Monday, June 13, 2011

Know Thy Audience

I've actually never been to one of them, these jazz and hip-hop shows. Others proclaim them the future of jazz, a way to engage a younger audience, an audience which knows hip-hop, in a music which evolved, in Kansas City anyway, some ninety years ago.

I don't dismiss their popularity. I applaud their exposing a broader range of enthusiasts to the spectacular young jazz talent dominating Kansas City's jazz scene today. I find the excitement those young jazz musicians bring to the shows to be contagious.

But I don't see them as a future path for jazz. They're a curiosity of the moment. Like Allison Krause with Robert Plant. Like Betty Carter with Ray Charles. Hip-hop with jazz.

Part of the jazz audience will embrace a degree of experimentation and outrageousness (evidenced in KC by the growing popularity of the People's Liberation Big Band). But too many who will pay more than a nominal cover charge attend a show, in part, for familiarity. That's a point which struck me as I watched the one concert of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra which I managed.

I wrote several months ago that I was taking over as manager of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. I have since moved on to another job which was too good an offer to pass up. But before moving on, I managed the business end of the orchestra's April 30th concert.

Don’t get me wrong. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is incorporating no hip-hop. But the latest concert took a left turn into a preponderance of more modern big band compositions than the regular crowd expected. Incorporating music by Lennie Tristano and Toshiko Akiyoshi hardly brings the selections into the 21st century. But they bring the music further into the 20th century than many regulars in the $35 seats expected when they walked through the doors.

Is pulling the audience a few decades forward from what they have come to expect such a bad thing? The music was still performed with exceptional precision by some of Kansas City’s finest jazz musicians. The orchestra still presented itself with impeccable professionalism. A repositioning of musicians on stage balanced the sound in the auditorium more evenly than previous shows. The guest artist, Gary Foster, was a superb soloist.

So was it a distraction to present to the staid audience The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra attracts, a greater abundance of music more modern than they’ve heard here before?

Yes, it was.

There are places in town where musicians can pander to their tastes. When they’re playing a club for proverbial pennies, when they’re promoted as a group trying something new (like the young musicians of The Sound Collective at Jardine’s last week), when the expectation is properly set for something new(er), few will complain if musicians indulge.

If promotion proclaims a show is jazz and hip-hop, for example, I’m staying away. There’s nothing wrong with that combo. It draws an enviable audience. But there’s some music I don’t enjoy, and that includes hip-hop, so I will not be there. And that’s okay, because in that situation I know what to expect.

But when an orchestra has spent eight seasons playing a particular kind of music, largely swing, largely traditional big band, peppered with a few more modern compositions, it has set an expectation. It has established what returning patrons anticipate. And when that orchestra turns the type of music which previously peppered a set list into the music which dominates the second set, musicians are indulged at the expense of an audience paying up to $35 a seat.

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra presents itself as the jazz equivalent of the symphony. They succeed through a completely professional presence and presentation – every male musician is dressed in black coat and blue tie – and a well-rehearsed repertoire performed by extraordinary musicians. They attract a mostly older, largely well-heeled audience. And that audience comes for the familiarity of music they know, and a set list which mostly swings them in their comfortable seats.

There’s nothing wrong with that scenario. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra has established itself as one of this city’s premiere arts organizations, artistically outstanding and supremely deserving of the community financial support it receives. I’m proud to have been its manager, if only for a few months.

But it must recognize the proclivities of the audience which has grown with it, an audience looking for the familiar and just a few surprises. Of course, the orchestra needs to grow that audience. That happens by expanding the selections to those familiar to a younger crowd. Not the hip-hop crowd, obviously, but initially to Kansas Citians who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Hey, that includes me. And I didn’t grow up knowing who the heck was Lennie Tristano or Toshiko Akiyoshi. Their tunes may please the musicians, and in a more eclectic circumstance would fit perfectly well. But musicians comprise little of this audience. For this audience, the music needs to go easy on the eclectic.

Know the audience. Know their expectations. Know why they came to your show. That’s how this orchestra needs to be performing.


  1. I was there. First time to a KCJO show. I was expecting a bunch of 'old people' music and was thrilled to get something 'not boring'. I'm 40-something, and certainly not well-heeled.

  2. While this is a very well-presented opinion, I don't see anything wrong with KCJO "branching out" into a different style of jazz music. I'd disagree that it's self-indulgent to perform this in front of their usual crowd, too. If they are the equivalent of a symphony orchestra, this is a concert that is the equivalent of KCSO doing all 20th Century compositions. It's ok to give the well-heeled crowd a little different angle. Plus, it's not like Lennie Tristano and Toshiko Akiyoshi are modern, current musicians - Lennie peaked in the 50s and Toshiko's band peaked in the 70s. Great editorial Larry, but this concert seems (to me) right in the KCJO's wheelhouse.


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