The Death of Jazz

I’ve always loved jazz.  50+ years ago, while in college, a friend and I would hitchhike 50+ miles into New York to go to Birdland, and the Hickory house.  We heard Basie, McPartland, Miles etc. etc. Then at 2PM or so we’d hitchhike back, usually reaching campus at sunrise.  It was great.  Amazingly, I was able to hire Coleman Hawkins for a party at our eating club.  People danced, drank, clinked glasses, talked, hustled each other while fellow musicians and I just stood and listened.   Hawkins didn’t mind.

This makes what happened last Saturday night very sad.  For years, a very good jazz pianist played at a local Italian restaurant on weekends.  It took me about 10 seconds of listening  to figure this out.  However, he had to drive 40 miles each way to this gig, and as he got older and had some fainting spells, his wife put a stop to it.

However, he put in one appearance at a different local venue — also a bar and grille — last Saturday night.  We invited two classical musicians I play chamber music with to come.  It turned out they liked jazz.  The previous week the violinist and I went through one of the slow movements of Bach violin harpsichord sonata #6.  Bach would have been a hellacious jazz musician.  The movement has a great bass line, and it swings, with tons of offbeat accents.  If you look at some of his organ works you’ll see variations with just a few initial measures written, the rest to be improvised by the performer.

So there we were, sitting,  talking, eating, drinking beer and wine, all the while listening to great jazz and enjoying ourselves.  During the first break, some old fart got up and asked people to be quiet so he could listen.  We blithely ignored him during the next set, until an even older fart from the next table came over and asked us to be quiet. (Full disclosure:  I’m 74, but I know an old fart when I see one).

Quickly, the place turned into a funeral parlor, with a bunch of elderly people grimly listening.  Presumably they were enjoying themselves, but it wasn’t evident from from their faces. The whole thing died, and we left.

Jazz, like Bach, is musician’s music.  There will always be people who love it.  Many of them are jazz musicians.  Some appear with Marion McPartland on Piano Jazz to play and chat.  Over the years, she’s had just about everybody on her show. I heard one of them (Ahmad Jamal) wish that he had more time to practice Bach when he was on the road.

If this sort of behavior is widespread, the death of jazz will come at the hand of its fans.  What young guy would take a date to a bar for something like this.

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  • Curious Wavefunction  On September 19, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    True, but would you call yourself a true fan if you just want to have the music playing in the background as elevator music? I did a few gigs at weddings back in college, and what used to tick us off the most is people eating, chatting and generally treating us like a CD playing in the background. I think I would have appreciated the old farts more.

  • luysii  On September 19, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    They were supposed to stop the wedding festivities to listen to you guys? Please.

    Go down to New Orleans and listen to jazz in a bar (or a worse place where jazz actually began) and still exists. Better go to the Regattabar at the Charles in Cambridge. It isn’t a tomb. People talk, glasses clink, waitresses take orders and bring food back and forth. It certainly was the case when I heard Kenny Barron a few years ago.

  • Curious Wavefunction  On September 20, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Who said stop? Just throw a few approving glances our way now and then, or walk over once or twice to compliment the performers. I am sure you did this, but a lot of people don’t even do that. After all, if you don’t want to even acknowledge Miles Davis’s presence, just put on a Miles Davis CD. It’s cheaper for you and better for Miles, isn’t it?

  • David  On November 17, 2012 at 4:56 am

    I would agree with Curious that some kind of compromise is the best solution. I recently went to hear a nationally-known jazz group at a local jazz club, and the entire night the people at the table in front of me were talking loudly. I never said a thing…that is until the trumpet player began a hushed ballad accompanied only by piano, and the loud talk continued unabated. At that point I felt justified in asking these people to bring it down a notch. At the moment the talking subsided, the pianist played a series of gorgeous and difficult chord voicings so smoothly and effortlessly that I’m sure he must have practiced them every day for the past 30 years. Surely, we as listeners could honor his time spent with 5 minutes of silence.

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