Monday, February 1, 2010
The Chattering Classes
I've heard divided opinions over the years from musicians about playing in noisy environments. Most say they hate it - actually virtually everyone says they hate it, but there is a divide between those who say it puts them off completely and those who say you just need to ignore it and get on with it.
I'm completely with the former group - I just can't stand playing in a room where the majority of people are talking. This post is prompted by a gig I've just done at an alleged jazz club called Dexters in Odense in Denmark. It's been a long time since I had to deal with something like this, though I did many gigs of this kind in my early years. But gradually the environments in which I played got better, and I had to deal less and less with noisy audiences as my 'career' (as I optimistically call it) developed. So it was a bit of a shock to come to this club in jazz loving (at least that's its reputation) Denmark, with a fine group of players from four different countries, with a good sound system and equipment, and then play to the noisiest bunch of Yahoos it's been my misfortune to encounter in a long time.
For me this environment is creative and emotional death - I just can't stand it. Music can be many things - it can make you think, it can make you happy, sad, make you want to dance etc. It can celebrate, it can commiserate, it can mark important moments in life, or death. It can be religious, it can be profane, it can be spiritual, it can be sensual, it can be both other-worldly or very worldly. Music should, above all, make you feel something - when music is being played people should be affected by it in some way, otherwise what's the point of having it played? I don't play weddings, but I can see the value of music at a wedding. I don't play dance music (which is a pity, as I love to play for dancers) but I can see the value of dance music. Of course I can see the value of music as an artistic artefact and as a vessel for the communication of ideas and emotions to the listener. But the one thing I refuse to believe music was ever intended for was to provide some kind of aural wallpaper to accompany the chattering classes.
For this same reason I've never been able to play corporate gigs – where you’re hired by a company to provide ‘ambience’ for their staff and/or clients. In fact I’ve never been constitutionally capable of playing any background music gigs since they bother me so much that I begin to question the whole purpose of being a professional musician. When I left school I worked in a day job for 10 years, and quite honestly I’d rather return to that than make my living playing in noisy and uncaring musical environments. To play in such places seems to call into question the whole purpose of practicing and trying to be creative and inventive. If you’re just providing some kind of backdrop to the inane chatter of people getting drunk then what’s the point? Background music is a degradation of music and the purpose of music, and unfortunately is a plague that besets western society. In fact I’d go as far as to say that western society with its ringtones, jingles, background music in restaurants, elevators, shopping malls, and virtually every public space degrades and cheapens music in a way that no other society does, or has done in the history of music.
Some musicians maintain that you should be able to mentally cut through the noise and be able to get to your own creative space regardless. And of course there are famous recordings where much greater musicians than I (Bill Evans at the Vanguard, Miles at the Plugged Nickel for example) have produced sublime music despite audible chatter going on in the background. Some people say we’re being too precious by looking for silence while performing, and in a way denying jazz’s populist roots. But just because jazz musicians of earlier eras had to perform in noisy environments doesn’t necessarily mean they enjoyed it – they dealt with it because they had to. I’m pretty certain that given the choice of playing for people who were ignoring them and using them as mere aural environment, and playing for people who were listening to them intently, they’d take the latter option every time.
And after years of seeing this kind of crap (though it’s thankfully rare for me nowadays), I’ve still yet to fathom why someone would pay a cover charge into a venue and then talk all night when they can talk outside for free. The psychology of that is a closed book to me. One of the most imbecilic comments I ever heard about this phenomenon was from a hoary old jazz critic from Belfast who disagreeing with my opinion that it was a drag to play in a room where everyone was talking said ‘I think jazz is a music that can stand up to a lot of chatter’. What can you say to a comment as vapid as that? Not a lot. So I’ll stop here................