Konik’s Commentary: “Jazz Is Dead, Part 2: Performing Artists”

By Michael Konik

We’ve previously discussed how poor programming choices on jazz radio are unintentionally sabotaging the medium’s noble mission to “keep jazz alive.” But terrestrial radio, an increasingly irrelevant distribution channel in the age of the Internet and satellites, isn’t the only culprit in our music’s alleged “death.” Some of jazz’s most effective assassins are the people who care most: the professional musicians.

In an age when fewer folks than ever are willing to pay for recorded music, the only way for a full-time jazz recording artist to earn a living is by touring, giving concerts, putting on shows, performing – being a performing artist.

Wynton Marsalis

Performing Artist: It’s a two-word job description. The majority of accomplished jazz musicians have no problem with the second part, the artistry thing. They’ve committed their life to learning and mastering a transcendent and mysterious magic replete with its own language, codes, and customs. They compose on-the-spot. They create. Jazz musicians are artists of the highest realm. Few of them, though, care enough about the first part, the seemingly less exalted imperative to put on a show. To perform.

Their disdain stems from an innate (and probably warranted) mistrust of “show business,” of an elemental (and probably warranted) disgust with a popular culture that tends to hear with its eyes and think with its genitals. When you make music that requires attention, concentration, and complete engagement, you’ve automatically narrowed your audience to the minority of sentient listeners for whom Twitter posts and Facebook updates aren’t reasons to live but a kind of obstreperous distraction. Yet even that dwindling demographic of thoughtful, observant listeners wants to be entertained – and transported, and thrilled, and provoked, and made to feel. They go to live jazz performances for some of the same reasons people go to pop, rock, country, hip-hop, and cabaret shows: for a performance. Otherwise they might as well stay at home and listen to their CDs.

Dianne Reeves

With few exceptions, most jazz musicians don’t want to be pop stars, or, indeed, any kind of star. They want to be serious. We don’t begrudge this lofty impulse; we love jazz musicians for their determination to invent something meaningful and profound.   They operate in a debased culture where stars and celebrity – even the brazenly manufactured kind that requires no discernible talent – garner more interest from the average American than the power mongers who actually control our lives. They make art in a culture where the court jesters and fools have supplanted policymakers on the throne of public opinion. In such a climate, refusing to treat audiences with as much respect as the repertoire is a terrific strategy for making oneself increasingly irrelevant and ignored.  That’s cool if you want your art to be the chief sacrament of a dwindling hipster cult. But if you want jazz to grow and flourish, you’ve got to reach across the invisible Fourth Wall and touch people.

Connecting with the audience matters. Maybe more than anything. They haven’t come to the club or concert hall or amphitheater to absorb disembodied sounds. They bought a ticket because they want shamans and wizards, divas and charmers. They want someone to take control and guide them through a journey. They want to have an experience.

This doesn’t mean the performer must behave like a buffoon or stripper or cheese-ball canister. It means accepting the implicit contract between Actors and Observers. It means being private in public. It means sharing something real.

Many jazz musicians, however, wear their ineptitude onstage as a badge of honor, as evidence of their outsider status. They behave as though the congregation on the other side of the footlights doesn’t exist – or is an annoying impurity in the otherwise pristine process of making exalted music. Aside from punk rock, where contempt for everything is sui generis, in the jazz realm you’ll frequently witness “performers” shut their eyes, construct an imaginary box, and literally turn their back on the audience, sending the implicit message that what’s happening on stage is an elite conclave meant just for the cats. In jazz you’ll often see front men (and front women) reading lyrics and chord charts, sometimes off a music stand planted in the center of the stage. There might be all sorts of good explanations for this unwieldy prop, but to consumers of live performances it looks like laziness: someone didn’t take the time to learn the song in advance.

Ticket-buying audiences are keenly attuned to nonverbal signals: Did the performer bother getting dressed? Did he comb his hair? Did she walk onstage like Diana Ross or like someone going grocery shopping? Casual presentations beget casual listening — which begets unengaged listeners who eventually find something more “interesting” on which to spend their concert-going dollars.

Stuff that’s unthinkable at a professionally mounted pop (or whatever) concert happens all the time in the jazz world. How many jazz shows have you attended in which the musicians huddle between tunes for a discussion of the repertoire – or to hand out under-rehearsed arrangements? How many times have you suffered through pregnant pauses and awkwardly mumbled announcements because no one on stage is ready to deliver the goods? To dedicated jazzheads, this kind of sloppy presentation has become expected, maybe even endearing in its naïf-like, “I’m an odd-meter-obsessed artist” ingenuousness. To new initiates or those not quite sure if they dig this whole jazz thing, amateurish stage conduct reads like disdain for the audience.

In just about every other segment of the Performing Arts, being unprepared to perform is tantamount to failure. Too many jazz musicians, focused on their flatted-fifths and diminished-sevenths, think it’s OK.

The marketplace is telling us it’s not.

John Pizzarelli

Some of the most successful acts in the business (both in critical and commercial terms) prove that it’s possible to be both a performer and an artist: Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Barbara Morrison. They’ve got monster chops and loads of onstage charisma. Neither attribute dilutes the other; actually, these qualities augment and complement in a kind of aesthetic symbiosis that audiences, sophisticated or not, can instantly intuit. Successful performing artists know how to project their talent, to share it in a way that makes each audience member feel like the gift was meant just for them.

Bobby McFerrin

Learning how to perform as viscerally and directly as popular artists do is like learning an instrument: you have to practice (and maybe get coaching and direction). Casting a spell happens consciously. It’s a process. For jazz recording artists who genuinely wish to “keep jazz alive,” making a renewed commitment to connect with live audiences is crucial, maybe even mandatory. It’s the surest way to invigorate our music.

To find out more about Michael Konik, click HERE.

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19 thoughts on “Konik’s Commentary: “Jazz Is Dead, Part 2: Performing Artists”

  1. I could not agree with you more, Michael. A very well-written and well-stated piece. I appreciate hearing this from you.

    As a singer, I walk the line between jazz-y, folk-y and cabaret-y. And from the cabaret side have learned about the art of presentation, preparation and communication, which I believe is imperative to having a “great” performance.

    Lots of folks sing really, really well. But having great chops is not enough for me – they can bore me if they are not reaching out and engaging me in their performance, through their interpretations both musically and lyrically, and their storytelling.

    I echo what you say about Kurt Elling, for example. I saw him in the Herbst Theater in San Francisco several years ago. Even though I was sitting in practically the last row of the balcony, he reached out and grabbed me. I was fully entertained by him.

    Although I will never be a “headliner”, I understand this thing called “performing” and so I create my shows and perform them, while coaching others in acquiring that skill.

    Again, thank you for this great piece which I will share with my colleagues and my students.

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  2. What a great piece, Michael, thank you! I agree that many jazz artists do not focus on the performing aspect of their art. This sadly, I concur, contributes to the dwindling audience for jazz. So many jazz artists remain in their own circle during a show leaving the audience out and disconnected. I try to see a live jazz show at least once or twice a week. However, I crossed off many of my list of “to see” because though they have chops galore, they did not manage to connect with me as an audience. I can hear the chops on a CD and their act is not a necessary live experience. Jazz programs should also teach performance like in musical theater programs because these artist do get in front of an audience and do perform and thus they MUST perform!

    I consider all the performing artists you mentioned above as truly great performers. They are a necessary experience when they come to my town. They show a lot of respect for the audience by putting on a show. Kurt Elling shows are riveting. A Bobby McFerrin show is spiritual connecting to the soul. I come out of these shows feeling alive, high and often telling others to make sure not to miss them next time they come to town. Unfortunately, these experiences do not often happen in jazz.

    As a jazz lover and a supporter of live jazz music for many years, I want this music and all these great jazz artists to thrive and I hope they read this article, cogitate and make some changes quick. I hope our jazz institutions and other jazz educators read this article and start incorporating performance coaching in their teaching. The entertainment market is very competitive. Reading lyrics on stage, singers going through charts on stage to pick the next tune (get your set list prepared before the show!), having sessions trying to figure out what’s next on stage in between songs, not talking to the audience are not entertaining. — Harold K.

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  3. When I go to a show, I don’t want to leave feeling like I just witnessed an informal band rehearsal. And, conversely, I also don’t want to leave a show feeling like I’ve witnessed a well-polished assembly line reproduction of the studio album. The musicians don’t need to act or dress like clowns or try to force a conversation with the audience (in fact, I highly recommend not doing this; I still recall with no little pain a performance at last year’s Chicago Jazz Fest where I prayed that a higher authority would render the musician mute and spare us from any more of his “banter”).

    What I would like is to leave the show feeling like I experienced something unique from all the other shows the musician has performed, something that gives the show a sense of individuality. It’s that quality that keeps bringing people back out to shows, the anticipation that they’re going to experience something that can’t be substituted by simply listening to the studio album at home or, worse, that the live show is an irrelevancy that can be ignored altogether. This doesn’t require ostentation or melodrama, just a small dose of personality.

    Nice article, Michael. I’m new to your blog, and that makes you two for two in nicely thought out posts.

    Cheers.

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  4. This Konik sounds like a professional writer who likes music, not a musician who can write. He is very smart but unless your actually the artist its a little snide to tell people how to perform. On the other hand I don’t disagree with his points, which I say are professionally written. Maybe if a musician had written this I would feel more comfortable…But definitely illuminating ideas for sure, I give him props.

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    1. For the record: Michael Konik, in addition to his multiple careers as an author, painter, improvisational comedian, television personality, expert on gambling and more, is also a musician/singer, record producer and the owner of FreeHam Records. His albums include “Crescendo” (with the vocal group Crescendo) and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” (with the Michael Konik Tasty Band). He’s also produced six albums that were listed on the JazzWeek national radio charts.

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  5. Beautifully stated. Beautiful piece. I feel that the author of this article genuinely cares about the future of jazz. He has given a practical, feasible and carefully thought out plan to help us musicians. Much appreciated. And like dsschicago, you are two for two for me in nicely thought out posts. Looking forward to your next one. Oh, yeah, and you are one hell of a writer.

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  6. A quote from the blog post…

    “Many jazz musicians, however, wear their ineptitude onstage as a badge of honor, as evidence of their outsider status. They behave as though the congregation on the other side of the footlights doesn’t exist – or is an annoying impurity in the otherwise pristine process of making exalted music. Aside from punk rock, where contempt for everything is sui generis, in the jazz realm you’ll frequently witness “performers” shut their eyes, construct an imaginary box, and literally turn their back on the audience, sending the implicit message that what’s happening on stage is an elite conclave meant just for the cats.”

    Give some examples of these “many jazz musicians that wear their ineptitude as a badge of honor onstage”. Who are these artists who routinely turn their backs to the audience. Miles Davis died nearly 20 years ago, and even then he was misunderstood.

    This meme of gross ineptitude and disrespect of the audience by jazz musicians is played out and largely unfounded. There might be a case or two here and there, but to say many jazz musicians are this way is false. Define many anyway. What are we talking about in terms of numbers, or in terms of your experience and what you’ve witnessed? You make a claim, yet cite nothing. Not even an anecdote or example.

    Most of the ineptitude and disrespect that I’ve witnessed comes from the audiences, critics and writers. That is virtually unlimited. It’s always something the musicians are doing wrong, isn’t it?

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    1. I could not agree more with Atane. Every time I go to a jazz concert or club performance (at least 4-5 times a month) I see musicians who are unfailingly respectful of and grateful for their audience and playing to please them. I also hear musicians who are there to perform and not rehearse. I think this article is very unfortunate. Perhaps examples to justify its premise would have been helpful, if indeed they exist.

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  7. @Atane: I think citing specific negative examples would be not cool. I am a musician and I do not feel offended by this article. I see the disconnect happen all the time. — Jay R.

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  8. Bottom line is you see stuff all the time at a jazz show that wouldn’t see at any other kind of show and I think that’s a valid point. I just saw a show at LACMA where they were handing out music sheets in between songs and the singer was consulting with the pianist in between songs. This stuff happens all the time and yes it’s probably, as the author points out, a contributingf reason why jazz shows aren’t as popular as they should be.

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  9. Konik’s latest essay is intelligent and kind also. He’s totally into the music that’s for sure. Instead of ripping individuals and making them look bad, which is not his intention he talks about why its so important to make a real connection with the peeps who buy tix, and I agree 100% with that.

    I’ve personally seen EVERY example he gave in the last 6 months . Its true that jazzers can seem too cool or sometimes too into the music to bother getting they’re show tohgether.

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  10. I think it’s worth pointing out that many artists who come to LA don’t travel with a working group and work with our many terrific local musicians. So as a critic I’m not offended by passing out sheet music or between songs discussions, most of which are done in good humor. Sure it’s great to see a trio that has played together countless times, but I can appreciate deft improvisation and the ability to respond to unfamiliar material, too.

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  11. Dear Michael,

    As a jazz lover to the bones, I have carefully read your article in order to learn more about what’s taking place in the jazz world today.

    Jazz in America is a live, but it is in need of fresh blood pumped into the souls and minds of the jazz artists who persent it to the world!

    I hope and pray that you article will help improve and preserve Jazz as an American art forum for many gnerations to come. I do remain

    Very truly yours,

    Michael Matthews, your fan in New York City

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