Let’s stop, sit and listen
Jazz and classical music provide necessary calm in this stormy, chattering world
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.