Give ’em Something to Grab On To

by Jason on June 10, 2009 · 4 comments

in Music, Thoughts

Jazz musicians love to talk about jazz. We talk about the history, the players, the theory and the future. It’s this last topic that sometimes leads to some heated discussions. I can’t tell you how many gigs I’ve been on with musicians both young and old where the topic of conversation invariably turns to the “state of jazz”. I’ve heard every opinion on this, from those who are loving the direction jazz is headed to those that think the music has basically died or stalled out. Granted, this is a worthwhile topic to consider. But more often than not this discussion turns into a bitch session and the conclusion is that we are doomed!

During a recent conversation of this nature, a fellow jazz musician was going on and on about how jazz has been marginalized and pushed out of the mainstream. He talked about how “back in the day” jazz was the popular music of the time and everyone listened to it. He wondered aloud why this wasn’t still the case, and then in the very next breath said “Jazz music requires the audience to have a slightly higher level of concentration.”

Well, there you go. Asked and answered. Any artform that requires higher level of concentration is not going to be mainstream. Most people want to be entertained and amused, not challenged and made to work. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a topic for a whole ‘nuther post. My point is that if even jazz musicians admit that the music we play is complex and daunting how can we expect the casual listener to find an entry point? If we’re playing music that is over people’s heads and not hipping them to what we are doing we will never have a mainstream audience. And I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing. What I am saying is that you can’t have it both ways.

If you play music that requires more of the listener and don’t give that listener something she can relate to you are not going to have a huge audience. However, I think you can play music for a huge audience that still offers something for those who want to dig deeper.

Did the Basie band require people to think? Did Nat Cole? Did Kind of Blue? Well, of course, for those who wanted to dig deep there was much to be explored. But most people don’t want to dig deep. They need to have something on the surface to connect to. And the artists who give their audience something to connect to while playing are the ones that end up with a large audience.

Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme are great examples of this. These are two very complex and rich jazz recordings, and they are also two of the best selling jazz records of all time. Why? Because they are complex? NO! Because both albums have the ability to connect with the listener, even if that listener doesn’t know that Miles was experimenting with modes or that Trane was experimenting with more harmonic freedom and group interplay. What connects is something much more on the surface…the emotion of the performances.

For me, connecting with an audience is not so much about what I’m playing, but how I’m playing it. Too many jazz bands stand on stage not moving, in rapt concentration, and ignore the fact that they are in front of an audience. When my band plays, we hoot, we holler, we have FUN with eachother. And our audiences respond. They respond to “Girl from Ipanema”, but they also respond to our originals.

One band that gets this is a Seattle trio called The Teaching (disclaimer: I am the band’s manager – but I use them as an example as a fan). These three cats are playing some seriously rich and complex music that darts in and out of genres, feels, time signatures, etc. Some of their songs can last 20 minutes! But through all of that they are expressing their pure emotional investment in the process. And that is palpable to the audience, whether they understand the theory behind it or not. I love seeing them play as much for the reactions they get from the audience as for the music itself. I have witness at every one of their shows a moment where someone in the audience goes from not paying attention to getting completely sucked into the moment. That is a powerful and beautiful thing.

Remember, it’s not called the Entertainment Business for nothing. Most people don’t want to have to concentrate, they want to be entertained. So play your music however you see fit, but if you want more audience, give them something they can grab on to emotionally, whether its the music or the presentation. Hook them in with your passion and love of the music and they will allow you to drop some seriously heavy music on them!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Durkin June 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Another really interesting post, Jason! Thanks!

I’ve been obsessed with the question of the things that are possible with (and the things that make possible) a large audience for music that is ostensibly “out” or “complex.” I see this as a practical question: a large project like mine needs a big audience to be sustainable — not to mention the fact that we play better in that context (as I’m sure most people do)!

Is emotion really the key to that sort of crossover? It definitely plays a role, I agree. Then again, most jazz musicians will probably tell you they work hard to invest their performances with emotion.

“Hooting and hollering” (by which I presume you also mean general “physical interaction” with a performance) is definitely part of it too — and yet, to take two of the examples you gave (Miles and Coltrane) I’m not aware of any footage of those guys doing that sort of thing. So is it the kind / intensity of emotion that comes through in their music that makes it work so well for the “average” or unschooled listener?

There is another element to this, I think, and I suspect it *does* have something to do with *what* you play (or, in my case, what I ask other people to play). To me, much of the fun of being a “postmodern jazz composer” (whatever that means) is to get as thorny as I can without simultaneously losing sight of my love for a pretty (or yes, even “hook-y”) melody, or a danceable beat, or a form that is succinct. This approach hasn’t exactly brought us fame and fortune yet, but it has resulted in people interacting with us in a way that I don’t often see at other “jazz” shows. So who knows…

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
June 11, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Hey Andrew,

Thanks for your comments! I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to my posts. My hope with this blog is to get a dialog going and I’m glad you’re along for the ride.

You are right that it’s not only the emotion that draws the casual listener in. There are many other factors. What’s worked for me is engaging the audience. But it sounds like what works for you is keeping sight of melody, which is a great way to hook the listener in. They don’t call ’em “hooks” for nothin’! What I’ve heard of your music could certainly be challenging to the casual listener, but even before your post I was struck with your use of hooks and melodies. Yours are the kind of songs that leave you with something to sing, even after one listen! That’s no small feat. Especially since sometimes you have counter-melodies going too.

One other thing I think you have going for you is that your band(s) are different. The instrumentation, the compositions, and I sense your shows are all unique. But through it all you write and play beautiful lines with a sense of fun to them. As cerebral as your compositions may be, the performance of them is filled with life and, yes, emotion!

Keep the responses coming!

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