Blending In by Standing Out

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!

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11 Comments

  1. I always find the subject of race and rock fascinating so it’s interesting to hear this from your perspective. Some of rock’s earliest pioneers, especially (and notably) Chuck Berry and Little Richard were black. But what happened after that? Was it that the Beatles created such a strong template (combined with healthy doses of racism) that it wasn’t until Living Colour that we could see an all-black band?

    I’ve noticed over many years of concert-going that that were few black concert-goers and often the only black faces were on stage. The last (and one of the few) truly integrated shows I went to was the Stevie Wonder concert from a few years back. But question – if black audiences aren’t going to rock shows or jazz shows, where are they? I don’t intend to make you the representative of that audience. But is it hip-hop? Some neo-soul I’m unaware of? Final question – are you really a cop? I so, pretty cool. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There were still black artists in rock after Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The most obvious is Jimi Hendrix, who remains one of the most influential musicians of all time. There were also bands like Funkadelic in the early 70s. Miles Davis put jazz aside for a rock/funk-oriented groove during the same period. Sly Stone also tampered with rock, as well as the Isley Brothers. And the punk movement was heavily influenced by a Detroit trio called Death.

      The easiest answer to “What happened?” is Motown. The label created “The Sound of Black America,” or the R&B era. Hot on their heels were labels like Stax and Philly International. This also helps answer the question of where black concert audiences went, and where you’ll find many of them today. Only recently have the musical lines started to blur again.

      Yes, I am a cop. Have been for 22 years.

      Like

      1. True enough about those bands. I’ve written about most of them (not to mention Motown.) But the existence of those acts begs the question of why, say, a rock band like Living Colour was such a novelty in the ’80’s when they came along. Had the pattern continued that guys like Hendrix set 15-20 years earlier, there would have been more black bands, more integrated bands, more integrated audiences. (Or maybe I’m just being naive.) What interests me is not THAT you stand out at a Tool concert buy WHY you do. You and I know much prog-rock is excellent music. What keeps your peers from attending? Cultural issues? Racial issues? Tribal issues? Taste?

        Motown, of course, wasn’t the only vehicle for black music in the Sixties. There were a lot of acts (James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, etc.) that didn’t come within a mile of it and did OK. Lastly, curious about your ‘Black Music’ chapter teaser. A little taste of that please? What’s it’s emphasis or theses?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The short answer is “all of the above,” plus an irrational fear in certain communities of being ostracized for liking music against the community norm. I’ve seen this phenomenon in action, and it is heartbreaking.

        The chapter in question stems from an incident that took place in 1978, when I was in the sixth grade. I brought in a rock record for “Music Day,” which didn’t sit well with one of the two other African-American students in my class. He cornered me and asked, “Why didn’t you bring any BLACK music?” The chapter stems from that thought process.

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      3. When I did my Hendrix series, I related how when he played in Greenwich Village he was cool with the white crowd. Then when he went up to Harlem, they’d ask him why he was playing “white music.”

        You’re perhaps convincing me to read this book of yours. Is it out yet? Will there be a Kindle edition?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Sure. You can self-publish in all forms but Kindle is easy-peasy. I actually wrote a novel and stuck it up there. I think I’ve sold like, five copies. But it’s trivial to self-publish up there.

        Liked by 1 person

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