WHAT’S WRONG WITH LIVE JAZZ (AND CLASSICAL MUSIC)?

This weekend, I’m going to the national jazz music festival at Wangaratta for about the 10th time.  But I’m going with a sense of foreboding.  The audience for the ‘national’ festival will be quite small, with fewer than 200 people at most performances, mostly over 60s, less than in earlier days.   Classical music’s situation seems similar.  Yet other forms of live music seem to be booming, attracting large crowds across the age spectrum.

I like lots of different types of music, from Handel to the Hilltop Hoods, Madonna to Miles Davis, Paul Kelly to Kasey Chambers, Rhianna, the Four Seasons and much more. I like live music too, not just recorded.  But ‘serious’ live jazz seems to have lost its way as entertainment.  Why?Recently I went to a jazz concert at the revered Bennett’s Lane, which just averted closure due to a rich benefactor. Only about 30-40 people were there for an internationally-renowned group.  Staff couldn’t tell us when they expected the group to start.  The band members tuned up interminably (who does this at a pop concert?).  They chatted to each other, in their own world on stage, as if the audience wasn’t there.  Then they all went off stage.  Eventually, they sauntered back out, dressed as if they were ready to go gardening or painting perhaps.  They fiddled around with their musical scores, seemingly unsure what they were about to play.  Then they performed the first song or two.   No recognition of the audience.  No announcement of who they were or what they were playing.  Afterwards, the titles (something like ‘Twilight’ or ‘Seventh Avenue Blues’) were given, with no explanation. There were no words to link to or connect with, so the titles made no sense to a new listener.

This is hard work for the audience, not enjoyment. Even if the music grabs you (in which case, much of the above is forgiven), a barrier has been created.  Many jazz musicians face each other, seemingly playing to themselves or their group, not the audience.  But it’s the audience who pays them to perform.  No audience, no music, no payment.

The classical music experience is similar. The orchestra comes on stage and tunes up for ages.  They go off again, then formally return and re-tune.  Then the conductor arrives and they tune a little more.  No words are said.  No acknowledgement of the audience’s applause or thanks to the audience for coming.  No announcement of what they are going to play or why it is interesting or worthy.  (Unlike jazz, at least they are dressed as a unit, but black dinner suits and dresses seem too formal for these times and create an unnecessary barrier to the audience.)

Not so with other music forms. The singers and bands face the audience directly, they talk to us, they smile, they thank us for coming and for applauding, they tell us what they are playing and why.  They sway, shout, dance.  It’s emotional.  You can see they are having fun.  It rubs off.  We enjoy ourselves.  Being there is worth it.  It’s a different, unique experience, quite unlike watching the video or listening to the recording, despite their superior production values.

I hope that the jazz musicians at Wangaratta this weekend take a few lessons in helping their audience enjoy themselves (or, as we business types would call it, create customer value, increase customer satisfaction).

Be organised. Start on time.  Look like a group.  Know your program before you start.  Show some emotion.  Look like you are enjoying yourselves.  Talk to us.  Help us understand what you are playing and why.   Thank us for coming. Without us, there is no you.

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4 thoughts on “WHAT’S WRONG WITH LIVE JAZZ (AND CLASSICAL MUSIC)?

  1. Well said Graham. I attended an Eric Clapton concert here in Singapore and he was just the same, no words, no intros, just did his music, waved and left

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  2. Well said Graham. I attended an Eric Clapton concert here which was the same. He came in with his band, went through his numbers, did a final wave and was gone. No emotion, no connection with any of the audience, though we cheered all his memorable hits.

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  3. I have to agree …a risky comment since my best friend and husband is a jazz muso!!
    Originally these festivals and more importantly, the annual Jazz Convention, were for the musos themselves and not seen as a public event. So I think your comments would have been even more relevant in those days.
    In December there will be a Jazz Convention in Ballarat , a week of ” bonding” for old friends. Depending on the leader of the 50+ bands this could be another occasion where the audience seems to be secondary! My bass playing husband will be in heaven .His band will comprise a clarinet player from Perth , a vocalist from Hobart, a pianist from Launceston. They know each other well but have never played together as a quartet .. typical of jazz sessions. I can see their smiles already when one of the group leads the tune in an unexpected and clever way…. its all about those unexpected improvisations. What amazing new way of playing a pattern of F, F augmented , F diminished will unfold!
    Some of the old players can do both … embrace the audience and play brilliantly .. but so many of the players are more engrossed in improvising the tune and seeing the reaction of their fellows on stage that nothing else matters.
    I am equally shocked when I hear the musos discuss the lack on interest by the audience if they see that some are daring to read a newspaper of even worse ” knit ” while they are playing!!!
    Luckily my favourite muso loves an audience and is a brilliant musician. Come to Ballarat and see for yourself.

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    • Hi Pam. Thanks for commenting and so well! I learnt a bit about jazz from your comments. I’m an audience member, not a musician, so I have more of an audience eye than a musician eye, but it really is (or should be) about the performance for the paying audience. I need to be entertained and enjoy it! Your invitation to Ballarat is attractive. But could I read my newspaper, or do my knitting without being self-conscious?!

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