Audience Participation – Gimme Some Mo’

written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column

I sometimes wonder if jazz needs a competition akin to the Olympics in order to move towards meritocracy in the field. The competition categories might be: harmonic inventiveness, time feel, solo structure – One thing I’d bet all jazz musicians would agree on is that audiences could use a handbook, especially those at casual venues.

It is seriously not easy for musicians to come to terms with the fact that many audience members at casual jazz engagements are not there to enjoy the music. In the Chicagoland area there are a fair number of establishments that are primarily bars or restaurants but that also offer music. According to a recent study done by the Chicago Music Commission on the economic impact of Chicago music, our city ranks fourth in the nation in its number of small venues and clubs, two percent of which are jazz venues. Before you get all negative, that percentage is comparable to New York (2.6) and surprisingly, Chicago beats out New York three-to-two in small venues per thousand people. (Incidentally, not surprisingly, New Orleans doubles Chicago in number of jazz clubs, as does Atlanta.)

Being a transplanted New Yorker, I’m still amazed when live jazz is offered for no cover charge. I’ve also been struck by some customers’ hesitancy in paying even the most nominal cover charges. Could it be that the lack of cover charge has conditioned patrons in certain ways? Does not charging customers lessen the credibility of musicians and their music? No doubt, there’s an ignorance and lack of awareness and understanding in the general public (through no real fault of their own) of just what jazz music is – that it’s an art form with a uniquely American cultural history; and that it is also a commodity that can provide entertainment for listening, dancing or general mood setting. But as it stands, most people probably don’t think of any of these things when they think of jazz. I’d love to know what some of them are thinking when they walk into a place and there’s a jazz band playing.

Last night at the Green Mill (one of Chicago’s most popular and well-known jazz clubs) three young ladies in their twenties walked in. It was late and we were playing our last ten-or-so minutes. The girls decided to sit right up front next to the stage, where I could hear their conversation and they could hear my grunting and groaning. Of course, they had to shout to hear each other over the music, so the question is: if you know you’re going to talk… a lot… then why choose to sit in that spot? The girls did come around after a few minutes, quieting down during a guitar solo (maybe it was the groaning or facial contortions!). Then the band hooked them with Michael Jackson’s old hit, “The Way You Make Me Feel.” One of them wanted to sing, but fortunately wasn’t so lubricated that she would press the issue or try to come up on stage.

I believe that it is a customer’s responsibility to assess an entertainment situation and behave accordingly. It is a common courtesy to fellow customers as well as to the musicians to not be a disturbance, especially if there are individuals (even if there are only two or three) who seem to be intently focused on the musicians on the stage.

One pet peeve I have is when folks approach the bandstand with questions or requests during the middle of a tune. Believe it or not, I’ve had people come up and try to talk to me during a guitar solo! Sometimes in these casual social settings customers feel entitled to certain “services” that they feel the musicians- “the band” -should provide for them. They want to hear their favorite tune, or the birthday song for their friend, or their “sister’s a singer, can she sing a tune?”. It’s a bandleader’s responsibility to gauge when to acquiesce and when to decline in these situations; and sometimes we’ll make mistakes in these situations too.

If there were such a thing as an audience/customer manual, a general rule would be: don’t treat the musicians like you own them unless you do. If you’ve hired them to play your wedding or social function, then have at it! Sure, your aunt can sing as many tunes as she’d like and the hired music should be whatever you want it to be. But in a club, or even a bar or restaurant, where you are fortunate enough to have the gift of music provided gratis, please don’t be demanding or condescending to the musicians. Realize that these are performers who have most likely worked really hard to prepare for this presentation. If you aren’t aware or don’t care who they are, or what they are playing be mindful that perhaps someone else does care about them and/or their music.

Musicians, like everyone else, want to feel appreciated. It is a precarious position that we are placing ourselves in when we occupy the stage in order to make an offering to an audience. We know that we are risking the possibility of rejection, but we hope that we will be able to connect with you–that you will like and even appreciate what we do. Because I’ve been fortunate to play such a wide range of venue types and for such a long time, I’ve become somewhat conditioned, learning that various stages will yield different responses. When I’m playing in a bar or restaurant I don’t expect much attention, especially compared to a club or concert hall. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want it – But I’ve found that this low expectation serves me well, and the fact that the intention behind my performance remains constant no matter the setting works for me as well.

Finally, this is obvious stuff, but it bears repeating: The most rewarding thing that musicians can receive is your applause. If for whatever reason that is not doable, respect will do.