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Jazz Corner: Is Music a Perception or is it Quality?

In a music world increasingly proliferated by the ‘mass entertainment’ festival, how do we strike the perfect balance between enjoying the music and experiencing the atmosphere?

Sunil Sampat Mar 21, 2017
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Columbo Jazz Fest low res

The bar at Colombo Jazz Fest 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Colombo Jazz Fest

Having attended quite a few ‘mass entertainment’ music and cultural festivals lately, I have begun wondering about the popular perception of music, jazz or otherwise.

In a concert hall or a dedicated music recital, one assumes that the listener is there for appreciating the music and is therefore paying attention (cell phones off, please!) to the music that the performer is trying his or her best to bring to the concert. The musician knows this and has put in every effort to ensure that the musical communication with the listeners is optimal. There is an unwritten etiquette that prevails and is honored by all present. Everyone goes home thinking about the experience.

Cut to the festival, whether open-air or indoors where the music has perhaps been curated carefully for listening enjoyment. The atmosphere at the event is typically festive and up beat and large crowds have assembled to partake in the revelry. The experience is usually happy and having socialized, eaten and imbibed well, everybody goes home happy.

But what about the music at the festival?

A few years ago, I was involved in organizing a jazz festival in New Delhi. The venue was a really beautiful ampitheater, the bands were all international big-name jazz performers and the scene looked set for a high-class outdoor jazz event. The stage, seating, positioning of the speakers, lighting and other details were worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. Then, a local organiser of the festival who had brought in a sponsor said, “So where is the bar going to be situated?” I had emphasized that the bar should be away from the stage, that no food or drink service should take place during the performance and that there would be plenty of time before and between sets for imbibing. “What’s the problem if people call out for service during the set? After all we are paying the musicians and they should just do their job while we enjoy the evening!”

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The basic respect of the artists and their craft took a back seat—at least in that argument. (For me, it was a happy ending story; the bar was shifted way behind the stage and the music was not impacted. Those wishing to not drink and enjoy the music were able to do just that).

Respect for the musicians and the nuances and subtleties that go into the making of their music is essential for great enjoyment of a recital (not just entertainment), which, in any case, is the primary reason the audience has gathered. A recital in a concert hall, of course, offers no diversions from the performance. For a jazz performance somehow, a little informality, a relaxed atmosphere—in days gone by even a smoky surrounding—and good company somehow make for deeper enjoyment; perhaps the informality of the scene aids both performer and listener.

In a perfect world or in a perfectly organized festival, the balance between the ‘entertainment’ from the experience and the enjoyment of the music is handled with subtlety. Some organizers get it just right. But sadly, not most. The bottom line is, however, that there is nothing to beat live music. Support it!

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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