For some time now I have been thinking about how music doesn’t just have a technology problem – dealing with pirate downloads, monetizing the Web, etc – but that it has a culture problem, especially in America. The real problem facing musicians is that America has invested for sixty years in the automobile suburb complex and developed increasingly potent home entertainment devices. As a result, people here in the home of jazz and rock and roll are decreasingly comfortable with what urban planners and sociologists refer to as the third place. If your home is your first place, and work is your second, the permeable, open public space of cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops are types of third places, where people go to congregate and take part in culture. Increasingly, Americans – among others – have made the digital realm their third place, and have left the physical third place to be degraded and forgotten. As a result, you listen to “music” – a pre-chewed digital experience – on Spotify or Rhapsody or YouTube – you don’t associate it with a live experience shared with your fellow citizens in a place you all cherish.
And if you hadn’t noticed, most people in America have forgotten how to appreciate live music. It is largely a foreign concept, replaced by DJs who catapult recorded “tracks” onto them, or worse, replaced entirely by the drone of television, blaring sports and car advertisements to nobody in particular as they masticate their chicken wings. So it’s no wonder that musicians of all levels of accomplishment now share the bizarre experience of playing intricate, beautiful music ten yards from a bunch of yammering suburbanites splitting their attention with the Playoff game of the moment and ads for Cialis.
One man has made it his life’s work to reversing the trend, all in the name of jazz. Jon Lorentz, is a jazz musician, educator, event promoter and proud son of Shrewsbury, Vermont, a man with whom I’m proud to have grown up. He is the executive director of the New Hampshire Jazz Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing live, swinging music to Northern New England. Jon’s shows now feature a unique concept, featured here in DownBeat magazine: listening-only rooms. Not just a place to listen to music – your local pub has that, replete with clanging busboys and the aforementioned boob tube – but places where you come to do nothing but appreciate music.
NH Jazz Presents—which produces shows at Studio 99 in Nashua and at a rehabilitated barn in Brandon, Vt., as well as Pitman’s Freight Room in Laconia (though at press time the Laconia venue was set to move to Blackstone’s Lounge)—has adopted a listening-room policy. No conversation, no cell phones, no cameras and no texting are permitted. “It’s cutting down on distractions so that people can get lost in the music a little bit,” he says.
Lorentz also books a combination of regional and national artists. But he’s had to take a harder line: It’s not merely a listening room, it’s listening only. “Just last night up in Vermont, I saw a woman try to take pictures with her iPad, holding it up in the air. Of course, I talked to her and told her what was going on.” Lorentz has, on occasion, asked uncooperative customers to leave. Harsh enforcement, however, hasn’t diminished his audience: “I’m gonna see a good portion of the community tonight in Laconia.”
It has been fifty years since Americans were used to walkable neighborhoods with live musicians performing vital art at local venues, appreciated for their artistic merit. Members of a new generation won’t simply remember on their own. It will take leadership, a stand for culture and against crude suburban barbarism. God bless Jon Lorentz.