Jazz is Dead, Part 2: Performing Artists

We’ve previously discussed how poor programming choices on jazz radio are unintentionally sabotaging the medium’s noble mission to “keep jazz alive.” But terrestrial radio, an increasingly irrelevant distribution channel in the age of the Internet and satellites, isn’t the only culprit in our music’s alleged “death.” Some of jazz’s most effective assassins are the people who care most: the professional musicians.

In an age when fewer folks than ever are willing to pay for recorded music, the only way for a full-time jazz recording artist to earn a living is by touring, giving concerts, putting on shows, performing – being a performing artist.

Performing Artist: It’s a two-word job description. The majority of accomplished jazz musicians have no problem with the second part, the artistry thing. They’ve committed their life to learning and mastering a transcendent and mysterious magic replete with its own language, codes, and customs. They compose on-the-spot. They create. Jazz musicians are artists of the highest realm. Few of them, though, care enough about the first part, the seemingly less exalted imperative to put on a show. To perform.

Their disdain stems from an innate (and probably warranted) mistrust of “show business,” of an elemental (and probably warranted) disgust with a popular culture that tends to hear with its eyes and think with its genitals. When you make music that requires attention, concentration, and complete engagement, you’ve automatically narrowed your audience to the minority of sentient listeners for whom Twitter posts and Facebook updates aren’t reasons to live but a kind of obstreperous distraction. Yet even that dwindling demographic of thoughtful, observant listeners wants to be entertained – and transported, and thrilled, and provoked, and made to feel. They go to live jazz performances for some of the same reasons people go to pop, rock, country, hip-hop, and cabaret shows: for a performance. Otherwise they might as well stay at home and listen to their CDs.

With few exceptions, most jazz musicians don’t want to be pop stars, or, indeed, any kind of star. They want to be serious. We don’t begrudge this lofty impulse; we love jazz musicians for their determination to invent something meaningful and profound. In a debased culture where stars and celebrity – even the brazenly manufactured kind that requires no discernible talent – garner more interest from the average American than the power mongers who actually control our lives, a culture where the court jesters and fools have supplanted policymakers on the throne of public opinion, refusing to treat audiences with as much respect as the repertoire is a terrific strategy for making oneself increasingly irrelevant and ignored.

That’s cool if you want your art to be the chief sacrament of a dwindling hipster cult. But if you want jazz to grow and flourish, you’ve got to reach across the invisible Fourth Wall and touch people.

Connecting with the audience matters. Maybe more than anything. They haven’t come to the club or concert hall or amphitheater to absorb disembodied sounds. They bought a ticket because they want shamans and wizards, divas and charmers. They want someone to take control and guide them through a journey. They want to have an experience.

This doesn’t mean the performer must behave like a buffoon or stripper or cheese-ball canister. It means accepting the implicit contract between Actors and Observers. It means being private in public. It means sharing something real.

Many jazz musicians, however, wear their ineptitude onstage as a badge of honor, as evidence of their outsider status. They behave as though the congregation on the other side of the footlights doesn’t exist – or are an annoying impurity in the otherwise pristine process of making exalted music. Aside from punk rock, where contempt for everything is sui generis, in the jazz realm you’ll frequently witness “performers” shut their eyes, construct an imaginary box, and literally turn their back on the audience, sending the implicit message that what’s happening on stage is an elite conclave meant just for the cats. In jazz you’ll often see frontmen (and frontwomen) reading lyrics and chord charts, sometimes off a music stand planted in the center of the stage. There might be all sorts of good explanations for this unwieldy prop, but to consumers of live performances it looks like laziness: someone didn’t take the time to learn the song in advance.

Ticket-buying audiences are keenly attuned to nonverbal signals: Did the performer bother getting dressed? Did he comb his hair? Did she walk onstage like Diana Ross or like someone going grocery shopping? Casual presentations begets casual listening — which begets unengaged listeners who eventually find something more “interesting” on which to spend their concert-going dollars.

Stuff that’s unthinkable at a professionally mounted pop (or whatever) concert happens all the time in the jazz world. How many jazz shows have you attended in which the musicians huddle between tunes for a discussion of the repertoire – or to hand out under-rehearsed arrangements? How many times have you suffered through pregnant pauses and awkwardly mumbled announcements because no one on stage is ready to deliver the goods? To dedicated jazzheads, this kind of sloppy presentation has become expected, maybe even endearing in its naïf-like, “I’m an odd-meter-obsessed artist” ingenuousness. To new initiates or those not quite sure if they dig this whole jazz thing, amateurish stage conduct reads like disdain for the audience.

In just about every other segment of the Performing Arts, being unprepared to perform is tantamount to failure. Too many jazz musicians, focused on their flatted-fifths and diminished-sevenths, think it’s OK.

The marketplace is telling us it’s not.

Some of the most successful acts in the business (both in critical and commercial terms) prove that it’s possible to be both a performer and an artist: Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Barbara Morisson. They’ve got monster chops and loads of onstage charisma. Neither attribute dilutes the other; actually, these qualities augment and complement in a kind of aesthetic symbiosis that audiences, sophisticated or not, can instantly intuit. Successful performing artists know how to project their talent, to share it in a way that makes each audience member feel like the gift was meant just for them.

Learning how to perform as viscerally and directly as popular atists do is like learning an instrument: you have to practice (and maybe get coaching and direction). Casting a spell happens consciously. It’s a process. For jazz recording artists who genuinely wish to “keep jazz alive,” making a renewed commitment to connect with live audiences is crucial, maybe even mandatory. It’s the surest way to invigorate our music.

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3 Responses

  1. Alphonse Zaiser says:

    “Loving is not just looking at each other, it’s looking in the same direction.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  2. rechner says:

    To Rock, to roll, to put it all out there for an audience. Doesn’t matter the genre, you gotta give it all of your sould, 100%. Can’t be cool.

  3. blinks says:

    Jazz is supposedly an “intellectual” music, so most performers think its OK to be stuck in their head instead of in the audience’s crotch like pop music. Ever wonder why pop is more populer? Want to do your homework or make out? Jazz doesn’t have to be boring but it is too much of the time.