Is the "no talking" policy in jazz clubs killing them?

"No talking" is the standard protocol in many jazz clubs around the world. Why? 

Jazz clubs may face a conflicted battle with strict "no talking" policies. It's the classic battle between art and commerce. On one hand the people that operate jazz clubs want to be taken seriously in their presentation of virtuosic jazz artists. The musicians themselves often want to be taken seriously. On the other hand  jazz clubs have a real need to be profitable. The cities are littered with dead jazz clubs that have vainly and naively tried to build a business on jazz instead of customers. 

Jazz clubs seem to be places meant for jazz philosophy, musicians and uber jazz fans exclusively. Famed jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis once said there are "no normal people at jazz clubs". He said that jazz club audiences were made up of "musicians and avid jazz fans". He may be right. That leaves a lot of potential customers and jazz fans out in the cold. The focus is as narrow as peeking through the crack of a barely open door. It's like Ned Flanders "Leftorium" store on The Simpsons; the store that specialized in selling only products for left-handed people. Business experts however will point out that success in business depends on having many customers, not a few. Wouldn't it be interesting to see how a jazz club with a "no talking" policy would be perceived on  the TV show Dragon's Den.

Who listens to jazz and why?

A 2011 American jazz audience study reported that "By a wide margin, jazz buyers prefer informal settings for live jazz shows, especially clubs and lounges." Those jazz buyers are not just slim men wearing black turtle necks and berets. They are a wide variety of people including older couples, young 20 something women and yes a few very serious jazz fans. For "normal people" it's fun to go out for a night of jazz. You can get a little dressed up, drink some fancy cocktails and probably have something delicious to eat. According to the JAI study the mass majority of jazz supporters are choosing jazz to have fun. But if you try to talk during the show a surly manager might descend upon your table, glare at you coldly and tersely "Shhhhh!" you. Yes, you're a grown adult and you'll get "Shhhh'd" if you engage with your friends when the music is playing. As an adult, how does being "Shhhh'd" feel to you? Suffice to say, jazz clubs can often be elegantly frustrating. Is the music really more important that the guests?   

You might not know that I'm both a jazz supporter and a participant. I joyfully support jazz when I host a radio show called Tonic each night on CBC Radio 2 but I'm also a jazz participant on stages throughout the year singing my own brand of "drinky jazz" all over Canada. The biggest compliment I get is when "regular people" come out to one of my shows. I know who the "regular people" are in a split second: they are the ones whose eyes light up when I make my opening remarks informing everyone, "There will not be a "no talking" policy in effect tonight. Tonight is your night to have fun at this incredible venue! Eat, drink, talk and laugh. Enjoy the people you came with and the others around you. More than anything I hope that tonight you might experience the funnest night of jazz you will ever have. Enjoy yourself thoroughly because if I'm doing my job, I will earn your ears one song and one story at a time." At that moment you can see the tension in the room melt away. Food and drink sales typically sky rocket at the venue as well.

The stage is a place that can be either "owned" or "shared". In my opinion the stage at a jazz club isn't just the raised part with the lights shining down on it. The stage is the entire room where the magic and improvisation happens that includes the audience. It's a conversation. 

Occasional "no talking events" may work at jazz clubs if they are promoted that way. It's understandable that sometimes people want to just sit and listen. Setting aside listening events and marketing them in that way could be a real boon for business. The other six days of the week loosen up and let your audiences enjoy themselves. Believe it or not the musicians are used to having people talk and have fun. 

Jazz clubs are not theatres. Jazz clubs are restaurants and cocktail lounges. They have servers with steaks and martinis to deliver and yes, one of the features on the menu is music. The business at jazz clubs isn't "Shhh'd" while the musicians are on stage. Why are your guests often held to a different standard? 

Tim Tamashiro