I read an interesting column in the June issue of Jazz Times magazine. In it, columnist Natalie Weiner laments the fact that people have questioned her prescence at jazz concerts. Weiner is passionate about jazz, and has been for years. But because she is young, pretty, white, and female, her presence at jazz shows is questioned by the unenlightened. To prove herself worthy of attendance, she is often forced educate the punters who thought they knew more about the jazz artist than she did. Only then could she attain full acceptance.
I can relate.
Not so much with the pretty young white female part, but I have endured my share of stares at concerts. There have been times when I was very much the minority in attendance.
I remember standing in line before a Tool show years ago. As we waited for the hockey arena’s doors to open, my eyes caught the eyes of a twenty-something white guy who had clearly been staring at me for several seconds. My face asked him what he wanted. Clearly busted, my young friend chose to speak. “Are you a cop?” he asked.
I grinned. “Why would you say that?”
“Well … I mean … I just can’t figure … it’s just surprising to see you here. I figured you must be a cop.”
My new best friend had a point. The line wasn’t exactly littered with black men in their late 30s As a matter of fact, I was the only one I could see. Still, I knew why I was there. “As it happens, I am a policeman,” I said. My new friend’s face showed the desire to shout triumphantly. But I stopped him. “But that’s not why I’m here. I’m a big Tool fan.” The kid didn’t want to believe me, so I spent the next minutes extolling the musical virtues of Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Justin Chancellor, and Danny Carey. Only then was I accepted.
I go to more than a few concerts alone. Frequently, I’m one of very few attendees who looks like I do. So I’ve had to play “The Tool Game” more than a couple of times. For a while, it annoyed me. Now I just find it mildly amusing.
Over the years, I’ve developed a theory: the larger the venue, the easier it is to stand out at a concert. This seems contradictory. After all, it’s easy to lose someone in a large crowd. But here’s the thing: large venues tend to draw like-minded and like-dressed crowds. The person in attendance against demographic “type” sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.
I’m reminded of the two years I spent stationed near Tokyo, Japan. My editor and I had to take a commuter train downtown to the office of Stars & Stripes every week. The trains could get extremely crowded during rush hour, and I worried about losing my friend in the crowd. But then I remembered, my editor and I were the only Americans on the train! We’d be able to see each other from a mile away! I experienced the same feeling when I went with friends to see Tool, Rush, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead. I’m sure fans of the bands within the “core demographic” thought the same thing when they saw me standing there.
I stopped going to shows in large venues several years ago. I prefer the intimacy of club gigs. Nothing frustrates me more than spending a large sum of money to sit half a mile away from the band. There’s no connection to be made, and the music gets lost. Why should I spend a minimum of $125 to see U2 in a football stadium, when for $25 I can stand literally three feet from Adrian Belew while he performs.
And here’s the other thing: at an Adrian Belew or other niche gig, EVERYONE sticks out, because we are all a little different. Therefore, NOBODY sticks out. Being different helps you blend in. On more than once occasion, I looked behind me while Adrian Belew performed. I saw people from all walks of life, united in our geekiness for Adrian. If we shared a common trait, it might be that it was an “intellectual” looking crowd. But even that came in all shapes and sizes. Our diversity was defined differently, but it was present nonetheless.
This isn’t to say your niche show attendance worth won’t be tested. But the test has nothing to do with what you look like, or where you come from. Instead, the club crowd wants to know how knowledgeable you are about the artist taking the stage. Prove yourself worthy, and then you will be accepted. In short, all that matters is the music. Appearance is the last thing on our minds.
Nobody wants to go to a concert and spend half their time answering questions like, “What are you doing here?” It shouldn’t be necessary. This is the 21st century, for pity’s sake! As Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid reminded me when I interviewed him for my book, “Music is not a color (or an image). It is a sound.” And that sound either resonates within you, or it doesn’t. Sound doesn’t give a damn what you look like. But you can read about that in the chapter I call “‘Black’ Music.”
I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to go to any concert I wish without feeling self-conscious about it. Should I ever choose to attend another show in a large venue, I hope the unenlightened allow me to enjoy it in peace. Better still, I hope they revel in the fact that we have a mutual love for the same band. That’s how communities are built.
And Natalie, if you ever want to catch a couple of sets at Jazz at the Bistro, give me a call!