As a musician, it’s easy to think that the worst live experiences are those in which there is little or no audience to perform to. You go to the trouble of getting your ass to a gig only to find that the only people in attendance are the other bands you are sharing the bill with. This is a perfectly understandable view, and in fact the majority of my gig career to date has been spent performing to hardly anyone (edit: spent performing at ‘intimate venues’). However, there are certain types of gigs that are so disheartening they make the absence of an enthralled audience seem like a divine blessing.
Years ago, when studying drums at percussion at Box Hill TAFE, I was part of a Jazz trio featuring fretless bass, saxophone and myself. We did gigs around Melbourne to earn extra cash, and although these usually paid rather well they were nevertheless embarrassing affairs. Ever since someone decided that jazz, wine and cheese were natural bedfellows, it has become the norm for Jazz music to simply be wallpaper and pedestrian- something that makes party goers feel as if they are more cultured and refined than those attending the punk gig next door. Jazz has become rather like the Church; no-one really pays attention to it but many of us feel better simply for knowing it’s there. This situation is not helped by Jazz’ apparent inability to come up with new classics. There is only so many times one can listen to Take Five before becoming bored.
To be fair, our embarrassing gigs were not all the fault of a bland symbiosis of Jazz and middle class culture. We had a part to play in our own shame, and this was simply due to the fact that our bass player decided that we were to be known as 6 Inch Groove. There. I said it. Lame huh? So there you have it- an embarrassing trio playing embarrassing jazz standards. If I was a promoter I wouldn’t have hired us based on our name alone, but for some reason the gigs kept rolling in for us. We had already played some shockers (dressed in novelty Jockey outfits, 2003’s Melbourne Cup breakfast was particularly bad), yet things would take a further depressing turn when we were offered a Sunday afternoon residency at the Doncaster Hotel.
In theory the month-long run of gigs sounded good. They paid well and were close to where all of us lived. There was no reason not to do it, and certainly after our first Sunday we thought we were onto a winner. We were asked to set up and play on an outside porch where customers would eat their dinner. That first Sunday there must have been about 25 people watching us (not bad by jazz gig standards- it’s the Rock equivalent of playing an arena). It all seemed like an easy way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Yet when we returned the following week we noticed that there were only 5 people sitting outside to watch us. Of these, 3 looked confused, one disinterested and another young boy looked thoroughly amused. Someone who was not amused, however, was the restaurant manager, who seemed to be blaming us for the poor turnout. I knew things were taking a turn for the worse when this same manager came over to us in between sets and gruffly threw down a single ticket onto our table. The ticket entitled the band to a small soft drink each and a bowl of chips. When we ordered these at the bar we were treated with thinly veiled contempt, presumably for costing the establishment an additional $15 on top of what they were already paying us. This was not the glamorous musicians life promised by my music teachers.
We left that day firmly believing that we would not be required the following Sunday. To our surprise (and my dread) we were in fact asked back. The manager even sounded chirpy, and was expecting big things from a newly launched menu. T-Bone steak apparently makes Jazz sound better.
In any case we arrived the following Sunday and were devastated to see that literally no-one was sitting in the outdoor porch area. We took our time setting up, hoping that the sight of real instruments would generate interest, yet it was not to be. Not one-person made their way to the porch, which was perhaps understandable as the weather was cold and looked like raining.
So, like soldiers, we carried on, finishing each song to a deafening roar of emptiness and indifference. I did a drum solo for nobody. The bass player imitated Jaco Pastorius for the entertainment of some tables and outdoor heaters. The manager stuck his head out a few times and shot us filthy looks, but we carried on in the cold, knowing that this was probably our final hurrah at the Doncaster Hotel.
The icing on the cake came when the Janitor came out onto the porch and asked if we would mind if he got a head start on the cleaning, as there was no-one there to watch us anyway. Perhaps this sounds like a minor embarrassment to you, but in the mind of an aspirational career drummer it was a moment of utter depression. We still had an hour to go. The manager wouldn’t let us finish early. So, as we launched into Blue Bossa, I felt the lick of electrical cord around my ankle. It was the janitor vacuuming around the drums. My heart sunk even lower. ‘Don’t mind me mate,’ he said apologetically. ‘This won’t take a minute.’ He carried on with this for the next half an hour. Somewhere nearby a waiter had smashed an abandoned glass on the floor. I couldn’t help but feel it was an analogy for my jazz career.
The positive in all this was that, at the very least, no-one was there to witness my jazz downfall and abject humiliation.
Six Inch Groove finished the gig and vowed never to play together again. We were not to speak of this moment to anyone, and if we saw each other on the street we were to cross sides. For my part, I went home, put on the Who for 3 hours and promised myself that the next time I appeared live people would have no choice but to pay me attention.