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.



  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention THE VIEW FROM THE BANDSTAND, by A.N. OTHER | JAZZ LIVES --

  2. Hi Michael, Sorry, I have to take issue with some of your comments. You are obviously not a musician but a critic and a good one at that, but critics as the saying goes can’t do, can’t teach , and so critique. Musicians do play for pleasure but the good ones do not play purely for fun. It might be a blast to sit in with a good band ( like the bands that you showcase at the Ear Inn) but those guys would rather be playing a paid gig, I’m sure. This sad occurrence happens enough here in New England als0. Especially with all the music schools here. (Berklee College of Music has been contacting all the big hotels in Boston offering them free entertainment from their students just so the students can get some experience playing live jazz gigs).I am 64 years old and a multi-millionare and I didn’t get t0 this position in life by sitting in and letting other inferior musicians sitting in. P.S. Losing ones virginity has nothing to do with music performance. I lost my innocence with a Cherokee Indian in 1967 and I have been losing my my musical and jazz virginity ever since. Best regards, Lee Childs

  3. Hi again Michael, Sorry, I sort of lost my train of thought on the last post. Yes, I have had to discipline band members for mouthing off in the middle of someone else’s solo (including mine) and it is a problem and a matter of etiquite and respect
    among all musicians.

  4. Just for the sake of accuracy, Lee, the writer of the previous posting is a professional musician, a real person, not me pretending to be a musician. MS

  5. Sigh, indeed. Guitarist Dawes Thompson called this “front line chauvinism.” I believe a theory of “the circle of response” starts among the musicians themselves, and expands outwards to include a listening, sensitive audience, an incredible experience. If the audience is talking, or indifferent, the “circle” remains with the musicians, and can be an even greater experience.

  6. The content on this article is really a single of the most beneficial material that I’ve ever occur across. I love your publish, I’ll occur back to verify for new posts.

  7. How about some honest comments regarding musicians’ views on accompanying vocalists!

  8. NOW we’re in dangerous territory, aren’t we? But it depends on the source of the comments, perhaps. Cheers, MS

  9. I must comment on the arrogance and elitist attitude of the writer/musician. I quote, “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 writer makes the assumption that there are two kinds of people: knowledgeable and those who don’t know good from bad (and can’t be changed). What about the novice, the patron who is there to learn, the individual who is invited by a connaisseur so that he (the novice) can be educated, broaden his horizons? Certainly, it must be great to play for other appreciative musicians, but it must be also great to play for people who have no knowledge of the music and to help them discover new musical treasures. Also, it is important to play for those who have misconceptions and teach them right.

    Before I retired, I was a scientist/educator. I certainly enjoyed talking to an audience of my fellow sicentists, discuss my new research findings: they were highly appreciative of the new discoveries. But I also enjoyed tremendously teaching a class of freshmen, helping them discover a whole new world of knowledge. Granted, many (if not most) in the class were unresponsive, bored, but that was part of the challenge, reawaken in them the spirit of curiosity.

    Similarly, if the audience is uneducated, in my opiniion, it is the mission of the musician to guide them, to open new horizons for them, to explain what they are playing and why they are playing it.

    Many jazz critics have been discussing the question , “Is jazz dying?” Attiudes such as that of the writer/musician accelerate the demise of this most precious art form. It seems to me that an educational approach to playing jazz would be a lot more constructive than the arrogant attitude “smile blandly and say “Thanks.” While doing so they fight the urge to roll their eyes.” The latter attitude is highly defeatist and that is not what music is all about.

  10. “It never entered my mind”- Having had the good fortune to be on bandstands with some pretty wonderful musicians in every set of circumstances one can imagine, all covered quite well above, I never saw one of them become bothered by what was happening around them. Why? They were so focused on what they were doing. The busboy might drop dishes into the tray at the pickup station- Joe Thomas was unfazed as he climbed into the upper register on “When You’re Smiling.” “Doc” Cheatham would be singing “But Beautiful” and the hostess’ interruption to call a customer name… “Jones, party for 4, your table is ready”… would never interrupt HIS song. There you go… stay focused. Play your instrument. “Don’t Let It Bother You” said Fats. Paula? My view is: I love to accompany vocalists. (a few to mention: Helen Humes, Maxine Sullivan, Susannah McCorkle, Laurel Watson, Nancy Nelson)- Try me. Sensitively Yours.

  11. Dear Albert,

    You are within your rights to depict the attitude of this professional musician (someone I respect) as “arrogance,” but I must quietly suggest that the experience of people who actually play music for a living, to real audiences, is in essence different from the experience of the observer. By profession I am an educator as well, and I support the idea that artists might well wish to enlighten their audiences — but I think they have enough to do on the bandstand, playing soulfully and creatively. On that bandstand, teaching is done by elevating example . . . and if you go to a jazz club and the musicians “guide” and “explain” — this might be a wonderful experience, but short of jazz parties that offer lectures on the music, it is not a common experience. However, onwards! Cheers, Michael

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