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MY KIND OF JAZZ

Unintended consequences: Big screens make jazz small

Howard Reich

12:52 PM EDT, September 3, 2013

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There once was a time when going to a jazz set meant escaping the TV, the computer, the smart phone – the entire over-connected world we live in.

The jazz club and concert hall served as a kind of sanctuary, relieving us – if only for a couple of hours – from the visual din of life in high-tech, plugged-in, always-watching America.

Not anymore. Four nights at the recent Chicago Jazz Festival and one night before that at the Ravinia Festival showed – with scorching brilliance – that the screens are invading sacred spaces.

Yes, Jumbotrons long ago became de rigueur at rock and pop concerts, to general acclaim. But the intimacy and intricacy of jazz require a fundamentally different relationship between musician and listener than the outsized screens allow.

That quickly became obvious this Labor Day weekend, when – for the first time – the Chicago Jazz Festival used the gigantic new LED screen at the Pritzker Pavilion, every moment of music-making writ large, for all to see. As the musicians performed, videographers zeroed in on them like paparazzi, the resultant images making saxophones look like skyscrapers and musicians' faces like the front of Mt. Rushmore.

There was no question that we now could behold the tiniest details of visual expression that previously went unnoticed at Pritzker jazz concerts of the past. Now all eyes in the audience could witness every scrunched up grimace and toothy smile (note to musicians: make sure to floss before going on stage). And people picnicking out on the lawn finally got to really see what was happening on stage.

But there was a steep price to pay for this sudden visual access: a fundamental altering of the way we perceive jazz and a diminishment of those who make it.

For starters, the screen – or, more specifically, the video crew – was deciding what we saw and, therefore, how we processed what was happening before us. When the screen revealed a Godzilla-sized guitarist, for instance, that was what you were watching, whether you wanted to or not (unless you closed your eyes, which kind of defeats the purpose of going out to a show). Suddenly the trombonist and the drummer and the bassist were less important, even if they happened to be playing an extraordinary solo.

The concertgoer, in effect, lost control of what to focus on, which often led to artistically unfortunate results at the Jazz Fest. For the "director" of the video crew, if there was one, often offered dramatic close-ups of the artist who wasn't driving the musical conversation at any given moment. So although the pianist might have been thundering at the keys, the screen showed us a lovely shot of a drummer in near-repose.

Because the action can shift so quickly in a jazz setting, the theme bouncing from one instrument to the next at the drop of a sixteenth note, no live-action camera possibly could keep up.

Moreover, the framing of the picture often was so poor that the musicians had to share the screen with all sorts of interlopers. Much of them time, we saw the backs of the heads of news photographers (not a pretty sight) taking pictures at the lip of the stage. And because the videographers captured not only the musicians performing but the enormous screen itself, those same disembodied heads of photographers bobbed across the top of the frame, as well.

For thoughtful jazz listeners, who study the interaction among players with unblinking concentration, the visual detritus was a distraction at best.

Perhaps even worse, though, was the effect of all this on the real live musicians. For suddenly they were dwarfed by projected images of themselves, the giants on screen making them look like little stick figures on the Pritzker stage. Because the 900-square-foot LED screen must have been bright enough to be seen from outer space, the musicians looked badly under-lit and, therefore, insignificant by comparison.

Jazz musicians can look heroic in a shaft of white light or in a well-conceived silhouette. Now they looked smaller than life.

Add to this the number of people in the audience documenting the proceedings by holding up their own screens – in the forms of tablets and smart phones – and you had a nightmare of technology intruding upon the purpose of the event in the first place: listening to jazz.

The Jazz Festival's repeated showings of an insipid tourism video promoting a visit to Chicago – for people in the audience who clearly already were in Chicago! – didn't help.

The visual effect was only slightly less distracting at Ravinia, where screens on the sides of the stage at least allowed the audience to look directly at the performers without much visual intrusion. Even so, however, you couldn't avoid seeing the screens in the corners of your eyes. And as Ramsey Lewis and Natalie Cole performed their sets last week, a sea of turned heads proved that much of the audience – maybe most of it – was looking away from the stage anyway and toward the big, brightly lit images on the periphery.

And who could blame us? The biggest, hottest visuals naturally draw our eyes, our attention and, alas, our musical focus.

It probably would be quixotic to suggest that the screens ought to go, for this is the era we now live in: the age of visual saturation. At least serious concert halls and intimate jazz clubs haven't succumbed to the seductions of the screen. Not yet, anyway.

But I fear that the increasing pervasiveness of large screens at live performances will redefine audience expectations for what happens at jazz shows indoors. Could it be that observing a jazz musician in concert – at merely normal size and minus the dazzling close-ups – will seem a little dull compared to what happens on a big screen? Might music itself – the sensuousness of its sound, the emotional tug of its harmonies, the contours of its melodies – feel less dramatic without the razzle-dazzle visuals?

If so, we will have lost a great deal, for a jazz set ought to be about one or more human beings on stage connecting directly to other human beings in the house, through sound. Yes, we want to see what's happening on stage, but we need to be able to receive the musical message directly, without interference from someone else's camera angles and close-ups, without someone else's decision about what's important and what's not.

We, the jazz listeners, ought to decide that. If we can't, we will have lost the essence of what going to a concert is all about: the meaning of sound.

No screen can convey that, at least not in live jazz.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich