3 April 2013


Today I am Mr. Grumpy.

The Band is playing Margie. They have started with a couple of ensemble choruses. Now it's the turn for the clarinet player to give us his 32-bar improvised solo. But, as soon as he begins, the trumpet player turns to talk to the trombonist, and a moment later they both guffaw with laughter at some private joke, distracting our attention from the music. I can tell you that, in England, this sort of thing frequently happens.  I don't know whether it's the same in other countries.

It is bad manners. I suspect it is even one of the reasons why some people lose interest in attending traditional jazz performances.

It is bad manners to both the audience and the other members of the band, because the message it gives is 'The music these other chaps are playing is so uninteresting that we might as well talk among ourselves.'

Even the 'private joke' aspect is bad manners. If there is something really funny to be said, it should be said between tunes and shared with the audience.

I'm getting all this off my chest because a correspondent (who is not himself a musician) told me how irritating it can be to an audience.

Of course, talking is excusable if it is simply the leader quietly giving an instruction, such as 'Take the next chorus'; but even this can be done discreetly, usually with a signal rather than words.

In a certain great young American band (you know the one I mean) the only words you may notice are signals such as 'Threes!' (rhythm players to play only the first three beats of each bar) or 'Top!' (go back to the first theme).

Players should concentrate on the music - and that includes listening appreciatively to their colleagues. If they expect the audience to listen, surely the members of the band should set an example? We need to demonstrate that we care about the music.

But to end on a slightly less grumpy note, I must tell you about one recent occasion when 'talk' within a band was both excusable and amusing.

It was a gig in a hall where nobody was listening to the band. The entire 'audience' was at the other end of the hall, watching a football match on a giant TV screen. But the band had been booked to play. So they soldiered on. Confronted by such indifference, the string bass player - a very droll fellow - while still pumping out the bass line behind the clarinet solo said to the rest of the Band in a weary, plaintive voice: 'What is the meaning of life? Why are we all here? What is God's purpose for us on Earth? Perhaps life has no meaning.'

By the way, the very best audiences for traditional jazz are bovine.
You will know this if you have ever seen this famous video:
Click here to watch.