Why Do We Sit At Jazz Concerts?

Musical chairs? i i

Musical chairs? iStockPhoto.com hide caption

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Musical chairs?

Musical chairs?

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I've been thinking about this for some time, even before Anthony Dean-Harris of Nextbop wrote it. It's about how there should be more standing-only jazz shows. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it makes some good points.

Mostly, everyone sits at jazz shows. Mostly, everyone stands at rock/hip-hop/otherwise "pop" concerts. Considering jazz's roots in dance, which seem to poke out at least a little bit in every performance, standing seems to make sense. More moving. More visceral energy. More familiar to younger folks — more casual. More enthusiastic audiences.

It makes sense in theory. Anecdotally, it can work in practice, too: The Winter and Undead Jazzfests are good examples of largely standing-room-only crowds with tons of excitement. In fact, I can't name any standing-only or standing-mostly jazz shows I've been to without a palpable buzz in the air — whether I liked the performance or not.

So why do we keep this old-school sitting convention? I have a few thoughts.

  1. It would put some jazz clubs out of business. Anyone who is at all familiar with the way jazz clubs operate — or anyone who has ordered an $8 Heineken at a club with a $10 minimum — will have intuited that serving drinks and perhaps food is crucial to staying in business as a for-profit enterprise. Artists ought to be paid a reasonable wage, overhead exists and paying customers aren't always plenty; food and drink often must make up the rest, and even then the profit margins are usually pretty slim. (If you're not taking a loss.) Chairs and tables help a lot for food service.
  2. You can't dismiss the age factor. If you believe the much-debated NEA survey, the average jazz listener is growing older over time. To overlook the needs and comforts of the core audience — or at very least, the demographics who can to afford to consume jazz consistently — is not good for business. More important, though: Jazz is one of these increasingly rare things where you can unite generations over art. Often, the most fruitful situations are where you can get old heads and new kids in the same place. And if you don't make it convenient for everyone to enjoy this stuff at once, from age 9 to age 90, you're missing out on some of the magic.
  3. Not every performance of jazz or improvised music is designed explicitly for getting down to, especially these days. Sometimes, it feels rather like the opposite, either because the mood is contemplative, or the technical aspect of the music is intentionally fractured or dissonant or otherwise unfamiliar. Less extreme: Sometimes the music seems to call out for you to listen closely and tap your foot at once. A chair can help that out.
  4. Sometimes, you just want to sit down. To a lot of folks, live jazz is a salve, a relaxing sort of experience. And if it's not that for you, there are still plenty of things to be appreciated about a concert or table-and-chairs atmosphere: the quiet, the air of refinement and tradition, the sense of calm it inspires. Not everyone is there to headbang. Plus, who says you can't experience a revelation, and who says the vibe can't be electric, while seated?
  5. Old habits die hard no matter what they are.

This is all kind of "duh," and probably taking the premise a bit too far. I don't think anyone is seriously proposing we convert all, or even most jazz shows, to standing ones. I would, of course, welcome it if a few more shows, especially the high-energy ones, took out the chairs from the room. It reflects the more popular music of our age, and jazz's context could stand to match the sounds being put into it.

But I also think that thinking critically about this sort of thing brings us closer to the realities of jazz today. It's really hard to finance. It rewards close listening. It's enjoyed by a small but pretty diverse cross-section of people, all things considered. And it's dealing with decades of messaging that it's a high art, suited to a more formal and mannered presentation.

A chair doesn't make a performance artful. But sometimes, it doesn't hurt.

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