Going to a jazz show these days feels a lot like going to a classical concert: the audience sits politely, applauds when (they think it's) appropriate and leaves with the self-satisfied feel of having been cultured.
This couldn't be more radically different from the genre's foundational days. What happened to the smoky basement venues, the speakeasies, the packed, sweaty dance halls and the glitzy big city clubs, where even celebrities had to wait in line for a table?
On a local level, saxophone star Brian Wingard laments the shortage of affordable venues in town. "A lot of places could have beautiful elegant jazz settings…but [bookers] are focused on more commercial music: DJs, karaoke, pop music that uses only two or three chords and loops for five or 10 minutes," he says.
Of course, times have changed. Different forms of music speak to different generations. Some might even argue that the new generation of musicians (and maybe the one before as well) is no longer innovating the same way as its predecessors. However, the success and ingenuity of contemporary musicians like Brad Mehldau, say, or members of the Bad Plus, provide a counterpoint showing that the music has continued to evolve.
Part of the blame might rest with the public itself.
With some music, there's a certain threshold imposed upon listeners, requiring them to be not so much informed as active in their listening. For classical, the threshold is being able to follow the melodic themes and variations that work their way through a piece. For jazz, it means understanding improvisation—when a musician is spontaneously composing a line and performing something totally unique.
Expecting a certain level of engagement from the audience does not equate to musical snobbery. Anyone with ears can follow jazz or classical music. Being able to afford high ticket prices or covers has nothing to do with one's ability to appreciate it (as history shows).
Fortunately, there are still places where the original mood and excitement of a jazz show can be experienced at a reasonable price. Santa Fe might not be a national hot spot in this regard, but it has major talent, and the occasional drive to create the same exciting atmosphere present in the jazz clubs of old.
One example is the KSFR Music Café series, which is just starting its second year and beginning to find its legs. Though tickets run at $20 per person, proceeds benefit Santa Fe Public Radio.
During the final show of 2012, which featured Wingard, the audience was asked to refrain from talking loudly over the music, not just out of respect for the musicians, but also for those who were there expressly to listen.
The request created an exhilarated rather than a stifled atmosphere—a vibrancy that kept everyone on the edge of their seats, following each note, without draining the experience of its vitality.
It's no surprise that Wingard calls the venue "a place like none other I've played in New Mexico," and attributes this largely to the audience. "They don't yell and talk and clang glasses loudly over the top of what you're trying to do. Even if you're playing something that they don't quite understand…melodically or harmonically, they really make an effort to try to understand what you are trying to communicate, and in the end everyone ends up being blessed."
This Friday, half of that night's lineup returns, with drummer John Trentacosta and Wingard joined by JQ Whitcomb (trumpet), Bob Fox (piano) and Colin Deuble (bass). Whitcomb and Trentacosta will be channeling the music of one of the most famed trumpet/drums collaborations of all time, between bebop innovators Clifford Brown and Max Roach in the 1950s.
Though playing music from a half-century ago, the all-star lineup of improvisers guarantees that the experience will be unique and fresh.
After all, the act of invoking one's predecessors and history shouldn't be seen as detracting from the music.
As Wingard explains, "I've seen young adults through senior citizens come to [the KSFR Music Café] events. What they all share in common, across all generation lines, is not only a love for the sound, but a love for the people and the history that make the music."