I have done no historical research on this phenomenon, so I’m not sure exactly when it became standard practice — which strange person in the middle of a performance started clapping and whistling, and how, instead of just throwing the offender out of the hall, others in the audience decided to follow suit — but I’d like here to do some analysis and try to breathe some reason into this odd bit of irrational behavior. If I can convince one person to stop applauding during a jazz tune, it will have been worth it; if I can convince no one, well, then I still will have the narcissistic pleasure of railing against something I see as wrong.
For those who aren’t familiar with jazz concerts, let me bring you up to speed. A jazz song generally follows a standard format: a statement of the melody, then solos, and then a re-statement of the melody. The solos, typically, take as their foundation the underlying chord progression of the melody, strip the melody away, and have an individual musician come front and center (metaphorically, if not physically) and improvise a sort of a spontaneous melody over those chords. After one musician plays through several iterations of the form of the song, she ends her solo and the next musician starts his solo.
The problem, as I see it, is in the space between solos. After one solo ends, protocol (confused, horrible protocol) dictates that the audience noisily congratulate the player who just finished. The resulting applause drowns out the beginning of the next solo, as well as all of the other musicians who are trying to keep the momentum going.
Now, obviously I understand the hedonistic desire to laud the musician who (hopefully) just inspired you with her brilliant improvisation. But let’s take a look at what happens when you applaud during the middle of a song.
The first thing to note is that in response to your applause, the next soloist in line has one of two options: start playing immediately and just hope that somehow the audience hears the beginning of his solo; or wait until the noise dies down enough so that he’s sure he can be heard. In the first case, this means that there are several seconds of expendable music happening — the improviser might play something so beautiful it would make you weep, but you can’t hear it; or the improviser might play something so terrible it would make you scowl, but you can’t hear it. In any event, this music is disposable, and just a way to pass the time until the audience starts listening again. In the second case, the musician is constrained by audience participation as to when he can start his solo — and this means that the soloist, despite what he may feel or hear, cannot freely improvise. Perhaps, for example, he wants to extrapolate a melody fragment on which the previous improviser ended her solo, and he wants to do so immediately because that makes musical and aesthetic sense. Too bad for him. The audience will not allow it.
Now let’s observe things from a slightly more distant vantage. One goal of improvisation is to make a coherent piece of music on the fly. The best solos in jazz (and rock) are not simply vehicles for virtuosic masturbation, but are woven into the fabric of the song beautifully and inextricably. And when one soloist leaves off and another begins, this shouldn’t be a demarcation between solipsistic performances, but merely a transition between beautiful, inextricably woven parts of the song. The audience applauding after each solo means that there are clear rifts in the fabric of the music — rifts where it doesn’t matter what happens, as long as at some point another improviser starts another (quite probably unrelated) pattern in the fabric. The resulting whole will be disjointed and potentially ugly on a macro level, even if individual parts of it are lovely in their own right.
Another issue with applause in between solos concerns the so-called rhythm section of the band — the instruments that are (to continue the fabric analogy) continually weaving the backdrop against which the soloists are creating their patterns. Improvisation is a reciprocal endeavor — a good rhythm section will be listening and responding to the soloists, as the soloists will be listening and responding to the rhythm section. It’s a sort of a feedback loop that creates beauty. Well, in the case of the soloist who starts playing before the applause dies down, he is not able to properly hear the rhythm section, and is thus not able to respond to or inspire them. Meanwhile, whether or not there’s a soloist playing in the applause-marred moments, the rhythm section can’t properly hear what they’re playing, and thus become little more than a metronome, marking time until the audience shuts up and the next soloist begins.
I understand that music is not performed in a vacuum, and that the experience of music can not be inoculated against all intrusions from the noisy world around it. An uncontrollable cough; the squeak of a chair; a crack of thunder; a police siren in the distance. This sort of thing will have its place in a live performance. But to add to this the completely controllable noise of applause strikes me as egregious. Doubtless some will argue that jazz is exciting and alive, and if it is exciting enough to spark an emotional reaction in someone, well, that someone might as well share that reaction with the rest of the audience and with the band. I don’t agree (I am a reserved, emotion-concealing person in general), but I’ll concede the point: let us allow the expression of genuine emotion over a certain threshold. I can imagine being so overwhelmed by a particularly beautiful solo that I just have to cry out “Yeah!” But then is it the case that every solo in every jazz performance will evoke an overwhelming response in nearly every audience member? Clearly not. So then we can conclude the obvious: that, since every solo in every jazz performance yields a flurry of applause, and this isn’t generally because of an emotional reaction, it is simply a boorish habit to which we’ve become accustomed. It doesn’t have the precious meaning of a genuinely emotional reaction, and, since the practice is ubiquitously applied, it doesn’t even have a truly congratulatory effect on a soloist. Not everyone deserves lauding; so when everyone gets it, it means that at least some of it (and who can guess which of it) is devoid of significance.
Think about this the next time an audience you’re in starts applauding at the end of a solo. And then keep your hands at your sides and listen to the music.