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Jazz etiquette (Pt.3) - Listeners

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 to expect.

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 forget.
  • 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 you like.

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 beats.
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 than 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 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 performance starts.
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 usually suffices.
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 right-thinking aficionado.

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 - where you'll find this article, along with others from the Jazz Etiquette series.

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