Most musicians I know working in New York City are doing it several times a week – they bring all their passion, expertise and chops to play and effectively be ignored at a party, restaurant, or a particularly boisterous club. In the rooms I sing in, there’s usually a table somewhere having a conversation or a canoodle, as well as some folks completely listening and responding to what’s happening on the bandstand. It hasn’t come to a barroom brawl yet, but the listening types are usually dismayed at the lack of attention from the others. And then there’s the question of the music – does it change depending on who’s listening and how well?
I recently attended an event where there was a band hired – I could tell they did this kind of thing often – get paid (my guess is a lot) to make some vaguely groovy background music until the party gets going, and then they launch into some Motown hits. I tuned in as they listlessly played bossa novas and slept-walked through standards, and thought to myself: this is what happens to musicians who play with the expectation that nobody’s listening.
But listening they are – if you’re a musician who’s ever gotten a compliment from the cocktail waitress or server at the venue you just played, it’s almost better than a critic’s five stars. They are talking through most of your set, doing their job, but they know when something sounds good, and can feel the change of energy in the room when something’s swinging. The less musically aware guest just knows that their night out felt special, energized – even if they didn’t know what tunes you played.
This also makes me reflect on performance practices in history. Going to the opera used to be a very social occasion: you’d have conversation throughout the evening, perhaps have a box to consort with your friends or lovers – you could even pull the curtain on it to make your rendezvous more private. If we take it back to the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s day, I daresay it was a rare breed that would listen to every word – you were too busy as a rowdy peasant in the yard, or as one of the upper set who would kick them for entertainment from the next gallery level. Examples of this now unthinkable audience behavior follow the history of our greatest performing arts: is it any accident that the art forms we’re always lamenting as ‘dying’ are also usually performed in an atmosphere of quiet reverence today?
Jazz was birthed out of communal ritual, dance, worship and celebration. It belongs in Carnegie Hall too, yes, but fundamentally it will never die because it is part of the social fabric of this country (and now many others). Jazz can be an event, but it’s also in the background; part of the air we breathe (and sometimes, that means it’s minded just about as much.)
For the record, I love playing to an attentive audience – there’s a synergy there that crackles with possibility and spontaneity, and allows me to hear and feel what’s happening around me much better. To my mind, the attention between artist and audience goes beyond sound, and is what makes a musical experience move to the realm of the sacred. That said, I want to play wherever I can – and a buzzing bar or dining establishment feels more vital and real than many halls other music has been relegated to.
Mark Twain’s famous quote starts with “Sing as if nobody’s listening…” – I prefer to think it better to sing as if somebody always is.
Are you a performer that disagrees? Do the challenges of performing at non-listening rooms outweigh the benefits? I’d love to hear your thoughts, audience or musician.