Talk Isn’t Cheap, It’s Priceless

Victor Borge (aka the Great Dane): his act comprised maybe 90% stand-up comedy, but in the intervening (or eventual) 10% he played superbly.

Victor Borge (aka the Great Dane): his act comprised maybe 80% stand-up comedy, but in the intervening (or eventual) 20% he played superbly.

Divisive issue, this. A lot of jazz musicians don’t like razzmatazz – a bit of chat between numbers, some gags and banter, that sort of thing. It’s too casual for them, they think it demeans their art. But oddly, the same guys will sometimes wilfully turn up to a posh gig in tie-dyed pyjamas when the stipulation was black tie, or at least blacks and whites. Ah, but that would demean them as well, wouldn’t it – make them feel like “the help”…

I once hired a trumpeter for a sort of supper-club gig, and he was late for the first set because the bouncer refused to believe he was with the band, eventually made him audition on the street to prove it, and then led him off to be trussed up in spares from the staff laundry basket.

There are many reasons for this attitude. Largely it’s about “being taken seriously”, and this can obviously be a problem for jazz musicians, who are sadly used to being either ignored or told to take a bottle of Pinot Grigio to table 37 (I usually go and serve the wine and buss a few tables, just for a laugh).

It’s a common experience for musicians – getting talking to someone outside over a cigarette to be asked what you do. “I’m a pianist.” “Oh really, what do you think of the guy playing tonight?” “Well… ahem… I’m biased but…”

I'm sure the lady in question loved puppies, but this is rather how I imagine her!

I’m sure the lady in question loved puppies, but this is rather how I imagine her!

Speaking of smoking – a friend of mine was the Press Association opera critic and was at the gala reopening of the ROH. He was outside in the grim cold for a smoke and got talking to a very grand looking lady dressed to the nines, as smokers do (it may be terrible for your health, but it breaks down social barriers). He asked what she thought about the new policy of not being allowed to smoke in the bar anymore. She replied: “Dizgraceful! Und if I had realized, I wouldn’t have given zem half a million poundz.”

Anyway, I’ve drifted. “Being taken seriously” offstage is one thing. Onstage, it’s simply a matter of playing well. And in a club or restaurant situation, I can’t abide musicians telling an audience to shut up and listen. If you want them to listen, play something that makes them want to bloody well listen. Because broadly speaking these events are casual social affairs, not funerals or Comintern speeches. Audiences tune in and tune out, chat, order drinks and occasionally, god forbid, go to the toilet during your solo. Sorry, no-one’s going to wet themselves because they can’t miss a minute of your genius…

It’s funny really that at the same time as jazz was aspiring to respectability (whatever that means), classical music was coming in the opposite direction and wanting to shake off the starchy image.

The history is pretty straightforward. Jazz musicians resented treatment of their music as a low diversion rather than high art. They wanted to be accorded the same respect as classical ensembles. Part of the reaction against chattiness, presentation (even clowning) on gigs was a race thing – black musicians understandably resented being perceived as gurning minstrels turning cartwheels for the ofays. And they certainly didn’t like ignorant white MCs talking a load of rubbish and then offensively asking: “what are you boys going to play for us next?”


But that’s not the same thing as a musician gazing at their shoes and mumbling something into the mic like: “this next one is, like, by Charlie Parker and it’s sort of a blues, featuring my mate Steve, innit…” If you’re going to do it at all, do it properly. Anyway, jazz musicians are always moaning about how audiences don’t know anything about their music. So why not take the opportunity to tell them a bit about the tune and the guys who made it famous?

You can practise and learn showmanship. You don’t have to be Victor Borge to add a little humorous touch to the proceedings, nor do you have to turn the night into a Women’s Institute lecture, with slideshow, about the evolution of swing quavers through the ages. Just put the audience at their ease, involve them, draw them in. Talk to them. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get and the more you’ll develop a knack for it. In fact, if you suffer from nerves, developing confidence in talking to an audience will make your playing more confident too.

Some musicians think it cheapens the music to have a bit of patter involved. I’ve never met an audience member that did, though. So you have to ask yourself, who exactly are you performing for?

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
One comment on “Talk Isn’t Cheap, It’s Priceless
  1. Jason says:

    I would add a specific note for singers – consider your mic technique when talking. All too often, I’ve heard people be right on it when performing, then collapse into inaudible mumbling when doing the patter. Modest and casual is fine, you don’t have to be a carnival barker, but don’t turn into Charlie Brown’s teacher between numbers.

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