Starting this semester, things will be different at the Syndicate.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.
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
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).
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.
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!