25 July 2015


Why is it that many people like to talk - often at the tops of their voices - while some of the world's greatest and most creative musicians are playing sublimely only a few yards away? Audiences would not do this at a concert of classical chamber music. (And traditional jazz, in my view, is a branch of chamber music.)

Yes, members of traditional jazz audiences can be strange. I am reminded of audience behaviour I have noticed in the past.

You often come across someone who gives a band-leader a 'request' and then walks away, gets into a conversation and doesn't bother to listen when the band plays the tune.

I'm also surprised that some people who claim to be 'jazzers' or 'jazz buffs' are unable to recognise even the most common tunes from the traditional jazz repertoire.

A revealing incident occurred when I was playing in an English pub with just three other musicians: we were clarinet, cornet, banjo, string bass.

A gentleman called out, 'How about giving us South Rampart Street Parade?' Our leader replied, 'It's really a big band number. It's a tune that needs a trombone - and we haven't got one. If we try it, it won't sound good. And in any case we've never played it together before.'

So we ignored the request and played the next tune in our programme - The Darktown Strutters Ball. When we finished it, the same gentleman stood up, applauded loudly and said, 'There you are! You can play South Rampart Street Parade! Don't ever tell me again that you can't play it!'

I'm also often surprised when there is some really poor playing and yet the audience applauds heartily. For example, some member of the band takes a 32-bar solo chorus in which he obviously makes a few mistakes, hits some horrible notes, loses the harmony for a bar or two and knows very well that the sounds he is making are far from what he is attempting to make. And yet the audience still applauds at the end of the solo. It seems to be ritualistic rather than truly appreciative.

Similarly, when at the end of a mediocre performance I hear people giving it high praise, I sometimes wonder whether we have been listening to the same music. What exactly have they been hearing?

Conversely, isn't it strange how unresponsive some audiences can be, even when terrific traditional jazz is being played?
Friend and fellow trumpet player Richard Boswell from the south of England asked me to have a look at a YouTube video of Rod Mason's Band playing Grandpa's Spells in Germany. The year was 1986. It is a lively well-drilled and well-arranged performance, technically brilliant. And yet, as Richard pointed out, the audience (of whom we see quite a lot) looks uninterested, uninvolved and unresponsive. They almost look as if they are attending a funeral. (To be fair, there is just a hint at the end of the video they they were at least going to applaud.)
All this reminds me of an incident that occurred in April 1993. I was in New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival with a party of 40 jazz fans (members of The Ken Colyer Trust) from the U.K. Quite a few treats were included in our programme. One of these was a Sunday Jazz Brunch in a top hotel - the Westin. Right beside us, as we dined, a superb band led by Clive Wilson was providing rich entertainment. His band included some of the very best musicians playing traditional jazz anywhere in the world at that time.

But I noticed that very few people in the restaurant - even among our own party - were paying attention to the music. There came a point when Clive launched into West End Blues and gave us the full Armstrong version - effortlessly (it seemed) playing that amazing opening cadenza and then even playing beautifully all the high-note stuff in the later choruses. It is no exaggeration to say it was sensationally good. Yet, at the end, nobody took any notice. I was the only person in the entire restaurant who applauded. 
Clive Wilson

When the band took a break, I had a word with Clive, mainly to say how sorry I was and to offer a kind of apology on behalf of all the customers. Clive graciously told me not to worry. He said the musicians were accustomed to that sort of thing.

It is a measure of how much the incident disappointed me that I still remember it so well.

Henry - a banjo and keyboard player in Princeton, New Jersey, has emailed me to say his band (The Hot Taters) does its best to hold the audience's attention by marching in at the start (and out at the end) and by wearing flamboyant capes, masks and hats. He says the audience responds to this and the musicians consequently play better; and everybody enjoys themselves more: