In an interview I saw with him, the great Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, when asked how important the audience was, replied (and I’m paraphrasing here), that since he (Nusrat) needed people to share his music with, the audience was important. But, he added, he principally sang to ‘the singer inside myself – because if I feel he can hear me, then ultimately the listeners will too’
I thought of this wonderfully insightful comment recently when once again the whole question of who we’re playing for – the audience or ourselves – came up via an interview with Greg Osby where Greg was making the point that we need to stop playing for ourselves, (or for other musicians), and play for the audience. In the current economical and musical climate, and when we see Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding doing so well, it’s hardly surprising that these kinds of questions would rise to the surface again. Should we be playing for an elite few aficionados, or should we be tailoring our music in order for it to connect with more people?
For me, it depends on what you see your music as being for. If you see your music as functional – i.e. being used for a specific purpose which is not necessarily connected to the music itself – for example a wedding, or providing background music for a corporate event – then clearly you must tailor your music to suit the public. In all of these cases your music has a functional role, a predetermined slot into which it must be fitted. And as a musician you are being paid to fulfil that role, so the contract is clear: successfully fulfil the role and receive X amount of money in return.
The vast majority of the music played in the world is functional – and always has been. Down through the ages, the musician has played a functional role – Troubador, accompanist to rights of passage, dance music provider, herald of sporting events etc.If you see your music as functional, and your role as primarily functional, then you must tailor your music to suit the event and the audience.
There is however another reason to play music – to express an idea, or to express an aspect of the personality or emotions of the performer. This is a very different musical philosophy to that required of the functional musician. In this, the performer (or composer), rather than fulfilling a preordained role, is trying to express something of him or herself through the medium of music. In order to do this you need ultimately to play for yourself first and the audience second. Not through any selfishness or self-indulgence, but because it’s only by being honest with and to yourself, that you can truly be honest to and with the audience. If you don’t believe in your own music – and believe in it absolutely – then how can you expect anyone else to? You’ve got to absolutely believe in your music and do everything you can to express that belief in your music (such as developing the tools for expression through practice and technique), before presenting it to a listening public. If you’re not getting off on it, then why should anyone else?
Greg seems to suggest that from now on he will be tailoring his music to suit what he believes the audience will enjoy. But will he still believe in the music as deeply as he did before effecting this change? If so, fair enough. But again, if so, then why wouldn’t his own artistic instinct have taken him in this direction before now? My own feeling on Greg’s music is that he is a real individual, a distinctive voice, who has made a fantastic contribution to creative music over the past 25 years. I can’t help feeling that if, when he was starting out, and he’d thought of audience first, and his own instincts second, that we wouldn’t have heard the musical riches that he has given us. His expression of his own unique personality through music is what makes his contribution so valuable – not whether huge numbers of people liked it or not.
In the end, with this argument, we are dealing with the difference between putting art and creativity first, or functionality and accessibility first. And this is not about art = good and functionality = bad, it is just a recognition of the difference between the two. Each has their role to play in music. All I’m saying is that if your primary goal is to express yourself through music, then you’ve got to be honest about it. If what you love and do well is play funk or hip hop, then this is what you should be presenting to an audience. If what you love and do well is play contemporary improvised music, then this is what you should be presenting. Any deviation from honesty will never be as effective. Jazz musicians often think they’re such good players that they can play anything well – which is simply not true. There have been so many dreadful attempts by jazz musicians to play what they see as more commercial music, they think they can intellectually and technically reproduce what others do by instinct, but this approach is always doomed. The music is never good since it’s not really played with any conviction. The players don’t believe in the music itself, they just believe that audience will like it. Which is very insulting to the audience, since the players are playing down to them.
And if you’re playing creative music, but your concerns are primarily for the audience and what they might like, what do you really know about them? How can you go into a room and know what the expectations, history, demeanour, and attitude of 200 strangers is? How can you know what kind of day they’ve had? Whether they like your music, or hate your music? Whether they're there because they read about you in the paper, because their friends dragged them along, or because they know every recording you’ve ever made? You can’t know any of that stuff. All you can do is be honest – play the music YOU believe in to the best of your ability and try and share something with the audience.
I believe that if you’re a creative musician, and you start to tinker with your music to fulfil what you believe are the expectations of others, then there is no way of avoiding producing worse music than if you simply played what you believed in. If you want to be more popular then play functional music, but it’s misguided to think you can have one eye on your creativity and be counting the house with the other.......
Here’s Nusrat, doing what Parker did, what Armstrong did, what Coltrane did, what Miles did – singing to the singer inside himself
Addendum: Thinking about this again, there’s one other type of musician whose role is almost a genre of its own – being a classical musician. Interpreting the music of great composers, developing the huge technical skills required for this, and presenting it to a listening audience is a unique role for a musician. It’s not creative in the way that say Monk was creative, but at times the level of interpretation involved (on the part of soloists and conductors), does require a creative mind and approach, and musicians such as Gould, Horowitz, Menuhin, Richter and Perlman are among the greatest musicians in any genre.