tactics to connect with their fans. Personal example: I saw the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Gem Theater almost a year ago. I had never seen Anat perform, wasn’t even terribly familiar with her music, and clarinet is not my favorite lead instrument to be completely honest - but I left that room a HUGE fan of not just her music, but of her as an artist and band leader. She was charismatic on the stage and drew the audience into every song through stories or anecdotes, and spent literally a full hour in the lobby after the show talking, signing CDs and shaking hands and appeared to be genuinely interested in every person she met. Note I didn’t even mention her virtuosity on her given instrument, which is unquestionable.
It wasn’t always this challenging to engage a jazz audience. There was a time when jazz was the primary music lexicon because it was the most popular music in the world. When you listen to some of those live recordings, you can hear the glasses tinkling in the background, a low murmur of conversation, and immediate recognition when something happens on stage; everyone knew what to do and how to react because they were in constant contact with the form. Kind of like how everyone now knows how to hold up a lighter during a ballad at a rock concert (ok, I guess it’s actually a phone these days, but I digress).
(listen with headphones to get the full effect of the ambient crowd noise)
It might be just a little harder as an audience member to learn how to interact with a jazz performance now. It might be just a little harder as a jazz performer to welcome the audience into what you do. But neither is impossible, and let me tell you, when the band and the audience join together in the experience there’s really nothing better. Don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself. Enjoy some live jazz this week. You’ll be glad you did!