Monday, September 01, 2008

The Syndicate Vanguard?

A couple days ago, while surfing the UNT Jazz website (which always has a wealth of good information about upcoming performances and alumni news), I came across this post--a manifesto, if you wish, from the UNT jazz faculty:
Starting this semester, things will be different at the Syndicate.

The focus will be where it belongs: on the music. The Syndicate is now a listening room. While the small groups and big bands are playing, we’ll listen. No talking, no yelling. Talk between tunes, on the breaks, or outside. Bands will be able to program whatever they want because they know they will be heard. We know this is possible because this is how guest artists are treated. It’s time to give that same respect to your student peers.

—The UNT Jazz Studies Faculty
First, a little background on The Syndicate and Lab Band Night: The Syndicate, by day, is the longtime pool hall in the UNT Union. But by night (or at least Tuesday and Wednesday nights), it transforms into the campus nightclub where small groups and lab bands play on successive nights each week. They've done a very good job of recapturing the vibe of the former campus club, the Rock Bottom Lounge, and I rejoiced when the bands started playing there after having been exiled to off-campus venues (which were either too small, not in walking distance, or both) for several years following the RBL's closure. The cover charge is cheap, the music is great, and the crowds are usually huge and enthusiastic.

And I guess that was the problem; sometimes, the crowds were too enthusiastic for some people's tastes. The Syndicate sells beer and wine, and the heckling of the bands by audience members (usually members of other bands), fueled by alcohol as it was, has been legendary for some time. It's almost always in good fun (I've only seen that proverbial "line" get crossed on a few occasions), and, to me, it added a little something to the performance by giving jazz concerts a festive atmosphere (more on that in a minute). Among the most commonly-shouted-out stuff: "Tenor battle!" (whenever both tenor players soloed on the same tune); "[So-and-so] on lead third trombone!" (a shout-out to players who don't get as much attention as those in the more prominent chairs); and of course, the inevitable cry for whatever band is onstage to play the old Kenton barn-burner, "Machito" (as noted here, the tradition of yelling out requests for that tune goes back to at least the mid '90s).

But with the jazz faculty under new leadership for the first time in decades, it appears that the heckling has come to an end. One of my friends who's in school up there emailed me this morning to ask what I thought of the new policy, and this post serves as my (rather lengthy) reply.

After thinking about it for a while, I really have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I can see both good and bad aspects to it, so I might as well list them all here...

It's a good idea, because:
  • The musicians on stage have worked hard to prepare their music, and it detracts from the performance to have all the noise in the background (even when the hecklers aren't heckling, there's still a lot of talking going on). Granted, these folks aren't at the tables--they're standing up in the back, by the bar--but it does get noisy in there at times.

  • The flyer that's downloadable at the bottom of the post shows a picture of the legendary Village Vanguard in New York City. That's a "listening room" if there ever was one; it's all about the music. It's also a place where giants have walked, and the faculty is giving the student ensembles a bigtime compliment by suggesting that they're on the same level (and honestly, if anyplace deserves such accolades, it's UNT, where many of the musicians already play like professionals--and I'd say that even if I didn't have two degrees from the place).

  • Let's zero in on this sentence for a second: "Bands will be able to program whatever they want because they know they will be heard." They definitely have a point there. In all the years that I was in school--and all the years since I've been coming back to visit--there haven't been too many soft ballads programmed at these concerts; the new policy certainly allows for that.

    (Granted, there was a time when I was in school that Jim Riggs--who retired this summer after over three decades as the Two O'Clock's director--programmed a really soft tune with the band. He bluntly told the entire RBL to be quiet before they played that tune, and the audience complied. The new policy keeps current directors--especially the grad students, who haven't quite yet attained a Riggsian level of authority--from having to play "bad cop" in that situation; the policy does that for them in advance.)

  • The Syndicate does not exist in a bubble; some of the performers have friends and relatives come in from out of town to hear the performances, and prospective students may be visiting as well. A bit of excessive bacchanalia doesn't necessarily put on the best public face for the UNT program as a whole. It may even give the mistaken impression that the program lacks seriousness (this is far from the truth, of course, but as they say, perception is nine-tenths of reality).
But, on the other hand...

It's a bad idea, because:
  • Music students at UNT work really hard. Really, really hard. Yes, it's challenging to major in music in college anywhere, but the intensity is exponentially greater at UNT. The program is so big and highly competitive that nobody is too important to be replaced if they mess up too badly, and there's a line of folks below you who are chomping at the bit to take your spot; it truly is a microcosm of the real world of music. The pressure is extreme on occasion, and Lab Band Night is perhaps the one time during the week that these students can blow off steam and have a little fun. Now that avenue has been closed, and I can only hope that such relief can still be attained in a positive manner elsewhere.

  • The Village Vanguard is a legendary room. But it takes most people a long time to get to play there, and, in the meantime, there are a lot of dues to be paid at more "real-world" locations, such as the vast majority of the jazz venues here in Dallas. These places do their main business as restaurants, and on many occasions, people who aren't there for the music at all will get seated very close to the stage, and their (often loud) conversation not only takes away from the enjoyment of those who came to hear the band but can also prove a distraction to the musicians themselves.

    While the new Syndicate policy is undoubtedly a reaction to that situation as well, it doesn't teach the musicians how to deal with adversity--such as the guy at the front table selling stocks on his BlackBerry during the bass solo--later on. (And at least the Syndicate hecklers are paying attention to the music and clapping after the solos; I can't begin to tell you how many times my friends and I have had to clap extra-loudly--even at the end of the tune!--at some of those restaurants so as to "train" the rest of the audience to at least feign appreciation for what just went on.)

  • From where I sit, the heckling is usually funny 99% of the time; as I've said, it rarely crosses that proverbial line. It's become as much a part of the show as the show itself: Jazz and Comedy 101. It loses some of the "fun" element with the heckling gone, and it turns into yet another formal concert at a place where such things already abound.

  • And that's the thing: Jazz should be fun. (I think back to the famed Mercy, Mercy, Mercy album, where Cannonball Adderley's producer set up a bar in the Capitol Records studios and invited actual jazz fans--instead of the usual Hollywood glitterati--to the session in an effort to combine quality acoustics with a rowdy club atmosphere.) Jazz started out as dance music, and over the years, it morphed into an art form. But when it did, it lost a lot of its audience in the process.

    There has been plenty of criticism lobbed at those who would turn jazz into a museum piece, something that you have to sit perfectly still and listen to like classical music, rather than feel in your entire body like it was originally meant to be. The presence of live jazz on the college campus (along with the rise of jazz/dance music hybrids) has the potential to bring a lot of new listeners to the music--especially young people who want a lot more out of their musical experience than corporate pablum like Britney Aguilera and the BackSync Degrees. But the jazz audience may never grow if college kids are expected to act like they're in Sunday school while they're listening to it.
It probably sounds like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth at times, but, as I said, I have mixed feelings on this, so I'm playing an extreme version of devil's advocate here. If it seems contradictory for me to lament the noisy restaurants that serve as jazz venues in Dallas while touting the fun-charged atmosphere of the Syndicate up till now, please realize that what I'm saying is that there is room in the world for many different types of music venues: The Vanguard (where everyone is paying strict attention), the noisy restaurants (where the people may not seem to appreciate it, but musicians are making a living playing there), and the Syndicate up till now (where people are noisy but still pay attention, and they're interacting with the players, if in an unorthodox manner).

But while this loyal alumnus may offer a dose of healthy skepticism in this forum, I'll certainly respect the policy in person. (Keep in mind that I was never really a heckler myself, save for joining in with most of the rest of the place for an occasional "Hey!" or "Ho!" in the shout chorus of a lively tune, the obligatory "Machito" request or the random celebration of a tenor battle. But I always considered the heckling to be the domain of the current students, not the alumni.) I'm somewhat concerned with how this will be enforced (surely they won't use bouncers!), especially assuming that alcohol will still be sold there. Maybe more seating is needed to disperse the back-row group and get them closer to the music.

The policy's first test comes two nights from now, when the One O'Clock, under interim director Steve Wiest, takes the Syndicate stage. Here's hoping that everyone gets their Vanguard on and gives the policy a chance to work; after all, it can always be altered later on if it's not successful. (And maybe the Vanguard analogy holds the best solution: Start charging $10 per beer like they do, so that nobody can become intoxicated enough to want to heckle. But I don't think the bartender would care for that too much...)

The comments section has been pretty quiet here of late, but I'd love to hear from people on this, especially current UNT students (who are welcome to comment anonymously if they're concerned about faculty members possibly reading this) and my fellow alums. (You can even heckle me in the comments if you want, but I won't be able to fulfill your "Machito" request unless they have a video up or something.)

UPDATE: A friend from UNT points me to this New York Times article from this past January, which notes that concert etiquette (even at classical performances) was much different a century ago, when sitting silently would have been interpreted by the performer as a sign of distaste or indifference. Read the whole thing; it's fascinating.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A student from UNT who wishes to remain anonymous emails the following:
The Syndicate is obviously not about the drinking or cavorting. The very act of showing up to see one's peers is a sign of great respect. If we wanted to drink and yell for drinking and yelling's sake, we'd go to a bar or throw a house party.
I may have more to say on this subject after a visit or two to the "new" Syndicate; we'll see.

UPDATE 9/16/08: The faculty member who developed this policy responds in the comments, and we both invite further discussion there. Come join the conversation!

6 comments:

John Murphy said...

Hi Kevin,
I'm the author of the policy, which I created after extensive consultation with the faculty, including Neil Slater. The jazz faculty support it. If they didn't, they'd tell me. They're an outspoken group.
You write: "The pressure is extreme on occasion, and Lab Band Night is perhaps the one time during the week that these students can blow off steam and have a little fun. Now that avenue has been closed,..."
No, it hasn't been closed. People can still have fun and clap and cheer for solos. What we're eliminating are the excesses. We're not trying to make it like a classical concert.

You write: "While the new Syndicate policy is undoubtedly a reaction to that situation as well, it doesn't teach the musicians how to deal with adversity--such as the guy at the front table selling stocks on his BlackBerry during the bass solo--later on."
Are you suggesting we should use the Syndicate as training for being ignored while playing in restaurants? That's not why we do it.
You write: "From where I sit, the heckling is usually funny 99% of the time." From where I sit, it's tiresome and repetitive. The reponses to trumpet high notes approach the Pavlovian. I wonder how many people who shout "Machito" have ever listened to a recording by the real Machito (Frank Grillo) and his band. If they did they wouldn't like the Kenton "Machito" as much.
You write: "But the jazz audience may never grow if college kids are expected to act like they're in Sunday school while they're listening to it." You've exaggerated the policy in order to critique it. Enthusiastic applause and cheers at the end of tunes is welcome. What is not welcome is the sort of heckling and repetitious shouting-out that takes the focus off the music, where it belongs, and puts it on people who think they're being clever by shouting something from the back of the room that has been shouted many times before. It's a bore.
If this policy is perceived as returning the focus to the music, then it will be a success. If it is perceived as trying to impose a classical-music code of audience behavior in a jazz-club setting, then it has been misunderstood. As an ethnomusicologist, I'm fully aware that audience behavior varies over time and in different settings. I have intervened in the audience behavior at the Syndicate in order to make what happens there consonant with what the faculty and the (serious) students value most: the quality of the musical experience.
I would welcome more discussion of this topic. Students don't need to do it anonymously.
John Murphy
interim chair
Division of Jazz Studies

John Murphy said...

Comment continued:
Kevin, I appreciate your support for the jazz program and your regular attendance at the Syndicate and other events. Thanks for raising the issue for discussion and for noting positive aspects of the new policy along with the negative ones.
John

Shawn Strickland said...

I may be biased. When I got here, one of the first things I was subjected to was the heckling. I thought it was funny, as a stranger; especially noting how the musicians took it, for they relationship between musician and heckler is quite friendly. I understand both points of view, and honestly, I don't really have an issue either way - but I really think it should be up to the musicians performing, more so for small groups.
If the groups are interacting in a comical way, I think it's really quite okay for the audience to do the same. They're college students, and I trust that they can draw the line; which often comes when someone overuses a "standard" heckle and it goes without response. I've seen that to work itself out a handful of times before.
I think what might be more of the problem is the younger community there which comes as guests with those who are regulars. They interpret the small talk during the song as free reign to continue a long drawn out conversation over normal talking levels that slowing builds to an uncomfortable level for some.
I say, do as they wish, but do what "the people" want. There are plenty of places around town that will get you the different listening levels one may desire. It's best related, possibly to a movie:
I hate going to movies, mainly because I can't stand what those who have no self control do with themselves during a movie. Blinding cell phone lights, constant murmuring, chuckling when not appropriate really inhibits my ability to "get into" the movie. However, the occassional sipping of drinks, crunching of snacks, and audience participation (laughing, crying, screaming, etc.) becomes part of the movie element. A nice balance, I feel, would be best.
But I'm all for majorities, even as a minority.

Kev said...

John, I had a feeling you might see this post at some point, since you've been a Musings reader in the past. I had hoped to respond to you that same day, but there's been a lot on my plate this week, and I wanted to give this the time and thought that it deserves.

(Your quotes in italics:)

No, it hasn't been closed. People can still have fun and clap and cheer for solos. What we're eliminating are the excesses. We're not trying to make it like a classical concert."

Perhaps this needs some more detailed explanation, then; I think people may be under the impression that you are trying to do just that. I've seen some people who are even reluctant to greet their friends when they walk in the door; there's tension in the air, as if anything above a whisper will earn a rebuke.

Are you suggesting we should use the Syndicate as training for being ignored while playing in restaurants? That's not why we do it.

Of course not. But that could provide one more opportunity for a teachable moment: Playing with energy and intensity even when the crowd isn't paying attention. As I said in the original post, at least the Syndicate crowd has always clapped for solos; to me, an overly-enthusiastic crowd (even to the point of being obnoxious) is easier to play for than one that's completely indifferent (as in the restaurants). Learning to play amid distractions seems to me to be a valid part of one's instruction as a professional musician, because it's definitely out there in the so-called real world.

I wonder how many people who shout "Machito" have ever listened to a recording by the real Machito (Frank Grillo) and his band. If they did they wouldn't like the Kenton "Machito" as much.

Aha--your inner musicologist is showing (where "musicologist" equals "gives off the air of looking down on a piece of music just because it's popular"). I decided to fire up some recordings by the real Machito while typing these responses, and yes, it's great. But so is the Rugolo chart; it's a two-minute, eighteen-second ball of energy. Besides, the music world is big enough for both Machitos; it doesn't have to be an either/or situation.

You've exaggerated the policy in order to critique it.

Well, I've been known to exaggerate to make a point. ;-) But...there are two groups of people that probably do feel like they're in Sunday school in the "new" Syndicate: The ones who were never the "major perpetrators" of the heckling, but were just (IMHO) letting off steam every now and then; and the non-music-major friends of the performers who, as I said earlier, might become new jazz fans if the atmosphere was a little more welcoming to those who aren't "serious" listeners yet.

I have intervened in the audience behavior at the Syndicate in order to make what happens there consonant with what the faculty and the (serious) students value most: the quality of the musical experience.

I guess that's one of the main questions running through my head at the moment: Is it more effective to change the culture all at once by executive decree (as has been done here), or over time, by the very type of discussion that you're welcoming in these pages, with input from many voices (faculty and students alike)?

Kevin, I appreciate your support for the jazz program and your regular attendance at the Syndicate and other events. Thanks for raising the issue for discussion and for noting positive aspects of the new policy along with the negative ones.

Even though (as you can tell) I have a healthy dose of skepticism about the effectiveness of this approach, I really tried hard to be balanced in my post, because I really do think those on both sides of the issue have vaild points.

And yes, I've tried to be a supportive alumnus; my current ties to the program will likely continue into the foreseeable future for two reasons: So many of you on the current faculty are former schoolmates of mine, and I teach at a school that--to invoke a baseball metaphor--serves as a Triple-A farm club for UNT and other major schools. I definitely enjoy watching alumni of my program come up there and succeed.

And the things I've seen the past few weeks have me more than a little concerned: The word "boycott" leaving the lips of so many (as in "I'm only going to show up here on the nights that I play"), and the mere handful of people in attendance at evening's end last week (if it's this small for the Two O'Clock, I shudder to think what it might be like for some of the other bands later on). I really hope that maybe this is just the proverbial pendulum swinging over to one extreme from another before eventually landing somewhere in the middle; only time will tell.

Again, thanks for the responses, and I welcome even more; I'm happy to host a discussion of the subject here (and I've pointed people to this forum in today's post as well).

John Murphy said...

KM: I've seen some people who are even reluctant to greet their friends when they walk in the door; there's tension in the air, as if anything above a whisper will earn a rebuke.
That's just the initial shock of coming into a place that you expect to have the vibe of a frat-house basement on keg night and finding instead a jazz club where people are having serious fun by paying close attention to music. They'll get used to it.

KM: Learning to play amid distractions seems to me to be a valid part of one's instruction as a professional musician, because it's definitely out there in the so-called real world.
All the more reason to have a place where the music is the main thing. The Syndicate is not where people need to learn that. They can do that on their gigs.

KM: Is it more effective to change the culture all at once by executive decree (as has been done here), or over time, by the very type of discussion that you're welcoming in these pages, with input from many voices (faculty and students alike)?
The previous situation was intolerable. The start of a new academic year is the right time to make a change.

KM: The word "boycott" leaving the lips of so many (as in "I'm only going to show up here on the nights that I play"), and the mere handful of people in attendance at evening's end last week (if it's this small for the Two O'Clock, I shudder to think what it might be like for some of the other bands later on).
That would be really smart: travel to UNT to study at a serious music school, then boycott the campus jazz club because the emphasis has been returned to where it belongs: on the music. You exaggerate again the smallness of the audience at the end of last week's gig. There were more than a "mere handful."

Listen, I want people to enjoy themselves at the Syndicate and I will make announcements tonight that emphasize this. There's a place where you can do what you want while you play or listen to music: your house. When I was a student, we had sessions in people's houses. We didn't wait for the university to provide every musical occasion.

If students had gone to the Marchel Ivery benefit last Sunday at Sandaga Jazz, a cultural space in Dallas, they would have found an audience of adults who are serious jazz fans. During the breaks they socialized. During the music, they kept talking to a minimum and listened to the music. Nobody had to lecture them. They just knew that this is how you behave when music is the main thing. They know that from having been to serious jazz clubs. Not serious in the sense of solemn, but serious in the sense of "we are here to listen to jazz musicians make art." How did they know what? From having been socialized into a jazz community that share the value of making the music the main thing. I am consciously intervening in the UNT student jazz community to reinforce a fundamental value that the faculty share: the music is the main thing. This is not just an academic attitude. My son went to hear the Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Mass. last spring. At one point Jamal stopped when the audience was too loud and said "We don't play for talkers." Getting deeply involved in listening to music is serious fun. Getting distracted from that by people who insist on going "Whooo!!!" after every high trumpet note is a drag. Would you do that at the Vanguard? at Birdland? I don't think so.

Thanks for promoting a debate on this.

Talk to you later. I'm getting on my bike to head to the Union.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Murphy on this one. I had stopped going to the Syndicate in the past because it was like $1 cheap beer night at your local bar. I wanna hear the music. I want to hear my friends play. I don't want to overhear conversations about the health of your neighbor's dog in the middle of a solo.

Besides, even though UNT is a "serious music school", some of those people may never get to play in a setting like the Vanguard.. and never get to experience people -really- listening to them play, which is an amazing feeling. It'd be a nice thing for them to experience that at least once in their lives. It's something you never forget.