Monday, September 28, 2009

First Concert Report

On several nights of the week, Miller’s, on the downtown mall, features live jazz bands performing for the enjoyment of the customers. Indeed, Miller’s is regarded as one of the best places to go in Charlottesville to hear jazz music. On the night I attended, the band contained a guitar player, a bassist, a drummer, and a trumpet player. Although different bands play at various times, the band on the night I attended included Jon Dearth and Pete Spaar, both UVA professors in the Department of Music.

The music, which played for a few hours starting around 10:30, consisted of conventional jazz combos, with lots of improvisation. Dearth played trumpet and Spaar the bass. Their presence highlighted perhaps the most notable fact about the situation, which was that the players were White males, even though jazz music has traditionally been an African-American tradition. Indeed, I’ve heard people criticize these sorts of jazz bands for co-opting African-American music.

That sort of viewpoint seems to imply that only African-Americans could legitimately play jazz music—and perhaps, conversely, that only Caucasians can legitimately play something like country and western music. It would seem, though, that a genre of music being taken up by anyone is a sign of respect and flattery, for it indicates that they are interested in the music and respect it. However, performers should always be aware of the history of their music and pay proper respect to their forbearers. Certain people may not approve of the way White people play jazz, but as long as the musicians acknowledge their influences and try to learn about the music, their race or skill level should not be a concern.

The clientele at Miller’s seemed to consist largely of Charlottesville “townies” and graduate students, with some undergraduates as well. There definitely did not seem to be as many undergraduate students as one would find at a bar on the corner, for example. The customers seemed to reflect a fairly representative group of people; it didn’t look as though any particular ethnic group was dominant. Among the people older than university students, there also seemed to be a relatively even mixture of blue-collar and white-collar workers. It would be interesting to examine what the clientele would be like with a jazz band playing on the corner or someplace else closer to the University. It would be easy to assume that the customers would therefore include more undergrads, but it’s hard to say whether any particular ethnic group or gender would be represented more.

One noteworthy aspect of the evening is that the music played by the band served more as background music than anything else. It was still loud and vivacious, so it was not something that could be completely tuned out, but it was clear that people aren’t there entirely for the music. Everyone was engaged in social conversation, and people were paying varying degrees of attention to the band members. Thus, the music serves more as additional entertainment rather than the primary means of it for the evening.

This fact adds another interesting element to discussions of race and gender, primarily with the audience and their reactions to it: how much were the customers actually paying attention to the music? It’s possible that if a different genre of music was being played, the demographics of the clientele would not be affected much—but it’s likely that the sheer number of people was enhanced by the mere presence of some kind of music. This suggests that people enjoy many kinds of music for the entertainment value, and its presence may affect where they go, but at a place like Miller’s, they’re probably not playing close attention to the band members or the particular style of the music. This may be discouraging to the musicians and those who want to pay closer attention to the music, but anytime the music is dispersed and heard by large numbers of people, that should please them.

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