In my previous articles in this series I've focussed on decorum and
presentation from the perspective of the performer, and now it's time
to address the social niceties of the listener attending a jazz gig. This
applies equally to those of you who can't even manage to play "Danny
Boy" on the kazoo as well as experienced musicians who find themselves
attending the performances of fellow artistes - though had they paid more
attention to the previous articles and smartened up a bit they might find
they had rather more work and a bit less time to hang around seedy jazz
clubs in the hope of procuring a few gigs of their own.
Before you can attend a jazz gig you must first find one. This isn't
as easy as it sounds, both in terms of finding out where jazz is being
played and actually finding the venue. Jazz is a 'high art form', which
in plain English means there's no money in it. Ordinarily this would be
a huge drawback, but as jazz aficionados relish a degree of exclusivity
the fact that gigs are rarely advertised in any kind of publication that
the average person is likely to read simply adds kudos to the genre. In
fact the only way to find out where the majority of jazz gigs are 'going
down' is to attend one and pick up a copy of a jazz gig guide. That this
is a paradox is neither here nor there, it's just the way it is.
Having successfully overcome this hurdle you now face the prospect of
having to find the various venues. Very few jazz gigs will be held in
flashy bars and clubs, and the traditional image of a drab door down a
poorly lit alley, upon which you must knock three times and wait for the
face of a swarthy gentleman to appear from behind a small sliding panel
after which you can exclaim that "Bill sent you" before being
allowed into the club pretty much stands today - although the swarthy
gentleman is more likely to be a spotty teenager and Bill is now Bazza.
Finding these obscure alleys and unmarked doors is very hard, and once
again the best way to find them is to go there in the first place (don't
forget to pick up a jazz gig guide while you're there).
Once you've found out where the gigs are you then have to decide what
sort of jazz you're going to listen to. Within the genre itself there
are many sub-genres, each with its own unique style - and the choice you
make depends largely upon how erudite and artistic you wish to appear.
Like any other form of music the listener is expected to adhere to a semi-informal
dress code, and although wearing the wrong attire is unlikely to result
in your being beaten up (as might happen if you wore a 'hoodie' to a heavy
rock gig) you might well find it very difficult to get served at the bar.
One thing is certain though, the wearing of a hat will get you into almost
any jazz gig save for smooth jazz - where you'd be better off with a perm
and a cardigan.
To help you decide I have compiled a modest list of all the major sub-genres
of jazz, along with a few descriptive notes that will let you know what
Types of jazz:
- New Orleans - The earliest form of jazz, born out of suffering and
pain. These days it's the audience who bears the suffering and pain.
- Trad - Like New Orleans, but with less beer and more misery.
- Swing - A form of jazz played by those who are too young to play trad,
but not good enough to play anything else.
- Bebop - Based on the principle that the more notes you play, the more
likely it is that you'll hit the right ones given enough time.
- Mainstream - Easy listening, while sitting on an uncomfortable chair.
- West coast - As Mainstream, but with more drugs.
- Progressive - Played by musicians who ought to know better, but sometimes
- Acid jazz - Prog rock with a horn section.
- Avant Garde - Also known as 'avant garde a clue'.
- Smooth jazz - Barry Manilow playing a trumpet.
- Crossover - Played by a group of musicians who can't find anyone else
to play with and only one of whom has a car.
Although there are no formal arrangements for seating at a jazz gig there
are nonetheless a number of 'unspoken rules' by which you must abide should
you not wish to be thought of as an oik. To simply turn up at the venue
and commandeer what appears to be the choicest seat in the house is a
no-no far greater than wearing blue suede shoes to a state funeral.
The first two rows (of seats or tables) are for tourists and pretenders
- the former who will chatter incessantly throughout the gig and the latter
who will try to appear to be concentrating intently on the music, usually
with their eyes firmly closed. They are, in fact, asleep. If you observe
them carefully you will note that they never begin a round of applause,
rather they are awakened by the noise of clapping, will join in briefly
so as not to appear to have been dozing and will then drop off to sleep
again as soon as the band begins to play.
The middle rows are where the real listeners sit, though even here there
is a hierarchy to be observed. For 'trad jazz' gigs the longer the beard
the closer to the front your seat may be and for modern jazz it's the
width of your lapels that determines your position - wider to the front,
narrower to the rear.
The wearing of a beret gives you 'wild card' status, and you may sit wherever
The rear rows are for everyone else, notably fellow musicians who have
typically arrived late, drunks and anyone who isn't wearing a jacket or
sporting a beard. More often than not the last two categories are held
by the first.
If you have to stand at a jazz gig it will be because there is bingo afterwards
and most people are there early to get a good seat.
It can ( and indeed should ) be said that if you find listening to jazz
fun then you don't really understand it.
The whole point of attending a jazz gig is to demonstrate to your friends
and colleagues that you're a cut above the run-of-the-mill people who
prefer to listen to more structured forms of music, and that your preference
implies intelligence, courage, wit and sagacity.
Some listeners like to give the appearance of enjoying themselves by means
of tapping their feet or nodding their head in time with the music. The
careful observer will be able to spot the more experienced listener by
the rhythmic patterns of their extremities - a newcomer will generally
start off with tapping out the first and third beat of the bar with a
foot whereas a more accomplished listener will favour the second and forth
The hardened listener will intersperse a nod of the head with a tap of
the foot, and in certain fast pieces or those with complex time signatures
it can lend them the appearance of a barefooted man stepping repeatedly
on a barbecue.
You may notice a number of listeners filling out small cards from time
to time during the course of the performance. These will be 'Quote Cards'.
The principle is simplicity itself - every jazz musician quotes from time
to time, which is to say that they include small snippets from popular
standards within the body of their solos, or indeed sections from notable
solos from other musicians. Many years ago the practice of quoting merely
provided a little amusement for the audience, but as it's human nature
to collect and observe such trivialities it soon became something of a
hobby for a large number of listeners. It is thought that the practice
originated in the 1960s, when John Coltrane's influence on jazz was at
its peak. Barely a solo would be played without one of Coltrane's eponymous
riffs being quoted, and as listeners became more aware of the practice,
so began the business of noting down when and where such quotes were played,
and by whom. To this day those who fill out quote cards at gigs are known
as 'Trane Spotters.
Should you wish to join in you can obtain your cards by contacting the
Musician's Union. Simply state the name of the artist you intend to follow
and ask for their quote card. This will contain a list of tunes the artist
is known to favour - as you hear them played you can tick them off. Once
you've completed a quote card you can send it back to the Musician's Union
and they'll send you a cloth badge for your anorak.
Applause at a jazz gig is one of the most controversial and misunderstood
social functions that the listener can participate in. Much of the confusion
arises from not knowing when and how to show due appreciation, and this
is almost always due to inexperience on the part of the listener.
Listening to jazz requires study, as much as or indeed more so than classical
music and opera. Many an uninitiated listener has been caught out at a
classical recital by a false ending (though the author has to admit that
some endings are so protracted that one often has to fight hard to avoid
yelling "Damn and blast it, when will it ever end!?") or the
even graver faux pas of applauding at the end of a movement rather the
the finale of the whole piece.
To avoid such embarrassment classical listeners will familiarise themselves
with the score before attending a concert, and in time they will also
learn other audience techniques such as laughing at the correct point
in pieces deemed to be 'comic'. Such pieces are often entitled 'Humoresque',
which is a foreign word that means 'not funny at all'.
Jazz differs in that whilst some tunes may be very well known, the interpretation
is by definition completely free and there's often no telling where or
when a piece will end - which means the listener has to have an understanding
of both the harmonic structure of the tune and the performer's psychological
profile. Thus on the same tune Count Basie is likely to repeat the the
last eight bars a couple of times and finish off with his classic three-chord
trick whereas John Coltrane would drag out the very last bar and beat
it to death over a good four and a half minutes. In contrast, Cleo Lane
will often return to the header and suddenly stop dead halfway through
for no apparent reason at all.
What this means is that the inexperienced listener is likely to find themselves
applauding at the wrong point, which may illicit very unflattering comments
such as "Oh dear, there's a seal in tonight" from other members
of the audience. This is why applause at a jazz gig tends to avoid the
instantaneous burst of applause common to classical concerts and always
starts with a few quiet handclaps that gradually build to a crescendo.
The practice of shouting one's appreciation is, sadly, commonplace these
days and is often accompanied by jumping up out of one's chair and raising
an arm. There are usually a number of such listeners who cannot act with
decorum and dignity, and once one of them starts a-leaping and a-hollering,
the others will follow suit - which, from the performer's perspective
looks and sounds very much like a bizarre shoot-the-ducks game as may
be found at any common fairground.
You will notice that the more prestigious the venue, the less this happens
- and this is because such venues employ a 'spotter' behind the stage
curtain, armed with a silenced Beretta. My advice to you at such venues
is to refrain from excessive displays of appreciation - and if you must
leave your seat during a performance you should rise slowly and deliberately,
and keep both hands firmly by your sides.
On those occasions where you feel it is appropriate to voice your appreciation
you should avoid wasting your breath on trivial exclamations such as "Yeah",
"Woo-hoo" and "Way to go". These are the purview of
listeners who have found themselves attending the gig by mistake, probably
due to their inability to distinguish the words "A Jazz Recital"
from "Football And Pies" on the tickets.
For an entertaining piece executed with skill and efficiency I recommend
a polite "Indeed, indeed", and for those numbers where the band
have excelled themselves you may push the boat out and express more fervent
appreciation with comments such as "Good heavens Sir, a tour-de-force"
or "Your alacrity has not gone unnoticed!".
This refers to the practice of seeking out the performers after the gig
in order to express one's personal appreciation of their work and should
be avoided at all costs unless you have a tangible relationship to the
performer ('My aunt saw you in Billericay in 1957' is not sufficient)
or you have some pertinent expertise in the field (being able to play
"Danny Boy" on the kazoo cannot be though of as having expertise).
As the late Sir Charles Birdingley-Parker pointedly remarked, "If
you ain't played the blues, you can't pay me dues".
Bear in mind that any respectable performer will have put many years of
study into their art and will not require affirmation of their skill and
prowess by well-meaning admirers, and whilst you might receive a polite
but cool reception you can be assured that once the musician reaches the
band-room you may become the object of much derision - particularly if
you're sporting a long beard or a beret.
If you really must indulge in buttonholing, stick to a subject where you're
more likely to be on equal terms. Compliment the artist on his or her
choice and cut of apparel, or the shininess of their shoes. If the artist
is British it's acceptable to comment on the weather and the likelihood
of potato blight, but Americans are more likely to be impressed with offers
of a ride in your Bentley to see the gates of Buckingham Palace. If you
don't own a Bentley you had best remain in your seat.
Should your need to converse with the artist be so great that you feel
driven to buttonholing you should endeavour to approach them before the
This will require you to arrive at the venue unfashionably early though,
which is not a good start to the evening.
Jazz musicians often have a great deal of time on their hands before a
performance. After setting up their instruments and greeting their fellow
musicians there is very little else to do, save for an informal round
of Canasta or perhaps a browse through Whitaker's Almanack - and they
are far more likely to welcome a diversion at this point in the evening.
Before engaging the artist in conversation it is de rigeur to offer them
a drink at the bar. Your likelihood of success at this point depends very
much on your knowledge of fine wines and spirits and your initial order
should be for a bottle of Champagne of at least the pedigree of, say,
a Bollinger '99 along with a round of single malts or an aged bourbon.
If the artists smokes you should also purchase a fine cigar - a Cohiba
Needless to say, buying half a pint of lager and stuffing a Rothmans ('for
later') into the artist's top pocket is a practice to be deplored by any
And so, dear reader, you are now equipped with all the knowledge required
to attend and appreciate the jazz gig - and if you ever find yourself
faltering and doubting your artistic choices during the course of a gig,
just remember the words of that paragon of ad-hoc creativity - Sir Charles
Birdingley-Parker: "It might be rubbish, but man it's good rubbish".
If you've enjoyed reading this article, you might like
to hear it narrated by Clay Ryder. If so, check out his site at jazzstreams.org
- where you'll find this article, along with others from the Jazz Etiquette