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Jazz Corner: Jazz Audiences and Blues Audiences

Both genres have risen from the African American cultural musical sound and are in fact not dissimilar

Sunil Sampat Dec 04, 2018

American pianist Chick Corea live in concert in Mumbai earlier this year. Photo: Prashin Jagger

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It has been a long standing lament from jazz musicians: A jazz artist will play 1000 chords for a crowd of four while a blues musician will play four chords for a crowd of a 1000! That’s a king sized exaggeration but it certainly makes a point. A jazz concert will attract a fair crowd but a blues concert will do much better — that is, have a larger audience.

Since both jazz and the blues have risen from the same mother lode, the African American cultural musical sound and are, in fact not dissimilar, this contrast is a wee bit perplexing. All of which makes for a worthwhile examination of the phenomenon.

One explanation is this: From the mid-Sixties, rock bands from England in the main have been influenced by the blues form. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones has been a big fan of the blues giant, Muddy Waters and the heavy influence of the music of the Stones. Theirs is not a unique example. The use of the blues guitar, albeit in a rock context, the bass guitar adding the throb and the blues form has become the hallmark of “classic” rock. This vehicle, rock became extremely popular in the late Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and even the Nineties. Part of the reason for this immense popularity has been the visual aspect of rock. Rock concerts are as visual as they are aural. Add to that the aspect that music videos also came into existence almost simultaneously with the explosion of the genre. Most rock concerts can be watched. De Facto, rock music became an extension of the traditional African American blues.

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It can be argued that the popularity of blues artists like James Brown and B.B.King rode on the visual aspects of their music as well, whereas earlier blues artists like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Jimmy Witherspoon and others failed to garner audiences of any substantial size.

Jazz on the other hand has no visual value added factor. The complexities and subtleties in jazz performance are essentially aural in nature. Watching Miles Davis on video does not really enhance the overall experience. That reduces a jazz audience to those who are serious listeners. The effect of a good jazz recording can be euphoric and is often not time bound. Like pop music, rock music seems to have a sell by date.

Jazz listeners, by and large are serious listeners and look for moments of exhilaration from the music. For such a listener, there will be certain notes in a recording or performance that make the exercise of listening to it quite exciting.

As with reading, perhaps the difference lies in what one reads; a newspaper or magazine is easy to read and they have the largest readership. Popular novels must come next but serious reading has fewer takers.

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

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