“MAKING THE CONNECTION"
by D.D. Jackson
[originally published in DownBeat magazine, May/03]
I recently performed during a solo piano tour in Japan at an unusually intimate, bar-like venue. Most of the gigs on this particular tour were smaller-sized, but for the most part the audience was knowledgeable about jazz and in many cases fans of the music in general and even my music in particular. But at this particular place, not only could I have played “Three Blind Mice” over and over again and received the same indifference, but the audience smoked relentlessly and talked amongst themselves. When I was done each piece, no matter how dramatic it ended, the audience greeted it with anywhere from stony silence to utterly tepid applause.
There are certainly far worse fates in the world than being in a beautiful, exotic country with the chance to play my own music for anybody. But it still it had been a long time since I had performed in such an atmosphere, and the incident made me reflect on my early, formative years of paying dues.
I remembered my brief cruise ship stint, playing for people dangling supposedly promising dollar-bill tips in front of my nose as I played if only I would sing, or performing essentially for the hired help at a now-defunct Greenwich Village jazz club in my pre-dinner solo piano series in conjunction with my music school. I remember providing dinner music for an elegant Chinese restaurant, or being one of an invisible band of musical wallpaper at weddings, providing occasion music but without any expectation other than the music fit the occasion ... and not be too loud.
But I also remembered my desperation to be heard, even in those situations; to try to connect with the audience, no matter how small or seemingly oblivious. It’s a common cliché, but a good one, that if you reach just one person in a crowd, then you’ve achieved some form of success. I remember always taking such notions to heart, trying my hardest to connect, communicate, not with flash or accommodation but sincerity; to move one person to tears who was otherwise there just to grab a beer or try the fried won tons.
And more often than not, I succeeded—or at least started to succeed, over time. I found that it didn’t really matter, at least back then, the size of the crowd, or even if anyone was paying attention. Whatever the occasion, as long as I could express something that I felt was honest and meaningful, as long as I could connect with at least one person in an otherwise faceless crowd, I was achieving what I had sought out to do: communicate what was inside me to the outside world in some small way. By doing so, I could share a piece of my own reality such that it might have meaning in someone else’s.
There was a lesson, doing those gigs, and there still is for me even today. Faced with my sea of indifference in Japan, I put my nose to the grindstone and just played. I left the stage feeling frustrated but glad the gig was over. After the show, I called my girlfriend in New York to commiserate.
And while I was on the phone with her backstage, someone knocked at the door, shyly wanting my autograph. I had made that small connection, once more. On to the next city...