to clap or not to clap, that is the question.

Posted: April 12, 2011 in Music

Juilliard knows jazz, but does it’s audience? On April 11th, I attended a free concert featuring stellar jazz bassist, Ron Carter and faculty/graduate students. It was my first musical experience at Juilliard, and I expected the concert to hold up to it’s reputation. It did, but it wasn’t the true jazz experience. I remember when I was in music school, I heard a great piece of wisdom from some jazz cat. It was something to the effect of: When you hear jazz you act upon how you feel in that moment. You don’t clap after a solo if it doesn’t move you. If a sax expresses a riff in a way that makes you smile and want to holler, do it. If you really didn’t care for that drum solo let it go. ‘Mmhm, oh yeah, uhhh huh, woo,’ are all acceptable expressions in jazz when the music moves you. This is the jazz experience.
The audience at this particular concert (I can’t vouch for all since this is my first) was awkward and stiff; there was hardly any movement. Head bopping, foot tapping, knee patting was near non-existent. Ron Carter announced prior to playing that he had a cold and due to his raspy voice wouldn’t be announcing the beginnings of songs. Instead, he told us, the piano will play a little interlude. I believe this is where the trouble started. The concert ended up like the jazz form of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. People didn’t know when to clap because of the interludes; for them, clapping wasn’t acceptable and the concert didn’t end until Ron Carter put his bass down. I, on the other hand, being more experienced at jazz performances wasn’t afraid of showing my appreciation of the skilled musicians on stage. Ron Carter started out with a piece that was bare bones (mostly piano and bass) and really explored the bass as a solo jazz instrument. The harmonies and atonal passages leading into tonalism made me smile. His use of false harmonics in first and third position was impressive. His thumb work combined with him shining in the spotlight made me think of a cadenza of a bass concerto. So, maybe the intricate patterns of fingers dancing up and down the string didn’t strike anyone in the entire audience as amazing except me, but I doubt it. I was the only one in a full house to clap and shout out a jazzy staccato ‘woo’. I didn’t even think. Ron Carter’s playing moved me. The concert didn’t get any better in regards to the audience. I am not sure if this was just an orchestral audience transplanted in a jazz scene, or Paul Recital Hall was not the right atmosphere for jazz, or it really was to be blamed on Carter’s cold, but I was surprised that a New York audience couldn’t clap. Being a bass player, I really enjoy those solo bass moments, so when Carter impressed me again with a solo, I had to put my hands together. This time the guy in front of me turned around and gave me a scowl. A handful of other people clapped after a sax solo/drum solo, but for the most part it was scattered. After a fairly loud and upbeat trumpet solo, I clapped again. This time about a fourth of the audience joined in with me. The sax player nodded and smiled in acknowledgement. I couldn’t believe I was leading an audience at Juilliard.
Was the audience expecting a plagal or authentic cadence to signal them when to clap? Because that never happened in the last piece, Tara. The last song deceptively ended and the crowd didn’t begin to clap until Ron Carter put his bass down and the pianist started to get up. Ron Carter didn’t bow (and I don’t mean the wood stick with horse hairs). As I left Paul Hall I wondered if he didn’t bow because the audience didn’t know how to clap. It was probably because he is aging, but I like to think that he and I are on the same page about how ridiculous the audience was. Afterall, jazz is a two way street. People should feed off of each other. Musicians improvise by listening and sensing from other musicians, and they feed off the audience participation. In contrast, the audience becomes inspired by the musicians and audibly and physically show it. I always like going to jazz performances because you don’t have to be quiet. This one seemed rather orchestral. And believe me, I would love to jump and shout for joy during a performance of Dvorak’s Allegro con fuoco of his 9th Symphony, but I save that for my own listening pleasure.

Addendum:
After writing this, I pulled out the program, and in small letters at the bottom it says “Please hold your applause until the very end of the performance.” Well, that makes sense…I guess. They should have announced it from the stage. (What about blind people who come to these concerts??) Ah well, I guess the joke is on me. :/

Comments
  1. Carly says:

    Wow! I cannot believe that a jazz performance specifically (and ahead of time — printed in the program, no less) asked for no applause until the end. That’s so strange and uncomfortable.

    I completely agree with you (and that jazz cat) about moving with the music, letting the music move you. I would have felt so awkward and embarrassed if I had been there!

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