Jamie Cullum creates some noise

Sarah KirkupThu 6th May 2010

Should background chatter at jazz gigs be tolerated?

I went to a Jamie Cullum gig last night and it was great. (Before you ask, “What’s this got to do with classical music?” please bear with me.) I went to a Jamie Cullum gig last night and it was great – at least, what I could hear above the constant babbling, gossiping, laughing and clinking of glasses was.

The venue was The Grand in Clapham, the Victorian-era listed building that originally opened as a music hall in 1900. Its ornate balconies and swirly patterned carpet gives it a unique atmosphere – as does its resonant acoustic. Which is fantastic for hearing musicians strut their stuff – an acoustic improvisation of “Cry me a river” from Cullum and his band down amongst the crowd to complete the show could be heard from every corner of the theatre – but not so great when it comes to background chatter. Every whisper, every comment, becomes amplified, so that you’re in no doubt of what your neighbour thinks during every second of the performance.

This wasn’t a problem during the upbeat, big-band numbers. The drums, the double bass, the brass – a fantastic jazz trumpeter and an equally adept sax player – and Cullum’s riffs on the piano, together with his surprisingly strong, raw-edged voice, could hold their own above the din. But it was when Jamie slowed things down with some beautiful ballad numbers – often involving just him and the piano – that things went awry. While he was crooning away, doing his utmost to create a special, intimate atmosphere, people carried on chatting.

Which brings me to my point: are we, as audiences, only entitled to ask for peace and quiet from our fellow listeners during a classical concert, or does this extend to other musical genres, too? Some of us last night were clearly put off by the noise and by what seemed like a blatant lack of respect, even resorting to tell others to “shhhh” at times (to no avail, I hasten to add). While the rest clearly felt it was their prerogative to enjoy the music in a way that felt right to them – even if that meant to continue talking and drinking with little attention to the musicians on stage.

To be fair to the noisy culprits, Cullum didn’t seem to care in the slightest. He was “in the zone”, and his rapport with his fellow musicians didn’t seem to suffer. So was I being unnecessarily “stuffy” or did I have every right to feel miffed that my enjoyment was being ruined by others?

Sarah Kirkup

Sarah Kirkup has been Deputy Editor of Gramophone since 2010. She has a particular interest in the connection between classical music and dance, especially ballet, and has written about this subject for Gramophone and other publications, including those at the Royal Opera House.

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