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How does a jazz audience listen?

By Alex Weibel

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Audiences know they are supposed to silence their cell phones and watch a performance quietly in a theater. At outdoor concerts, listeners understand that they are free to talk and move around. However, when music is being performed at a jazz club, the expectations are often not as clear. Should an audience be completely immersed and attentive? Should they talk, eat, drink, or even dance during a performance? Or does the answer lie somewhere in the middle?

Jazz audience behaviors were exemplified at establishments like the Crawford Grill, located at 2141 Wylie Avenue in the Hill District, which hosted jazz royalty like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey from the 1940s to the end of the century.

To get a sense of the scene, I interviewed Pittsburgh-based drummer Thomas Wendt who played at the Crawford Grill regularly in the 1990s. He recalled that audiences would eat, drink, and interact with other patrons if they were unimpressed with the performance. When audiences ignored the music, it was a message to performers that they were not meeting the audience’s standard. On the other hand, Wendt said that “listening” audiences often respond loudly when they liked performers. He recalled that “oftentimes, [audiences] would be kind of rowdy… but you didn’t feel like people were ignoring you.” He added that audiences would interact with the band, often responding to the music mid-performance, clapping and shouting after, and sometimes during, a solo.

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The Crawford Grill No. 2, 2141 Wylie Avenue
Photographed in May of 2000

Tom Wendt Drum Solo
00:00 / 01:29

Performed by Thomas Wendt, Mark Strickland, and Ava Lintz

The audience behaviors Wendt describes are exemplified in this audio clip of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” performed by Thomas Wendt on drums, Mark Strickland on guitar, and Ava Lintz on bass at the Morgan-Lee Arts Centre in the Hill District. The audience was mostly African-American and old enough to have been regular patrons at the Crawford Grill during its heyday. At the beginning, you'll hear the audience applaud Mark’s solo and settle as Wendt begins his on drums. At 0:27, we begin to hear audience participation with someone saying “Yes, sir!” As Wendt continues, more and more of the audience members are moved by the intensity and spontaneity of his playing. It becomes clear that Wendt and the audience are working together to shape the performance. Wendt responds to the crowd’s energy by playing a roll on his snare drum (1:08), followed by silence. He left musical space for the audience to fill with their reactions. This interaction is a call-and-response, an important part of jazz audience behavior.

Historians Gates and McKay have suggested that call-and-response structures have been widely adopted by jazz musicians and audiences. In fact, audiences are expected to participate in jazz performance by providing real-time feedback to performers, responding to and evaluating the musicians. This type of behavior is culturally embedded in other African American practices, such as the interaction between of church congregation and pastor. Gates and McKay note that “often the best sermons are not just individual productions […] but spring from a creative process involving all those in a given congregation who participate with a full spirit” (69). The congregation’s participation assures the preacher that a message is understood, just as the jazz audience reassures the performer when their performance is effective.

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Andrews, W. L., Baker, H. A., Christian, B. T., Foster, F. S., McDowell, D. E., O’Meally, R. G.,
Rampersad, A., Spillers, H., & Yarborough, R. The Norton Anthology of African American
. Edited by H. L. Gates & N. Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 1997.

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