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Mr. P.C.'s Guide to Jazz Etiquette...

January 2010

By Published: January 1, 2010
You're right, they probably don't think much of your playing. Which is a real shame, because you seem like such a pleasant cat. I'll bet you'd be getting all the calls if you could just play worth a shit.

Dear Mr. P.C:

Why do so many jazz musicians dress in black? a puzzled audience member

Dear Puzzled:

Like jazz music itself, the answer is complex and not easily put into words. But I can at least distill it into a few of the most common scenarios:

1) Funereal: Many jazz artists are still mourning the death of John Coltrane (the other J.C.; in their world it's currently 42 a.d.). Others are mourning the rumored demise of jazz itself, or the music's aging audience members, who by now are dropping like beats at a vocal jam. Artists in tuxedos are also mourning the loss of their personal dignity.

2) Sartorial: Dressing in black can be a defensive fashion maneuver—being more attuned to sound than sight, jazz musicians pick a safe color that doesn't risk clashing.

3) Economical: Some of the scrappier players buy stained designer clothes at thrift shops and spray paint them black.

4) Functional: Musicians dressed in black make better backdrops for singers.

5) Nocturnal: As creatures of the night, jazz artists find comfort and safety by blending into their darkened surroundings: unlit streets, back alleys, and seamy nightclubs. Imagine this: A man in tennis whites, preening before a mirror. The morning sun streams in through a side window, and his reflected image shines brilliantly, his skin radiant, his hair gleaming. This is a jazz musician's vision of Hell.

Great observation, by the way! Next time, just for fun, close your eyes, forget about what the artists are wearing, and focus on the music. Jazz players usually sound a lot better than they look.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

My friends and I love your column. But what we can't figure out is why you seem to always wind up going off on tangents instead of answering the questions. Are you maybe a little ADD? Jenni

Dear Jenni:

How lucky you are to have friends who share your passions! And for me to be the object of your shared affection—well, I'm blushing; what more can I say?

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Disruption from crowd noise is often an issue at club gigs. I can usually take care of it with some eye contact or asking management to do something about it. However, what do you do when the OWNER of the club is the worst offender? Stan, Kansas City

Dear Stan:

It's easy for jazz players to get lost in their little jazz bubble. Life is so beautiful when you can just close your eyes, focus on the sounds of the instruments, and immerse yourself in spontaneous musical conversation. But outside that bubble is something much greater: humanity itself, with all the beauty, joy, sorrow, striving, and yearning that make man/womyn such a complex and passionate denizen of our wondrous planet.

Your dismissing the conversations beyond bandstand's edge as "crowd noise" saddens me. I wonder if you've lost touch with your more sensitive side, the yang without which your artistic yin becomes shallow and self-serving. Consider the possibilities: A couple finally reconciling after a string of rocky days, a clutch of philosophers closing in on life's greater meaning, an allergen-sensitive support group discussing air purifiers.... Is our music really more important than interpersonal communication itself, with all its power to advance civility and civilization? I think not. Although I value a rapt, attentive audience just as much as you do, my more evolved side tells me this may be just a tad selfish.

Can you really hear the club owner, beyond what you perceive to be his "noise"? What if he's just asking you to turn down, to afford the spoken word the space it needs and deserves in the special home he built? Stan, how about putting your musical ego aside and embracing this guiding rule: If you can't make out what people are saying, you're playing too loud. Someday, with the onstage volume down, and your ears attuned to every word in the house, maybe the audience's conversation and the band's instrumental dialog can be woven into one interactive whole, an integrative work of performance art whose narrative takes you places you'd never dreamed of.

Have a question for Mr. P.C.? Ask him.

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