Granting Audiences, Pt. 1

Over the last week I’ve been going to a lot of jam sessions. The reason for this has to do with three of my blog entries (May 25, June 1, and June 8, 2012). I’ve been talking to some of my colleagues about them and find that I’m no longer savvy about contemporary jam sessions; I only know of a few that seem to specialize in jazz. So I’ve given myself the task to learn as much as I can about as many regularly occurring jam sessions as I can. The jam sessions that I’m starting my research exercise with are Manhattan-based and occur “after-hours”; that is, beginning after, or very close to, midnight. So far, I’ve attended three from beginning to end and three in part. I plan to re-attend the ones that I only attended in part.

I’ve played at some, and not played at others. At first I thought that I would not play at any of them and take the role of “armchair anthropologist,” but that didn’t last long. Fortunately, the rule at the sessions I’ve attended so far is for bass players to play one tune and then let someone else play. I have stayed after the sessions are over, though, to talk with the other remaining musicians about why they come to play and what they think the experience means to them. The most striking thing I’ve noticed so far about this exercise is that the level of technical proficiency displayed by the instrumentalists, singers, and dancers (one of the sessions was a tap dance jam session) is much higher than when I was regularly playing at sessions some thirty years ago. Another is that there actually seems to be a fairly large amount of sessions going on, so this exercise might take quite a while; at least several weeks.

Another thing about these sessions is that they are primarily social events; rather noisy and with a high degree of interaction between audience and performers that continues after one stops playing. I found myself talking with complete strangers on a wide range of themes that the music seemed to inspire. Most of these people were musicians, but some were not. One gentleman from India started talking to me and a few other musicians who were mulling around in front of the session’s hosting establishment about whether or not the principle issue of music making was modern vs. traditional or supra- vs. sub-cultural modes of expression. The conversation quickly morphed into one about caste-based society and the myth of classlessness. It was refreshing to listen to a non-professional musician talk about the music of India in terms of the purpose of unifying a culture designed to be socio-economically stratified. His description of the music emphasized the ritualistic and religious elements of ragas and talas; things that are not generally regarded as essential to American music, although absolutely fundamental to European art music (as in the little bird whispering into Pope Gregory’s ear).

One thing our conversation did was remind me of how easy it is to think of music as existing separately from the society it’s performed in, as if it weren’t a cultural phenomenon. I understand that, since music has a way of “transporting” people into a state of consciousness that can bypass what some consider left-brain thinking—basically suspending, or deflecting, our attention on word-based mental activity (although I think it’s more a matter of integrating, or synchronizing the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy), we might find it distasteful to consider music as a part of a construct that torturously takes up our attention at other times. But it is, and always has been, just that: an activity human beings engage in to foster a sense of identity and unity within given cultural contexts. To understand another culture, one learns some of its language, eats some of its food, and listens to some of its music. And, like language and culinary preferences, we are conditioned to understand music within those contexts.

Last week this idea was introduced vis-à-vis the quest to “(re)build an audience” for various kinds of music that have waned in popularity to the point that it becomes difficult to sustain regular performance opportunities. Because I tend to be identified (and, thus, tend to reflexively identify) with jazz, the entry’s excellent, in-depth, and lone comment focused on that music (to be fair, my examples skewed the discussion in that direction). But, really, the idea of (re)building audiences isn’t just an issue with jazz. It is also one for the more Eurocentrically focused Western art music that tends to be labeled “classical” by Joe Bageant’s “people.”

The comment reminded me of the event that led to my decision to relocate to New York in 1977. I had been there for a week to lend moral support to my girlfriend, whose father had been diagnosed with a terminal condition. On the last day we were there, we had heard about a new restaurant that had opened on 7th Avenue that featured live music and decided to go to the Sunday (or maybe Saturday) brunch. As we were sitting at our sidewalk table, I heard some of the best music I had ever heard in my life emanating from the stage of the restaurant, which was located behind me. I turned to see a guitar trio featuring Joe La Barbera on drums, Michael Moore on bass, and led by Jim Hall on guitar. At that moment I realized that, if I wanted to experience that kind of situation again, I would have to live in New York. This wasn’t to say that San Francisco lacked for great musicians, just that they weren’t being featured as regularly. That paradigm is changing there as we speak, but this isn’t the case for most communities in the United States. As last week’s commentator pointed out about his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (a city that used to be one of the epicenters for jazz): he now counts himself “lucky to be able to experience jazz at all.”

The idea of “rebuilding” an audience for music is something I don’t really like to consider, at least not literally, because the term includes an inherent re-establishment of societal values that were the nest for the music and its audience that would be rebuilt. I would hate to see a return to the abysmal civil rights milieu that hosted jazz in its “golden age,” but I would also hate to see jazz become sustained solely through a “concerted effort by various cultural and academic institutions.” Given the corporate-ness of these institutions’ vision statements, I seriously doubt that they can ever get it right; at least not until they adopt a fundamentally community-based archetype to emulate. Because the underlying principle of jazz, like all American music, comes from a network of community-based musicians that have gently coerced their nationalistic supracultural elite to include the sub-cultural identities of African, Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Native Americans, as well as those of Eurocentric Americans, in our modern American musical identity, an identity that is just starting to come into its own.

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2 thoughts on “Granting Audiences, Pt. 1

  1. Gordon

    Really interesting article.

    I think that attempts to maintain (even more so to build) an audience for an existing art form may be akin to trying to reverse a chemical process (e.g. burning a piece of paper). One is likely to find one’s self driving up a one way street.

    Art is generative. And to some degree art that has already been created can survive as each experience of the art is to some degree a creation (be it a newfound discovery of an older artwork or the return to an old favorite with a new perspective). However the deluge ensures a swift pile-up if every artwork is afforded the attention it deserves.

    I think the insight of music as “an activity human beings engage in to foster a sense of identity and unity within given cultural contexts” reveals in a sense why artwork can not “survive”. As our culture is dynamic, we apply these shifts in out perception to existing artworks, essentially changing them and seek new outlets to fulfill our desire for expression of our changed “identity and unity”.

    Curiously though, there are many artworks that transcend this perceived barrier. So much for a simple paradigm.

    Also, hopefully not being too “nit-pick”-y, but I believe “lest” in last paragraph should be least.

    Thanks for catching that typo. It has been corrected. –NMBx

    Reply
  2. Mike Guido

    Ratzo–thanks for linking to my comment!

    Been thinking more about what I wrote (and what you wrote about it!). I take your point about the danger of leaving the promotion of jazz in “corporate” hands…in the perfect world (you know, the one we thought would arrive some time around April of 1976), music and art would have become a perfectly organic thing that was all around us all the time, everybody would have the insight to see and appreciate all of it in all of its beauty, and artists would never have to worry about where their livelihood was coming from. I’m only being partly snarky there–when I was MUCH younger, I think I actually believed this to some extent.

    In the world we happen to inhabit, of course, things are a lot messier–and I’m not just talking about the corporate/organic dichotomy. I talked about how in Pittsburgh, I feel “lucky” that we have jazz at all; thinking about that some more, I may have been a little imprecise in my statement.

    That sentiment came out of a feeling that for some years, I was not in touch with our own jazz scene. Part of that was because a lot of venues seemed to be disappearing, but to be far, some of it was because of where I was in my life. The loss of our jazz station here, in some ways, spurred me to seek out live jazz to an extent that I had never done before–and I found it in places I never thought to look.

    Some of it was made possible by way of corporate support; there are public performances in the city that are sponsored by a public/private group, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, that has its own promotional agenda–they provide some great opportunities for jazz performers and audiences alike. I’ll get back to them in a later post.

    However, some of the live jazz I go to (and when I’m lucky, perform) is in places where I simply didn’t know to look; it was the connections I made through the Cultural Trust performances that led me to those venues. The locations vary from neighborhood watering holes, to co-op coffee houses, to an international hotel chain that has one of its classiest sites right downtown–and I didn’t even know about it until I met one of the performers.

    This is getting longer and longer, and I think I’m going to put more in a later installment. But I want to make the point that the one thing that all of those private venues had in common was that, for whatever their own reasons were, they simply decided that it was desirable to present jazz on a regular basis. And I’m almost certain that the financial considerations were peripheral at best–clearly jazz will draw a particular kind of crowd, but there are many other ways to draw a crowd (or foster a particular image for an establishment) that are better-understood by your typical club owner or hotel ops manager. Bottom line, THEY WANTED TO PRESENT JAZZ, more or less for its own sake.

    The obvious question would be “why?”, and more to the point, “can we promote that outlook, somehow?” Count me as one who guesses that the answers are far less obvious than the questions…

    Off to regular life again…nice to hang with you, Ratzo, even if it’s virtual. And thanks for providing this forum!

    –Mike

    Reply

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