Saturday, 12 February 2011

The speed of sound

Every so often I play in a very large hotel, jazz for eating to in a restaurant where the band is foisted on staff who really don't want it. Although some favourable comments come from diners I think many of them are also perturbed by music that isn't entirely bland, predictable and disembodied; piped as opposed to 'live'.

So what are we doing there? Believe me, I ask myself the same question every time we play. There are two benefits to ourselves, both slightly dubious. One is the money (poor, especially after the agent's removal of 15%) and the other is that in three one-hour sets we can play through the bulk of our repertoire, even tunes that don't often get an airing.

The benefit to the establishment is certainly lost on the senior waiting staff who never greet us on arrival, not even with a glance of recognition, nor return our goodbyes at the end. I can only think we are part of some corporate vision - somehow, dressed up in dinner jackets and bow ties, we go with the decor and pot plants.

Of course I exaggerate when I say the staff don't speak to us. Last time I was spoken to twice in the first number. First the head waitress pointed to the instrument I was playing and, without risking eye contact said
"That one, turn it down."
I duly complied. And a few moments later, while a customer stood with his five year old twins, actually listening (!) the head waiter came flapping his arms and saying
"Too loud, too loud."
(I spent the rest of the evening playing off-mic and as quietly as possible. No one asked me to turn up.)

In fairness, our sound-checking is rudimentary at this type of event, and we usually rely on co-operative staff to give us an indication of sound balance, so on this occasion the clarinet may have been a little shrill. But in the past it has usually been after an up-tempo number that we are asked to turn down. And this brings me to my point.

We are never asked to slow down but to turn down. And this is because fast music is more disturbing to the senses than slow music of the same volume. It is therefore perceived as being louder.

So jobbing musicians everywhere, remember to ascertain the nature of the gig. There are customers who love what we do. And there are customers who believe that, like children, jazz should be seen and not heard.