I’m not on the ‘jazz is dead’ bandwagon, but something that needs to die is how live jazz is presented. Everything about it is stale, old and gluttonous. I’ll explain why, but before I do, let me preface that statement with saying that I attend a lot of concerts and live shows, both for pleasure and work. I’ve seen a wide and varied sampling of what live shows are like, and jazz is always regurgitating cliches of the live experience that is over half a century old. It’s like live jazz is stuck in time. More akin to a museum artifact, than an actual living, breathing thing. I recently had a discussion about the problem with live jazz on twitter, and everyone agreed with me. I’ll list my points numerically.
1. You’re expected to be lazy and gluttonous. We still have this cliche of jazz being this thing where you come out, park your butt on a plush chair, order dinner and some wine, and then you leave. How lively can something be if you’re eating dinner with a performance? It’s one thing to have drinks, but this dinner thing is a holdover from the “supper clubs” of yore. The only thing that has changed is that you can’t smoke. I really don’t want to smell rump roast & salmon, or hear some guy chomping on his baby back ribs while I’m trying to enjoy a piano solo. Maybe that’s just me. Who really wants this? I won’t forget catching a Ron Carter show at the Blue Note a few years ago. The gentleman next to me was more focused on his hot plate, than the show itself. I kept wondering whether he realized that Ron Carter was on stage. He was more concerned with smacking his lips and licking his fingers. People always talk about the lack of interest in jazz, and there are a myriad of reasons from lack of education, to budget cuts in school music programs. Be that as it may, a concert where you’re ordering baby back ribs and a plate of hot wings will be a tired and gluttonous affair.
2. No standing room shows. I realize that most jazz venues are small, so this might not be practical in theory because of space issues, but I just want to say that the best live shows are always standing room, and that includes jazz. NYC is a jazz town, so there is a lot happening here. However, no one can deny that the liveliest time for non-stop jazz in NYC is during Winter Jazz Fest. It draws crowds, young crowds at that. We keep asking why we don’t see these people the rest of the year. I’ll tell you why. Apart from Winter Jazz Fest being a festival and a limited run, the shows are standing room only. Young people don’t go to concerts to sit down. The current model is only appealing to old people.
3. Price. Most people have no problems shelling out the dosh for live music. There is this meme that says jazz is expensive. It really isn’t. $20-$25 is a very small price to pay to see a quartet play live music in front of you. That’s around $5 per musician. In NYC, $20 can’t even pay for two movie tickets. The problem arises when clubs enforce their “minimum” policy for having a table. You have to buy dinner or buy a minimum number of drinks. If not, you’ll be relegated to the bar in the back where you won’t see anything. Those $20-$25 tickets can turn into over $100 easily if you have a date and you opt for a table, because you want to actually see the show. Knowing this, it’s really disingenuous to keep wondering why people stay away. Young people in particular. Let’s not feign ignorance about this. The mandatory food and drink prices are outrageous. Many people can’t afford it, especially in this economy. It’s not that there aren’t fans of this music. The turnout for the free jazz Summerstage concerts should tell you otherwise. Those are always packed. Money is the issue for many. Who wants to spend more on food and drinks they don’t want, than they did on the actual musical performance? I understand that venues need to make money, and it’s easy for me to have this opinion since I’m not in the precarious position that the club owners are in, but there are a few clubs that don’t serve food, and they seem to be doing fine. After buying tickets, telling me I need to buy your overpriced food and a minimum number of drinks just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m there for the music, not for supper.
4. Despite most jazz clubs being small and intimate venues, they still end up being impersonal. How could they not be with the way things are set up? It’s all rather monotonous. Nothing spontaneous will happen. It’s not very engaging for the performers or the audience. I already know what will happen before the show starts. The audience will sit down quietly, save for the loud eaters and people clanking ice in their drinks. They will politely clap on cue at the end of every solo, and that’s that. You can’t engage people who are eating. Anyone who does anything outside of said polite clapping will be looked at as a pariah. Heaven forbid the music touches you differently. Think of the jazz musicians making strides today like Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper. Yes, they still play the jazz clubs, but they have branched out beyond just local jazz clubs because they embraced the culture outside the jazz club paradigm, and it reflects in their work. They’ve performed on late night shows. How many current jazz musicians can say that? Robert Glasper can fill up an entire park. He did recently at his Summerstage performace at Marcus Garvey park. At Esperanza Spalding concerts, people sing, move and groove. In short, people act like they’re alive. Try that at your local jazz club, and see if they won’t tell you to stop, or even throw you out. That is the problem.