We live in a world of ever increasing connectivity, where ever faster, more mobile data services are able to deluge us with an unending stream of cultural, technical, frivolous or salacious information wherever we may find ourselves. You can watch a movie on a mountainside, read up on the latest jargon from deep within an actual jungle, listen to a baroque symphony whilst jogging grimly around an inner-city park, tune in to a sitcom in the doctor’s waiting room. This contrasts markedly with our grandparent’s era, where the locations available for acts of cultural consumption were far more limited, largely because culture, both for spiritual elevation or mere base entertainment, was generally consumed en masse and needed spaces large enough to accommodate this. People flocked to the cinema, the theatre, or music hall, to sporting events, circuses, public meetings, lectures and demonstrations. Towns across the western world are still studded with the crumbling relics of this age of mass entertainment – faience clad cinemas or gaudy Victorian theatres now reduced to the indignity of hosting bingo nights or languishing behind hoardings and hopeful ‘site for development’ signs. There’s an ongoing battle in Brighton to preserve the old Hippodrome, where Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Sammy Davis Junior once appeared (though not all on the same bill) – at least the Dome, where Coltrane played with his classic quartet, is still thriving with taxpayer support, but the nature of the places and times where we listen to music have changed, and to an extent music has changed with them.
Jazz, of course, was once listened to primarily in the stimulating but hazardous environment of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans, where we can fairly assume that it was at best a background accompaniment to the patron’s pursuits. It could also be encountered in more decorous circumstances aboard a Mississippi steamer, especially one owned by the Streckfus Line. This company employed the resoundingly named Fate Marable as a bandleader on their premium passages, and he in turn employed equally unforgettable names such as Red Allen, Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Pops Foster, Narvin Kimball, Al Morgan, Jimmy Blanton, and Zutty Singleton, as well as giving a young Louis Armstrong free rein to improvise. Marable was also noted for his performances on the Steam Calliope, a form of keyboard that poured down so much water from its condensing steam that he had to play wearing a cape and hood, which surely contributed to his early death from pneumonia. Players who complain of the hardship of paying their dues should take note. As we all know, the radio and the phonograph soon liberated the music from its constrictions, and it progressed from brothel and riverboat to restaurant, hotel and nightclub, and thence rapidly to ballroom and hipster’s hangout, finally making the leap to Carnegie Hall and concert salle respectability round about the mid-century. The history of jazz is also a history of its audience, and of the various spaces they have preferred to make their mutual encounter. Just as big bands grew in tandem with the ballrooms they were booked to perform in, so bebop was scaled down to match the close intensity of the 42nd Street dive bars. The hushed environment of the concert hall and theatre enabled some players and composers such as Keith Jarrett to modify their palette to include new subtleties which simply wouldn’t have worked in the club or dancehall, while others like John McLaughlin embraced electric amplification to fill up the new performance spaces opened up by the growth of outdoor rock festivals.
Where, then, is the best environment to appreciate jazz? In the US the supper club provided a crucial environment for jazz to prosper; Ronnie Scott’s is set up along the same lines, but it’s almost unique among UK clubs in following this model, and a great deal of UK jazz has traditionally taken place in the back rooms of pubs. There are many examples in Brighton following this noble tradition, which in many ways harps back to the earliest habitat for jazz – musicians and fans alike have to contend with the general hubbub of the pub’s regular non-jazz clientele and win the favours of the landlord and bar staff. It’s not necessarily the ideal environment in which to showcase the subtler nuances of performance or the more challenging aspects of the avant-garde, but encourages a rawness and spontaneity that can be absent from more formal settings. Brighton currently has a particularly thriving scene in this respect, with honourable mention also due to the Snowdrop in Lewes and the Hare and Hounds in Worthing. The next step up on the ladder is the Arts Centre, where a different performance ethic usually prevails – the audience seated in rows, maintaining a respectful silence, and the performers enjoying the benefit of a stage with PA system and lighting rig. It can be a very sympathetic situation for performers and audiences alike, as the crowds who filled the Ropetackle for the South Coast Jazz Festival will testify. Acts with sufficient international reputation will make it to the top tier and be booked into concert halls and theatres, where the performance protocol again derives from the classical world – seated, silent audiences, an intermission, and a trade-off between the respect due to the performers and their music and the potentially rather staid and emotionally sterile atmosphere. Putting on a really exciting show under these conditions can be a real test of a performer’s mettle; small-group jazz, especially, is an intimate style. Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard recordings are seminal works that ushered in a new era of refined and sensitive interplay in jazz; the audience can be heard talking, laughing and clinking glasses throughout, but Bill and his trio continue to play sublimely, untroubled by the interruptions, inured to their regular working conditions. How would those same performances have sounded in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, or the Lincoln Center?
Life on the road for a jazz musician in the classic era was very hard; it was a struggle to get gigs, to get paid, and even to get heard, especially for bassists. But the move to the concert hall has widened the distance between the performer and the audience, and even as jazz performance has gained stature and audibility, it’s lost some of the excitement, and also lost ground to other forms such as rock that appeal more to younger crowds. Robert Glasper has expressed his frustration at this situation in interviews, and booked his last Brighton appearance at the Concorde, a venue usually hosting music that people can dance to. It is an interesting attempt at a shake-up. Equally interesting was the spectacle at last year’s Love Supreme, where an all-ages crowd packed into an arena tent to hear a very in-the-tradition piano trio led by Christian McBride. Despite contending with a setting and a PA system more appropriate for a festival rock gig, they elicited a truly ecstatic response. Perhaps jazz needs more attempts to re-contextualise itself if it is to thrive into its third century.
The Eddie Myer Quintet appear at The Verdict in Brighton on Saturday 11th April 2015, with Riley Stone-Lonergan on saxophone, Luke Rattenbury on guitar, Al Scott on piano and Tristan Banks on drums.
Photo by Mike Guest.
This column was published in the March 2015 issue of The Sussex Jazz Magazine, available here.