Daily Archives: December 13, 2010


A professional jazz musician who wishes to remain anonymous sends these thoughts:

Context matters.  The jeans you wear to weed the garden won’t do for the dinner party later.  When it comes to people talking while jazz musicians play, so much depends on the setting of the gig.  Chatter may not upset the musicians as you might imagine.  The majority of jazz gigs happen in casual settings among people who have come out for a good time with their friends, something to eat and drink. Most sensible musicians accept those circumstances as part of doing business.  Beyond being artists, remember, they’re usually also trying to earn a living. 

If it is a formal concert, or one of those rare occasions where people in the audience show knowledge, taste, and appreciation and are really listening, then yes, the band does become totally engaged. They will play their hearts out. 

They understand and sometimes even welcome, the concept of being “background music.”  Any musician can suffer an “off “night and some regular gigs can even start to feel like a job, especially if there’s discomfort (too hot, too cold, too crowded, a lousy sound man, no monitors through which to hear each other, etc.) that drives them nuts. We can all relate to one person you quoted who implied that a noisy crowd can cover up an occasional mistake and help the musician feel less exposed or scrutinized.

But I believe musicians, if they’re honest, really play for each other and focus less on the crowd. What they don’t want to admit, since it sounds ungrateful, is that they sometimes feel disdain for the audience anyway. I don’t mean for educated and appreciative listeners.  I mean the “usual crowd.”  The ones who expect and demand all their favorite worn-out standards and get irritated if the band plays something obscure. The ones who come up with tears in their eyes at the end of the lousiest number the band ever played, a disastrous number in which everything went wrong, and blubber, “That was the best thing I’ve ever heard!”  At that point the musicians, even as they try not to beat themselves up, smile blandly and say “Thanks.” While doing so they fight the urge to roll their eyes. What more compelling evidence that the audience generally doesn’t know good from bad?  How sad.  It means maybe all those hours of practice and study, listening to old recordings, plus years of experience, didn’t count for anything. But they’ll add this bit of wrongheaded praise to the list of other depressing realities.  For instance, a gig will often just go to the lowest bidder regardless of ability, and the people in charge usually know nothing except what they think brings in money. Cynicism looms on the horizon.

So why does anyone play music?  I believe musicians play for their own pleasure and for each other. There’s nothing like the feeling of being in a hot combo. Nothing means more to them than a positive review from their peers, the people whose intelligence and opinion they value. Such praise means more than money. Musicians would play for free if they knew the night’s playing would be a blast.

Also, musicians keep hoping for that next high. Certain gigs are unforgettable, like the night they lost their virginity. They just want to lose themselves again in the magic of those elusive moments when it’s all so seductively RIGHT. 

But what about rudeness among band members themselves?  This applies to a minority of front line musicians, but it happens way too often.  I would guess that some otherwise nice people in the front line would be shocked to learn that the rhythm section resents the way the horn players talk right through a rhythm section solo, on the rare occasion that anyone in the rhythm section gets a solo. Some rhythm section players suspect that solos are granted to them just to give the front line a chance to lay back and gab for 16 or 32 bars. After all, rhythm players are just there to serve their needs, right?  Members of the rhythm section have told me that they love the horn players who turn around, watch and listen, even step aside so the audience can see them. They show respect, appreciating the backbone of the band. But then there are others, the arrogant ones, who never shut up, even if you’re pouring your heart and soul into your best improvisation ever on some quiet ballad.