Although I am not traditionally religious, I think jazz and creative improvisation are holy.

One of the great puzzlements for a devout jazz listener like myself is that some people in bars and clubs where musicians are playing talk through performances. 

Given the greater formality (and higher ticket prices) of a concert hall, this is less likely to happen.  Of course, there are the coughers and unwrappers of candy.  I once met an erudite devotee of classical music who told me that coughing in a concert hall was the response of those who could not endure that the artist was on the stage and that they were not.  To him, it was the revenge of the untalented, a belligerent assertion of their egos.

But in a club, where drinks, food, conversations are the rule, the talk flows freely.  This bothers me because I come to hear the music.  

I didn’t come to a club to hear someone hold forth about his diverticulitis.  In another context, I can sympathize, but I’d rather hear the band.  Although I celebrate romance, I don’t want to hear loud flirtations. 

But I know that the world is not my private salon, so I confine myself to eye-rolling and occasional grimaces.  Neither response is subtle or adult, I admit, but they are preferable to direct confrontation.  On rare occasions, when I am videotaping and am entrapped by loud talkers, I have said, as sweetly as possible, “I hate to bother you, but I am doing this for YouTube, and your conversation is going online.”  That usually works.

Some may perceive my behavior as that of a spoilsport, and I apologize if I have ever really ruined someone’s fun.  But I think that some of the rudeness I encounter is cultural ignorance.  If you and your Beloved make a pilgrimage to The Ear Inn or Carnegie Hall at a specific time to hear a particular group of players, that establishes a purpose.  You might not be silent, but you understand what paying attention means. 

But I think that many people are looking for a place to have a beer, a burger, and a chat.  They choose a likely-looking bar.  And — surprise! — there’s live music.  Five or six people are playing jazz.  I imagine the interior monologue, “Live music?  What’s that?  Do I have to stop talking simply because there are people with instruments over there?  Hey, fellows, pipe down so that I can hear what Charles has to say!”

But live musicians are not human versions of Muzak or an iPod, and they deserve respect and love for what they are attempting for our pleasure and theirs.   

I won’t fulminate about the silent yet tangible disrespect afforded artists by those people — not always young — who hunch over their iPhones and text throughout the evening while the players are performing.  I want to ask such people, “Why did you leave your apartment if that was all you wanted to do?”  I know that the club or bar provides — in its lights and population and rustling — a semblance of community hard to find otherwise, which I think is sad — a subject for another meditation.

Then there are the people who talk loudly through the whole performance only to whoop loudly at the end.  How much can they have heard, even given their splendid multitasking?

What I’ve written isn’t purely Luddite.  Sixty years ago, when John Hammond, who loathed Hazel Scott, conspicuously read his newspaper while she was playing, it was an equally distasteful, even aggressive act of contempt.

In conversations now and in the past that I’ve had with musicians, I thought, perhaps stubbornly, that they would agree.  Perhaps they would be even more irate.  Improvisers, creating beauty, working hard, deserve respect, and respect was shown in listening: being present, paying attention. 

But I have been surprised.  I submit for your consideration the voices of three respected musicians with whom I’ve spoken in the past weeks about the subject.  My question — or statement — usually runs, “Gee, that woman who insisted on singing along with the band / the couple who were drunk and loud / the guy arguing with his date . . . doesn’t it drive you crazy?”

Musician 1:  “Yes, he / she / they were loud, but that’s OK.  I don’t want to play in total silence.  If I screw up or make a mistake because I’m taking a chance, then it’s not like everyone hears it.  A little noise is OK: it’s relaxing.”

Musician 2:  “I heard the woman singing BLUE SKIES along with me, but that’s fine.  I like people to be talking and having a good time.  It doesn’t bother me.”

Musician 3: “I never let that bug me too much.  They were out to party and didn’t know what we were planning so what the heck.  The other thing I’ve learned — it’s a good thing the clubs don’t count on the spending of the dedicated “listeners” to pay for the band.”

The first comment is self-protective.  The jazz club isn’t a recording studio — silent, nearly sterile, where every inhalation can be heard, every imperfect note saved for posterity.  If the audience is chatting, then Musician 1 is free, relaxed: if no one is listening hyper-closely, it’s easier to experiment, to take chances.

The second comment might sound rueful, reisgned — the jazz player’s version of the Serenity Prayer: adapt to the circumstances you can’t change — but it was said to me with the sweetest of smiles, no irony, no edge.  Music, for this player, creates a loving atmosphere, so it would be futile or unkind to force people into silence.  

The third comment echoes the first two but highlights a truth that many clubowners and bartenders know.  Some jazz-lovers (although there are certainly exceptions) are so intent on the music that they forget or don’t care to spend money on food and drinks.  To Musician 3, reverent silence means less in the cash register and the band isn’t invited back. 

Two small codas need to be stated here in the name of accuracy and candor.  One is that musicians chat among themselves while on the stand during someone else’s solo.  Jokes, everyday chatter about the car repair, about getting one’s horn fixed, about the lousy meal just consumed, are part of the gig, perhaps to break up the long spaces when someone else is playing.  When I went to the last “Eddie Condon’s,” it took me a long time to get used to the undercurrents of dialogue on the stand.  I was hardly about to attempt to shush Ruby Braff. 

And if you listen to the recordings of radio broadcasts: “Dr. Jazz” at Eddie Condon’s; the Ellington band at the Cotton Club; Fats Waller at the Yacht Club, Bird and Diz at the Royal Roost — the audience is not shouting, but they are audible, they’re shifting in their seats, quietly chatting. 

Was there ever a properly hushed environment in which the holy art of jazz could flourish?  Or is my desire for near-silence — the better to hear the glories of the music — unrealistic?  I wonder.  I dream of a club or bar filled with people who love the music as much as I do and are as a result quiet . . . but until that happens I think I’ll have to learn the lesson of patience and save my glaring for the truly egregious cases of high-decibel rudeness.

9 responses to “A LITTLE SOFTER, PLEASE?

  1. Great points! Playing for dances in particular can be especially noisy. Recently a fellow musician asked me: “have you noticed that when your band plays the sound of the din in the hall is considerably less than with other bands?” He concluded that since we avoid direct in-puts and individual mic’ing of all the instruments, that the crowds appeared to have adjusted their noise level to match the quieter music and that people were more attentive. I think it might also be because people are used to talking over music that comes out of speakers all the time, but they’re more likely to pay attention to acoustic sounds. It seems to me like this is sort of like whispering a secret – sometimes when you say it softly people are more anxious to hear.

  2. Right! The American author and editor William Maxwell (a subtle quiet prose master) once gave a speech at Smith College (I think) and he was a quiet speaker to begin with. At some point in his talk, he said, “It would help if you would give what I am about to tell you only half your attention,” and the audience leaned in even closer to catch the nuances. However, some “listeners” are so caught in their own little enthusiastic ego-spheres that they would drown out Freddie Green and Walter Page, which is a horrible blasphemous thought. Cheers, Michael

  3. Michael —- You could fill a book with this subject, but the definitive experience for me was at Condon’s, with Jackie Williams playing a fingers only drum solo and the crowd slowly, but surely, hushing conversation, to be magically enthralled by the quiet musical elegance of his mastery. What an experience; what a musician!!!

  4. I believe your love of jazz is difficult for some people to understand. Just the amount of love. Being someone who wakes up every morning and puts on a record of Ben Pollack, I understand your pain, if I may call it as such. It is absolutely frustrating having people who talk through the whole performance, and it’s even worse when they laugh through the whole thing. At least it’s that way when I’m in the audience. But when you’re up on the band stand doing a solo or an improv, you tend not to mind too much. And I agree with your analyzing of Musician 2’s comment. Music is meant to change the mood of a room, of people, and it is meant to create a sense of community. Jazz and Big Band are genres that seem geared towards that area specifically. So with that in mind, I must refrain from a moan or two during people’s chit-chat during a performance, even if it internally kills me to do so.

  5. Barbara Bengels

    Personal restraint seems to be a thing of the past–if it ever existed at all (and I know I’m sounding like the old fogey I am.) Two generations have now grown up with a television in their living rooms (and maybe their kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms!) so that it’s the norm to talk throughout entertainment. But of course it’s a very different situation if you’re sharing the room with the artist who is trying to perform his art for you. Recently I’ve been in two similar situations which have dumbfounded me. One was at a jazz concert where the conductor had to chide his performers very publicly because they were so rude to him. He might very well have needed to do so (I wasn’t close enough to the stage to hear what had just been said) but it was very awkward to be in the audience for such a public chastising. More recently I was in a theater watching a very fine performance during which members of the audience walked in and out as though they were in a club or bar, talked amongst themselves, received calls on their cellphones which they didn’t seem to know how to answer (you can guess the average age of the audience), and in general behaved in such a manner that I would have been embarrassed if I had a child with me; my children have always been taught what proper theater etiquette requires. So what’s the answer? We live in a society in which the athlete is king–and too many of us are starting to act as though we belong in a sports arena–a Coliseum filled with barbarians.

  6. Really? The conductor had to quiet the band?!? I just scream at people before a performance so they shut up during a performance. It’s a wonderful trick for young musicians….

  7. Destiny, you dangerous thing, you . . . !

  8. Agustín Pérez

    I’m afraid Charlie Mingus wouldn’t have agreed with your musicians 1, 2 & 3!


  9. Yes, sir! I myself was surprised at their mild sweet enlightened acceptance (and saddened by the last comment — that jazz lovers were too focused on the music to do the basic things like buying food and drinks that kept clubs in business). I know what Mingus would have told the yappers, vehemently and at length. A friend of mine (who has commented to me in private) says that a finger on the lips with a smile does wonders, but I think that only works up close. Alas, alas, and alas – – – but every good wish to you!

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