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!