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.