In Defense of Live Music


"Jazz is there and gone. It happens. You have to be present for it. That simple." 

- Keith Jarrett 


In 1970, my father founded Controls For Automation, Inc. in Waltham, MA. He explained to me that he would go into factories at companies such as Honeywell and GE and redraw workflows to show management and engineers how his machines could replace people and save his customers money. As a kid, I was (and am) proud of my dad. He worked very hard and he actually created jobs for the people who worked at his company. I assumed that automation must be a good thing, and in some ways, it is – but not when it comes to the arts. 

Professions in the arts are the one area expected to withstand the forces of automation. Yet there will be threats, such as Adobe’s new tool that can listen to a speaker for 20 minutes and then create words that sound like s/he said them ( Adobe promises not to abuse the technology. Let’s hope they keep that promise. 

My first night performing at an elegant hotel in South Beach, I received a $600 tip from a particularly appreciative fan. My accompanist said that he hadn’t seen anything like that since the 1980’s, when there were thousands of live music venues in South Florida and money was no object. That number is drastically lower today. In fact, when I Googled “live music venues in South Florida,” I found venues with live DJs (spinning records) included in my search. Pre-recorded music, no matter how artfully spun, isn’t live - but paying one DJ is cheaper than paying several musicians. The same phenomenon is happening in cities and towns around the world, and it makes me very sad. 

When I first began to perform professionally, I was asked to sing using backing tracks – a form of musical automation. The venues and agents who suggested this approach were trying to work within reduced entertainment budgets. As much as I wanted the work, I said “no.” To me, it was karaoke. I’ve always enjoyed singing karaoke at a karaoke bar for fun – even better after a drink or two - but as a performer, to me, using backing tracks is singing by numbers, and it’s not what I want to do. 

There’s a very talented singer I know who is willing to make this compromise. He performs with a computer to his right that contains each backing track on his set list. During the instrumental portion of each song, he pantomimes and engages the crowd to keep them entertained until he and his audience hear his pre-recorded cue to sing again in the style of the singer who made each track famous. He leaves his audience smiling, but with little sense of his originality and artistry. 

As a live performer, I see the difference that live music makes. When I enter a venue that is playing Muzak, people don’t react to it; most tune it out. But when the pianist starts to warm up, the drummer or bassist starts to play and I start to sing, people tune in and turn around to watch and listen. The room connects. Couples stand up and dance or sit holding hands. People tap their feet or smile wistfully as they remember a special time and place. Even if it’s a song they’ve heard many times before, when it’s performed live, no one knows exactly what will come next – particularly with the improvisation that is jazz. When people come up to me after a performance and tell me how I moved them with a song, I see the power and beauty in live music that automation cannot replace. 

The sound of each human voice and musical performance is unique. A live performance is a tightrope walk – you never know if the performers will deliver or how the audience will react. It’s this excitement that makes live concerts thrilling. In today's stressful times, there is much to divide us. Live music unites us. How can we let this simple and wonderful pleasure go? 

Our economy is ruled by supply and demand. If you enjoy live music, help create the demand! Go to venues that support it. If you see one that doesn’t, ask for it! Speak to the managers at your local bar, restaurant, café or hotel. Tell them that you’d really enjoy listening to live music there, and if they offered it, you’d tell your friends and come more often. Trends can be reversed, and each of us can do our part. I believe in the power of one, and I thank you.

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