Two scenes from contemporary life in and around jazz, April 9 and 10, 2010:

Last night I made a pilgrimage to the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill on University Place in New York City to hear the remarkable banjoist / singer Cynthia Sayer and the noble pianist Mark Shane.  The two large rooms that house the Knickerbocker were crowded, although I found a table near the piano. 

Cynthia and Mark played beautifully — mostly up-tempo romps: LINGER AWHILE, WOLVERINE BLUES, YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE, CALIFORNIA HERE I COME, and a sweet stroll through APRIL SHOWERS and a funky boogie-inflected YELLOW DOG BLUES.  Cynthia’s single notes hit like gunshots; she slid up and down the fingerboard in chordal glissandos; she kept the rhythm going.  Mark, a peerless accompanist and soloist, evoked Wilson and Waller and Flanagan and Hines, all splendidly woven together into Shane. 

The volume of conversation was so high that I had to strain to hear the music.  At the end of the set, Cynthia said to me, “Gee, I had a hard time hearing myself!” and Mark noted, “The noise level in this room is worse for your ears than gunfire.”  People walked so close to Cynthia while she was playing that she had to bend the neck of her banjo back to avoid getting knocked over.  Someone accosted her while she was soloing to request a tune; she kept playing and spoke to the inquirer politely. 

But it was apparent that almost no one was listening.  Perhaps eight people applauded.  Perhaps ninety-five percent of the diners didn’t keep quiet, didn’t know that there were live musicians (people!) creating music in front of them, or didn’t care.

I applaud the courage of Cynthia and Mark and their colleagues who keep creating in the face of indifference and noise.  I couldn’t do it — when I’m teaching, I ask my students to stop talking and to pay attention.  Jazz musicians, cast as “entertainers” at best or an odd version of a large iPod at worst, rarely say, “Would you all have the decency to keep it down a bit?” and I admire their heroism and restraint.  I don’t expect a restaurant to become a concert hall, and I do think that people have a right to eat their dinner and talk to their friends.  But I wonder who won or lost during that hour of combat between art versus loud self-absorbed talk at the Knickerbocker. 

On a more personal note: a writer’s voice is much like his or her speaking voice — individualistic, perhaps idiosyncratic.  I saw today’s batch of Google Alerts — one of them for Jo Jones — and began to read a memorial essay on Jake Hanna published on someone else’s blog (call it JAZZ IS FOREVER, not its name).  I saw that someone I don’t know had “written” a piece on Jake Hanna, most of which was one I had written, word for word without credit. 

I commented on this post politely, pointing out to the blog’s creator that it was not good manners to take someone else’s prose without crediting the writer.  I appealed to his courtesy while being courteous; I signed my name, appended my blog information and email address.  About eight hours later I returned to my computer and, out of curiosity, clicked on this site.  Had the gentleman printed my comment?  Had he ignored the whole thing?  Had he credited me?  None of the above: he had removed my words silently.  

Did I win a victory for intellectual property, against online plagiarism, or did I lose the opportunity to have my thoughts on Jake Hanna spread to even more readers — without my name, which frankly means less than honoring Jake?

I know that it matters not if you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.  But Cynthia, Mark, and I are trying to play by the rules.  It’s not always easy. We keep trying.

8 responses to “IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME


  2. Robin Aitken


    I am so glad you raised this issue. Musicians are often treated with little or no respect in restaurants. Like waiters they almost become part of the furniture.

    The late great Illinois Jacquet was a master at dealing with noisy diners. Many years ago my wife and I attended a wonderful Illinois gig at a club in London called the Canteen. When we arrived we were offered a seat at the rear of the restaurant. We noticed an empty table at the front – approximately 6 feet from Illinois and asked to be seated there. We had a wonderful evening of superb music with Illinois, Slam Stewart, Richard Wyands and I think Duffy Jackson. Whenever the noise level went up during his annoucements Illinois would stop speaking and wait until the noise died down. He would then gently tell the audience that they should respect the composer of the music he was about to play and to afford the same respect to his acompanying musicians. I don’t recollect that he actually mentioned himself. This usually had the desired effect and the noise level dropped appreciably. When spoke to him at the end of the gig he said he noticed that we really enjoyed the music and thanked my wife and myself .

    A lesson in the art of crowd control for the sake of jazz!


  3. Marty Elkins

    I have played restaurant gigs for many years, and the problem always persists. It seems to be worse now, as the flat-screen tvs are always on, and even with the sound off they make you feel more marginal than ever. The way I’ve always dealt with it, though, is remembering my theory of why people take live music for granted so often. I think people think that if the music is good, it just registers in their minds as recorded music and they feel they can talk right over it with no compunction. There are always one or two people who are listening and appreciate it, in my experience, so I just sing for them, my accompanists, and myself and magage to enjoy the night.

    Keep on keepin’ on,


  4. That is indeed the way to be — and it’s why I admire musicians who sing or play for keeping their style, their sense of humor, their equanimity in the face of what more thin-skinned people would see as wounding rudeness. Be well — MS

    P.S. To those who don’t know Marty Elkins, what a fine singer she is!

  5. My sympathies to Mark and Cynthia. They deserve better treatment!!!

    And–shame on the plagarist! Your writing should be read more often, by more people, but not THAT way.

  6. I agree with you entirely and am just feeling empathy that you had to have that experience, tho I know it’s not worth putting any more energy into it. As one friend used to say, new ideas and creativity were always available to him. That’s still no excuse for dishonesty and you showed great class both in how you handled it and in how you reported it.



  7. Some things never change. On occasion, way back when… 70’s, maybe the early 80’s, I would drop by the Knickerbocker to “try” and hear Tommy Flanagan and a bass player… maybe Rufus Reid? It was a zoo then. Apparently nothing’s changed in almost 40 years. That’s due to the policy of the establishment/owners. They could care less. All they want are some name players for their customers to ignore. However, that type of environment can be a good place to hone your craft… to take all the chances you want… because nobody’s listening. You might as well raise Cain instead of trying to make “art.” Brew’s was like that at first. Waiters would DROP an armful of dishes into the tray stations smack in the middle of Kenny playing “Summertime” or “Danny Boy”- until I had a real serious talk with the owner. Very soon Ritchie Brew turned things around. He wanted Jazz in his place and he straightened these issues out with his staff. So “bockers” is still like the free-for-all monkey house it was because there is no policy of politeness going on from the TOP down. Too bad! Pay dues guys! mb

  8. Oh, do I miss Brew’s . . . had I known in 1974 what an oasis it was, I would have spent more nights there. But the ones I did spend are alive in my memory, thanks to MB!

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