The value of the applause.

It is accepted in jazz circles that the audience will applaud a solo spot during a tune but what value does this “show of appreciation” have for the soloist because it is expected?

I only ask this question following observations made during live gigs: the first being that of watching a band member showing a degree of consternation at the lack of audience response not only to their own solo but also to the two or three solo’s that followed. The other reaction of note was when a horn player was clearly not happy with their solo and did not react positively to the applause of the audience.

I should imagine that many first-time live gig attendees, particularly in the small jazz clubs, are not familiar with jazz etiquette that says it is acceptable, expected even, to show your appreciation of what you are hearing even when the music is still playing. In situations like this we take our lead from those around us, the better informed, the seasoned listener.

 But what if they are wrong?

What if what was just heard did not evoke a response that merited applause? In classical music should you applaud after the first movement of a symphony you will be drowned out by the silence around you because, according to some arbitrary decree, that is not the done thing. In jazz you will be drowned out by applause and left feeling what? Ignorant because you did not understand the “etiquette” or because you did not “get” what was just played.

I like to hear a well-played solo; I like, even more, to hear a well-played solo that I know to have been improvised. I also like to hear how the musicians move the tune on once the soloist is finished: I like to hear the transitions. For me the appreciation is in the whole not just the parts that make up the sum of the whole. I have heard some wonderful soloing taken the shine off by poor musical transition. I have also heard terrific call and response patterns ruined by applause because the audience thought they were hearing individual soloing rather than collective soloing. Musically, just how well educated is your average jazz audience? Personally, I am still learning about the music that takes up so much of my time, but I am putting in the effort to learn.

So, what of the player suffering consternation at the hands of an unresponsive audience?

First, setting; this was a ten-piece band made up of experienced musicians playing in a venue not normally used for gigs of this nature. The audience, I would suggest, was made up of those who were there for the jazz and those who were there to support a cultural event. It was only after the band leader called for a reaction to a solo did the audience oblige. Not only that but they continued to do so on subsequent solos: the audience had been given permission to show their appreciation during the music.

At a music venue I witnessed the vocalist call for a response to the bass player’s solo, the audience obliged, the bass player nodded their head in customary acknowledgement but who benifitted from the exchange? The solo, in my opinion, was composed not improvised so what was the audience applauding? The musician’s ability to read music? Did the player feel belittled knowing that the only reason their solo was acknowledged was because it was asked for? Or was their ego suitably massaged because there was at least a response. Or perhaps they were satisfied that convention had been upheld and all was right with the world of live jazz.

What of the situation where the player was unhappy with their solo but was rewarded with a round of applause anyway? Are they left with the idea that the audience will applaud any given solo good or not? Did the gig attendees even see that the musician was not enamoured with their own performance? At one event I witnessed a band leader who was clearly not on good form (even their own band winced at off key notes and missed transitions) receive rapturous acclamation following solos that really did not come off well.

In the second set of evening spent listening to a quartet the horn player was getting applause after applause for solos that, to me, sounded like well-practiced licks (formulaic repetition) honed over years of live gigging rather than genuine improvised choruses – even the man engrossed in what was showing on his phone managed to applaud the solo without raising his eyes from the screen; what value to that acknowledgement?

To applaud or not to applaud: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous silence, or take arms against a sea of indifference, and by encouragement end them?

With apologies to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

There is no right or wrong answer. Convention dictates that solos should be applauded but surely that should only be if the performance warrants it; if the music can stand up to an appreciative interruption (a solo during a melancholy, introspective piece would, in my opinion, be best acknowledged at the end of the tune), and the applause is genuine. I have tried asking several well-known jazz musicians their thoughts on applauding the solo but so far no-one has been prepared to commit to an answer.

I have heard inspiring solos that have made me want to jump up and shout in appreciation. I have also heard solos so moving that I have been stunned into silence. When recognition is deserved, I will give it, but I prefer to save it until I have heard all that the musicians have to say on a particular number. To any readers who happen to see a man sat on his own at a jazz club with a pen and notepad not applauding the solo just played, that man might just be me. Please do not assume that I am not enjoying myself, the music, or the atmosphere I probably am but choose to show that enjoyment in my way at my time.

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