Let’s stop, sit and lis­ten

Jazz and clas­si­cal mu­sic pro­vide nec­es­sary calm in this stormy, chat­ter­ing world

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Howard Re­ich

In Wash­ing­ton, politi­cians are yelling at each other.

On ca­ble TV, talk­ing heads spew venom. On talk ra­dio — well, you get the idea. But in our cur­rent trou­bled times, and in pe­ri­ods far worse than this, so­lace can be found in the place where I’ve spent nearly the past 50 years: the lis­ten­ing room.

By that I mean not just any venue where mu­sic is played, though of course all mu­si­cal forms of­fer com­fort. Why else would peo­ple leave the warmth of home for the vi­cis­si­tudes and ex­pense of at­tend­ing con­certs? You can find cathar­sis in an ex­ul­tant blues set, pal­pa­ble en­ergy in a hard-driv­ing rock show, pointed so­cial commentary in a rap set and so forth.

But the con­certs I re­fer to prize one pre­cious com­mod­ity above all, and it’s one in per­ilously short sup­ply these days: si­lence. The clas­si­cal con­cert hall and the se­ri­ous jazz club re­quire it as a means for artists to share thought and emo­tion. Ev­ery pass­ing note, ev­ery pi­anis­simo ges­ture, ev­ery barely whis­pered phrase mat­ters in clas­si­cal and jazz, each an ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that re­wards the clos­est pos­si­ble scru­tiny.

When Evgeny Kissin ca­resses a phrase of Chopin’s on the pi­ano, when vi­o­lin­ist Itzhak Perl­man un­furls a long rib­bon of melody on the vi­o­lin, when the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic de­liv­ers a golden or­ches­tral chord penned by Brahms, we are hear­ing the best that hu­man­ity has to of­fer. As op­posed to the din on TV and ra­dio.

When Ella Fitzger­ald launched high­fly­ing scat phrases with that in­ef­fa­bly po­etic in­stru­ment in her throat, when Miles Davis is­sued those softly frag­ile notes on his muted trum­pet, when Gerry Mul­li­gan pro­duced grav­elly tones way down low on his bari­tone sax­o­phone, we were hear­ing the deep­est forms of hu­man ex­pres­sion. Not the shal­low­est.

I know, be­cause I’ve heard all these

artists, and un­counted oth­ers, play­ing mu­sic that lives far out­side the pop­cul­ture mael­strom. For though jazz and clas­si­cal mu­sic ex­ist on the mar­gins of con­tem­po­rary life, at least judg­ing by record sales, they of­fer a balm that is uniquely theirs. Step into Orches­tra Hall or the Jazz Show­case in Chicago, Carnegie Hall or the Vil­lage Van­guard in Man­hat­tan, Palais Garnier or Duc des Lom­bard in Paris, and you are en­ter­ing sa­cred spa­ces where lis­ten­ers seek some­thing other than noise and sen­sa­tion.

Which is not to say that jazz and clas­si­cal lack for vis­ceral ex­cite­ment. Ever hear the Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter Orches­tra tear through Duke Elling­ton’s “New Or­leans Suite”? Or Ric­cardo Muti and the Chicago Sym­phony Orches­tra make the house trem­ble in Verdi’s Re­quiem? Or trum­peter Ni­cholas Pay­ton de­liver high notes that ri­val Louis Arm­strong’s? Or Chu­cho Valdes play a pi­ano that surely must have more than the usual 88 keys?

These are not ex­actly se­date per­for­mances. Yet even at their most tu­mul­tuous, they’re built on clar­ity of sound and ar­tic­u­la­tion of de­tail. Noise alone will not do. And even the most ro­bust pas­sages in­evitably give way to stretches of pro­found in­tro­spec­tion – the calm be­fore and af­ter the storms.

This means ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence must do some­thing that in­creas­ingly is be­com­ing a rar­ity: keep quiet and lis­ten. Our in­di­vid­ual voices, our opin­ions, our fer­vently held be­liefs, our prej­u­dices are not to be voiced here, at least not un­til con­cert’s end. We may cheer briefly af­ter a bril­liant jazz solo or ap­plaud af­ter a move­ment of a Beethoven sym­phony

Ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence must do some­thing that in­creas­ingly is be­com­ing a rar­ity: keep quiet and lis­ten. Our in­di­vid­ual voices, our opin­ions, our fer­vently held be­liefs, our prej­u­dices are not to be voiced here, at least not un­til con­cert’s end.

(though even that’s frowned upon). But we’re there to re­ceive mu­sic, to al­low the artists to work against a can­vas of si­lence. Only then can we per­ceive the sub­tleties and nu­ances that the world’s great­est mu­si­cians alone can pro­duce.

This is the un­der­ly­ing premise the au­di­ence em­braces — or should — when it at­tends these per­for­mances. That’s why ev­ery­one looks askance at the boor who crin­kles a candy wrap­per dur­ing an or­ches­tral con­cert; or the philis­tine whose “smart phone” glows brightly as he scrolls through mes­sages at the opera house; or the young cou­ple who con­verse through­out a set at a jazz club. Each fails to un­der­stand the mean­ing and pur­pose of the rite that is hap­pen­ing be­fore them.

For when the room is still and the mu­si­cians hold sway, we can get lost in the sounds they cre­ate. In these mo­ments, their work re­lieves us of ev­ery­thing else in our lives. We don’t know or care if the per­son sit­ting next to us is a Repub­li­can or a Demo­crat, anti-abor­tion or pro-choice, gun-lover or gun-hater, or any­thing else.

On the con­trary, we are all united in the de­sire to hear ex­actly what Beethoven and Brahms, Bird and Trane, Frank and Ella have to teach us. For an hour or two, noth­ing mat­ters but the mu­sic that washes over us, undis­turbed by the com­mod­ity that’s un­avoid­able the rest of the day: talk.

The artists, too, ben­e­fit from our shared be­lief in si­lence and the power of lis­ten­ing, for all the re­hears­ing in the world means noth­ing to them with­out a raptly at­ten­tive au­di­ence to ad­dress. I once vis­ited Frank Si­na­tra back­stage at the Civic Opera House, and he looked like a weathered old man, mov­ing slowly and un­steadily, as if ev­ery bone in his body hurt.

Then he came on­stage, and af­ter a tor­rent of ap­plause the house fell si­lent, the great artist ap­proached the mi­cro­phone and be­gan to sing. He hit hard in up­tempo num­bers, sang for­lornly in down-in-the-dumps bal­lads and brought a few thou­sand peo­ple to a hush ev­ery time he opened his mouth. As the con­cert pro­gressed, the years seemed to fall off him. The sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian I’d spo­ken to not half an hour ear­lier sud­denly was back in his prime, singing, swing­ing, cel­e­brat­ing life, mov­ing al­most as if he were young again.

At that mo­ment, and a thou­sand oth­ers like it, noth­ing mat­tered but the pro­found con­nec­tion be­tween one mu­si­cian and 3,500-plus lis­ten­ers be­fore him.

Ev­ery­one in the house came to­gether as one. A les­son, per­haps, for the shrill era we live in.


Ella Fitzger­ald at the Chicago Jazz Fes­ti­val on Septem­ber 4, 1981: It was sub­lime mu­sic-mak­ing, a shar­ing of hu­man ex­pres­sion.

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