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LENDING AN EAR:
the odd case of jazz and its audience

Nigel Jarrett 

Two years ago, at the small but enterprising Torfaen Jazz Festival in South-East Wales, drummer Martin Drew was obliged between numbers to chide a knot of garrulous drunks in a far corner of the marquee. Although carrying reduced bodyweight indicative of his self-confessed soft-drinks regime, he was nevertheless impressive enough to make his New Jazz Couriers heard more clearly by forcing the offending party's retreat. He asked its members rhetorically if they talked to each other whenever they went to a movie. It was a rare event in an art form notorious for what the American reviewer Morris Messager called 'parallel musing' - the tendency of jazz audiences to regard the performance as a backdrop to their own conversations. There is more than enough evidence of it on record. Drew, clearly exercising a sense of the concert-hall decorum he had inherited from his appearances with Oscar Peterson, regarded the boorish inattentiveness as unacceptable.

Even allowing for the pull exerted by outdoor jazz events on people who associate them with non-musical, even skittish, attractions, the relationship between jazz performers and their audiences is a neglected part of history which may tell us more about the music, particularly in helping to explain its simultaneously universal and minority appeal. In at least one notable case, the audience as a unit of impeccable behaviour was frequently goaded into equivalent, if uneasy, status with the musician. Ronnie Scott's legendary haranguing of what he saw, perhaps justifiably, as a gathering of the comatose beyond the bandstand was relentless in pursuit of this frisson. Its provenance was obscure, though it must have resided partly in Scott's psyche, one familiar to musicians who have endured both opprobrium and neglect and who possess a streetwise resignation that makes them feel abrasive about it. Tenor-saxophonist Pat Crumly, who fronted a Scott tribute band after the clubowner's death, is currently asking meagre audiences if they arrived in the same cab, which may be directly imitative, rather than original in a predictable style of banter, but in any case is still considered good form behind the microphone. No-one in a Scott audience was ever made more observant by his ridicule and he was never known to make a joke against himself. Also, the temporary furore over prices and general customer satisfaction at Scott's London premises is an example of how large the venue looms in jazz presentation.

The journey from club to concert hall was a significant cultural event in jazz. It reflected the music's need for both respectability and the kind of performing conditions in which virtuoso or peculiarly expressive playing, not to mention a pretence to symphonic dimension, might be appreciated by an audience-seating arrangement that discouraged migration of every sort. It is always amusing to watch today's jazz concert audiences attempting to erode the rigidity of formal seating by making regular trips to the bar, even in halls where drinking in the auditorium is forbidden. They prefer to miss a number than endure an uncomfortable relationship with the performance, at least in terms of its duration without sustenance. This restlessness is particularly marked when the musicians themselves are not seated, as though players and listeners would prefer to be doing something else, such as occupying 'an intimate little boite', as George Melly ironically described Europe's latest concert hall, the 2,000-seater St David's in Cardiff, when he played to around four hundred there in the 1980s. In fact, numbers are an important factor in the performer-listener equation. It was a paradox that, in turning his back on audiences while playing, Miles Davis alienated so many: he would probably have done so had no-one bought a ticket, such was his degree of introversion, always a condition which places interested third parties at risk of becoming ensnared.

The inward-looking habit has been shared too often with jazz followers. Prejudiced, ill-informed in matters of authenticity and opposed to change, let alone progress, their attitude led to the great traditional-modern schism, a consequence of which is still the skewed icon whose contribution to jazz development is negligible but whose popularity is widespread. Its pre-eminent manifestation is, of course, Dave Brubeck, who simply carries with him the undeserving case, such as Ella Fitzgerald. Even within the ranks of the narrowly-affiliated, enjoyment can be a private affair In the 1960s, a student colleague of mine kept an early 78rpm recording of I Saw Stars by the Quintette du Hot Club de France in a round, converted Camembert box, the point being that it was never to be played and that it served only as an all-sustaining source of personal and proprietorial reverie. Philip Larkin's love of Bechet is the paradigm of closeted hero-worship. His Dansette autochange would always have been preferred to anything live, anything living. I don't think he reviewed jazz as such for the Daily Telegraph, only jazz records.

Jazz ought to attract the following that its global reach might be expected to deserve. But it never has. So-called resurgences are merely wishful thinking come true for record companies, who know that their return on capital is likely to be short-lived unless they can keep finding marketable Young Turks. A year ago, Jamie Cullum appeared in Cardiff before fewer than 200 fans in a club setting at St David's Hall; this year, performing in exactly the same way, he filled its main auditorium. He is coursing through the firmament like a meteor while his 1980s counterparts have settled for the old routine of circumscribed club dates. One can understand their disappointment, which the rigours of the jazz life can easily mutate to bitterness, especially if you are black.

Kenneth Tynan told the story of how a blond, teenage autograph-hunter approached him and Miles Davis between sets at Birdland. When the lad asked Davis how he had developed such a perfect embouchure, the hoarse-whispering trumpeter said, 'By sucking off little white boys like you.' Tynan thought the exchange had told him more about black-white relations than any number of liberal fundraising sessions with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. But this was predictable Tynan bilge. Give or take a Satanic idiosyncrasy or two, what Davis was expressing was contempt for the people who paid his wages. Despite his period of virulent anti-white hatred, it is still possible at a stretch to imagine the encounter in reverse: a white musician confronted by a pestering young black autograph-hunter.

Race records (black music for black people), the insularity and navel-gazing of record-playing devotees, the pre-eminence of black pioneers over their white disciples and black music for strictly white consumption (posh Harlem venues) all point to a fractured musical culture of individuals and groups occupying entrenched positions. The audiences, still disputing well-scuffed territory, reflect this and find no allies in the music itself, from easygoing promoters who never start gigs on time (at some festivals making difficulties for punters with tickets for successive shows at different locations) to musicians who are reasonably affronted by a sparse turn-out. A jazz administrator once asked me what I thought of his idea to break Bireli Lagrene's return journey to Paris from Ireland so that he could play at a Welsh valleys workingmen's club, where Bud Shank had recently attracted fifty customers. I told him he could probably divide the Shank turn-out by five. Many Welshmen might have heard of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli but they would never buy one of their records, let alone pay to listen to their finest disciples. This is the problem of jazz down the ages: its true audience is an initiated minority but, unlike classical music, it is close enough to the commercial musical world to allow wide dissemination of its existence among those with no inclination to undergo the baptism. Nor has the provincial or national tabloid Press been any help in providing authoritative comment on jazz, believing that anything beyond the pale of John (they always call him 'Johnny') Dankworth is simply incomprehensible peculiarity. This is a different state of affairs from the classical sector, which has always benefited from the rigorous criticism of, among others, Neville Cardus, Malcolm Rayment, Kenneth Lovel and (my predecessor at the South Wales Argus) and, today in the Midlands, Christopher Morley.

When the 1958 Art Blakey Jazz Messengers recorded at the Club St Germain in Paris, an over-zealous female fan gave high-pitched vocal encouragement during an extended version of Golson's Blues March. Things eventually cooled down in the audience, and there was a point at which the interloper was being forcibly subdued. In my more fanciful moments, I often wonder if one of the band has not stuffed her mouth with crumpled sheet music. It would have been an extreme but entirely typical example of a jazz musician correcting the supplier-consumer balance and demonstrating a common proclivity for believing that he does not need an uncomprehending audience to thrive. God knows, he has had to work for it, as Martin Drew has had to in helping to disinter the arrangements of Tubby Hayes, another sardonic occupant of the bandstand. But these are strange lives, in many cases standing embattled against the odds. (At the height of his fame as house pianist at Scott's, Stan Tracey had virtually decided to give it all up and become a postman.) I once tried to buttonhole Drew in the interval of a Scott Quintet gig at a provincial leisure centre of no repute, in order to discover if performing before twelve ticketholders and two curious squash players just a week after facing three thousand at the Shinjuku Kosei-Nenkin Hall in Tokyo as part of a Peterson Quartet (with Joe Pass and Niels Pedersen) encouraged mild stirrings of schizophrenia. But he was too busy discussing drumsticks and reeds with another member of the band to concur or disagree with my view that the jazz musician's stoicism is almost Biblical and his audience fickle.

Perhaps Scott and his ilk should be forgiven their sometimes dour, derisive, interior, confused and self-destructive personalities, in exchange for still being among us - that's us, the living dead, infatuated out there in the haze.