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Saturday, August 31, 2013

'I've Suffered For My Art, Now It's Your Turn!' (Jazz Musicians and Their Audience)

At a time when jazz is perhaps more economically challenged than at any time in the past, it’s not a bad idea for jazz musicians to have a think about their audience, and their relationship with it.

Jazz musicians and the audience - then and now

The presentation of jazz has changed tremendously over the course of its history – in earlier times jazz was seen, by its practitioners as much as by its audience, as another form of entertainment. I’ve just been reading Count Basie’s autobiography, and it’s clear from this that Basie’s initial ambition was to get into ‘show business’, and he began in Vaudeville, backing singers, dancers, comedians etc. Though his career mutated into that of one of the most respected bandleaders in the history of jazz, he never lost his image of himself as being an entertainer as well as a serious musician.

And this is generally true of most musicians of his generation and even later generations.  The beboppers were revolutionary musicians, and denizens of a counter-culture with its own codes and ways of being. They were also aware of themselves as artists, yet even they were very conscious of how they looked on stage – see if you can find any photos of Bird playing in public without a jacket and tie on. Even the iconoclastic Monk, when asked what the band should wear, replied, ‘Sharp as possible!’ And even the taciturn Coltrane, architect of the extended solo and someone with an apparent disregard for the staying power of an average audience, would insist on his band wearing suits whenever they played in a concert hall setting.

So up to the 1960s at least, jazz musicians were very aware of what they saw as their responsibilities to the audience at least in terms of presentation. Then something changed – the idea of musician as artist, and a rebellion against the idea of musician as entertainer, took hold in jazz.  Since the 1970s there have been many variations in how jazz musicians present themselves to their audience, but I think it's fair to say that in general, thoughts about the audience are not on top of most jazz musicians' agenda. Musicians have usually devoted most of their time to honing their craft and developing their art, and have been happy to let the chips fall where they may as far the audience is concerned. There is almost an unspoken belief that it's the audience's job to figure out the music, and the musician doesn't need to take them into account. It's the musician's job to play the music and the audience's job to listen - clearly demarcated roles, with no room for compromise.

The Big Questions

But now, when it's more challenging than ever before to make a living as a jazz musician, perhaps players need to ask themselves about their relationship to their audiences, not just for the sake of economics, but for the sake of their art too. Good questions for a jazz musician to ask themselves could be:

Why do people come out to hear live music?
How does my music feel?
How do my performances look?
Am I aware of a connection to my audience and is it important?

For some jazz musicians, even asking those questions is heresy, and is already moving into the area of showbiz.

But for me, there is no reason why an acknowledgement of the role of the audience, and an understanding of what might affect an audience, (and in what way), is any kind of sell-out, or dumbing down of your artistry. It's simply a recognition that music is played for people and there's a dynamic at play in live performance. An understanding of that dynamic should be important to the musician, since his or her success or failure, (both artistic and commercial), will depend upon a successful negotiation of that dynamic.

To take each one of those questions in turn:

Why do people go to hear live music?

Music used to always have a societal function - it accompanied something. A religious ceremony, a landmark in life (birth, marriage, death), a celebration, a ceremonial occasion. Since the advent of recorded music, this has changed utterly, and now the reasons people attend music performances are as many and varied as the music and the audience itself. On any given night, in any city in the world, you might have people listening to Shostakovitch in a concert hall, jazz in a jazz club, punk rock at a rock venue, and dancing to techno at a dance club. But could there be a common thread linking all of these people at these very varied performances?

Yes there is, and it's this: anybody who goes to a live music performance, wants to feel different when they leave the venue, than when they went in.

They want to feel something, experience something, take part in something or maybe have something done to them. They may want to be made happier, or given food for thought, or, in the case of dancing, have some kind of physical release. This is the reality - people do not go out and pay money in order to feel the same as if they'd stayed at home - they want an experience of some kind, a transformative experience, at least as far as their mood goes.

So the next obvious question for the musician, wondering if we do make people feel different, is  -

How does my music feel? 

As musicians we ask often ask ourselves how our music sounds, but do we pay any attention to how it feels? As a player, a good question to ask yourself is as follows -  imagining yourself as a stranger, coming into a performance of  your music - how do you think that the music you typically play, would feel to you, (the stranger)? Do you think it would make you feel good? I'm not talking about the technical intricacies of the music here, I'm talking about the vibe. What kind of feel and vibe does your music put out, and if you can identify that in your own mind, do you think this vibe is the one you''d like to communicate to others?

Connected to that question is the next one:

How do my performances look?

Now this is a question that is usally very low on the priority list of many jazz musicians. To even consider dressing up for a gig is often considered the worst kind of commercial/sell-out mentality. But the visual aspects of performance are very important to audiences. I'm not necessarily talking about how the band is dressed, (though a certain breed of musicians' proclivity for shuffling onstage looking like they just got out of bed, having slept in their clothes, probably doesn't do much for the audience's anticipation of what's to come), but how everything looks.

This may or may not include how the band is dressed, but will definitely include the band's demeanour on the stage, and how well the audience can see everything that's going on. In recent years, aware of how much music is consumed on Youtube, I started to film a lot of my performances. It's amazing what being at the viewfinder end of a camera does for your awareness of how things look, and one of the worst things to look at visually, is a big stupid music stand directly in front of the player, obscuring everything they're doing! There's nothing duller from an audience's point of view than seeing five people on stage looking down at music stands, or even worse, looking at music stands directly in front of their faces - visually it's the most boring thing possible.

I appreciate that in these days of little rehearsal time and lots of original music, music stands are a necessity, but some thought should be given to minimising the visual distraction of the stands, and keeping them as far from the audience's line of sight of the musicians as possible. Any chance of memorising the music, and getting rid of the stands should be taken, and any band that plays a standards gig, reading from music stands, deserves to be horsewhipped!

Am I aware of a connection to my audience, and is it important?

Is it important for you to connect to your audience, or do you feel that it's their job to connect to you? That's a subtle but important distinction. In the case of the former, there's a paramount desire on the part of the performer to communicate something to the audience, in the latter there's an assumption that the playing of the music will in itself be sufficient to nourish the audience. In the first instance the performer may pay attention to the aforementioned visuals, and make an effort to communicate with the audience verbally as well as musically. In the second instance such things as visuals and non-musical communication are not taken into consideration, or deemed important.

Whichever way you lean in your own dealings with the audience, I do think it's important to at least be aware of the audience, and at least have made a conscious decision as to what your relationship with them is.

It's a show!

My own view is that all performances are a show. No matter what kind of music you play, there's an element of the visual involved, and there are also 'performance' elements involved. No matter how much weight you may place on the music itself, the visual and performance aspects of the event will have an impact on the audience. Jazz musicians often forget that the majority of their audience are not musicians and have little or no knowledge of, or interest in, the technicalities of the music. To the general public, the atmosphere of the event is of tremendous importance, and everything that goes into the creation of an atmosphere should be of interest to the musician. We are dependent on people returning to our performances, so the effectiveness of what we do should concern us.

Miles Davis was famously, (or so it seemed), unconcerned with his audience, but this in itself became a show! Audiences enjoyed, (and expected), the famous Davis taciturn personality - the glowering, the pacing, the turning his back on the audience, became a show in itself. Jarrett's fussiness and demands for silence, irritating and pretentious as it sometimes is, does make for drama - when he walks on the stage there's a sense of something happening that goes through the hall. The Coltrane Quartet's visceral physicality in live performance was a show in itself. None of these performers had a typical showbiz connection to their audience but all of them provided a show nonetheless.

I think what's important, regardless of which approach you take to your audience, is that you should be aware that there, (hopefully!), is an audience there, and in all likelihood they have paid money to see you, and perhaps travelled a distance to do so, and taken time out of their lives to listen to your music. That deserves recognition. Recognition that the audience have a role to play in the performance of live music. Acknowledging the audience, at least in your own mind, can be a valuable tool to you in being able to take a more broad view of the message and impact of your music, and give you a more objective view of what it is you're doing, or trying to do.  I believe that acknowledging the importance of the audience will have a positive impact on your music.

If you think the audience are of no importance, then fair enough - but play at home! 


  1. I agree with your assessment of the state of jazz. Who really wants to see some trombone player with tape on his glasses and wearing what looks like pajamas, who has to read charts as he plays and never looks at, or acknowledges the audience. Plays 30 minutes, then breaks for an hour? And his only goal is to sound sufficiently "oblique."

  2. I have to wonder what the average musician who walks out of a gig with $17 in their pocket, and probably hasn't been able to buy new clothes, let alone eyeglasses, in 10 years, thinks about this.

  3. There is an exception to your premise that is also a proof of your thesis: the Sun Ra Arkestra :)

  4. I couldn't agree more with the thrust of Ronan's piece. In a live situation, recognition of the audience is paramount. They are deserving of a show where the musicians endeavour to connect with them, both parties having made the commitment to be in that shared space.

  5. In other news: Classical Musicians Blame Formal Attire for Declining Audiences.