Does Jazz Belong in Nightclubs?

Keep on truckin', baby.

Keep on truckin’, baby.

Just asking the question makes me feel queasy.

I mean, on the one hand–of course it does!  Jazz was born in nightclubs.  And speakeasies.  And whorehouses.  (Sorry, Mom…)

But that was over a hundred years ago.  Is it still a good fit?

I’ve been thinking about it lately because of recent efforts in Portland, Oregon by jazz musicians there to better define their collective expectation of how to present their music in nightclubs.  It’s a real issue, because the art of jazz can be cerebral and more demanding of the listener, while the nightclub experience can be deadening to the finer sensibilities–largely due to the consumption of mass quantities of alcohol.

It’s oil and water.

To the extent that it works at all, it’s due to each side reaching out to the other while staying true to its own intrinsic nature.  For the musician, that means a balancing act between playing music that’s accessible enough not to scare away the general public, but still speaks to their jazz audience–all fifteen of them.  For the club owner, it means allowing musicians on the bandstand freedom to create while still keeping an eye on the bottom line of their business, which is drink sales, let’s face it.  So they have to hire a mix of acts to bring in the public consistently enough to pay the bills, while taking it for granted that on some nights, some of their patrons are going to be chased away.  Hey, that’s life.

Some jazz musicians gave up on clubs long ago.  They either went into the concert halls, or private salon concerts, or school settings (hey, that sounds familiar), or some other place where the emphasis is not on the public getting tanked.  Which is great–it expands the audience and creates new playing opportunities for the musicians, so win/win, right?

But something is lost when that happens, and that is the spirit of the Jazz Jam Session.  A time-honored ritual of purification, a rite of passage, a trial by fire, an embarrassment of riches, sometimes just an embarrassment–call it what you will, but the jam session has been the music’s best way for individual players to self-assess and move forward.  As a whole, it keeps the music true to its roots and maintains its integrity.  That chemistry can’t be recreated in the concert hall, and it’s crucial to the artform.

So that’s one thing that clubs provide that jazz musicians can’t really get elsewhere.  I mean, we can always jam at each other’s houses, but where’s the fun in that?  Where’s the cheering section?  And how come our wives have all retreated to a corner of the kitchen and are grumbling to one another and comparing notes?  Definitely don’t like the look of that.  Plus, I need a drink.  OK, back to the clubs!

If public preference is any force in the equation, jazz musicians need nightclubs a hell of a lot more than nightclubs need jazz musicians.  So it is in our own best interest to figure out how to make it work for everyone.

On the other hand, a club that books jazz raises its ‘sophistication cachet’ in a way that just won’t be accomplished by another group of 3-chord blues burnouts bashing away.  Also, presenting music that is primarily instrumental means that nobody in the room is likely to get their panties ruffled when the lead singer launches in a hearty rendering of “Eat Death Scum”.

Another can of worms (I’m just full of ’em today) is defining just what constitutes ‘jazz’.  And since the musicians themselves can scarcely agree on it, it’s not surprising when club owners have difficulty with the concept.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously observed in 1964, “I know it when I see it.”  He was speaking of pornography, but the sentiment holds.

Many humorous tales have been circulated for years about clueless club owners striding briskly through their establishments while musicians were playing and becoming instant music critics, tossing off ultimatums like so many soiled napkins.  Like the one about the guy hearing a bass and piano duo and saying, “Too many flute solos.”  (We can only assume he meant the bass, since it does seem beyond belief that anyone could mistake a piano for a flute.  But now that I consider it, mistaking a bass for one seems about as far-fetched.)

Another time, a young manager demanded the late, great Doug Hall play big-band music.  On a solo piano gig.

So for better or worse, we need each other.  Rays of hope: there are several new venues in Austin that are booking jazz on a frequent, if not exclusive, level.  The opportunity is better than before, it’s up to us to build an audience now.  And it’s up to the audience that exists (you know who you are) to get yer asses into the clubs.

After all, who wants to live in a city that only has one kind of nightclub?  Besides young people, I mean.




  1. I’m grateful that Baroque and Classical music is no longer exclusively in aristocratic drawing rooms and salons. It should be noted that nightclubs have also changed a great deal over the years with very different expectations. For one thing, very few people know how to actually dance today, so that utilitarian function is long gone.

  2. True dat. But no matter how many years pass, folks still seem to remember how to drink.

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