Distracted Listening at Wally's Jazz Club: Spatialization, Spectacle, and the Jazz Club Imaginary

Alex Stein


The recent shift in ethnomusicology towards "music in our own backyard" has witnessed work on Western Classical music, jazz, and a burgeoning interest in popular music studies. Still, there is a marked difference in the approaches taken within these arenas: whereas the extant studies of European classical music and jazz focus on communities of musicians to the exclusion of audiences, scholarship on popular musics takes a more holistic approach to the study of music-cultures, encompassing the musicians, the audience, industry, technology, and other intermediary players. In light of this shortcoming – that ethnographic methods have not been brought to bear in studies of jazz as a living, comprehensive music-culture – this paper focuses on the audience at Wally's, one of the premier jazz venues in Boston.
I've intentionally refrained from calling Wally's a jazz club – for me, the term denotes a setting where patrons have come to listen to jazz – where it is the focus of their attention. At certain times and for certain audience members, this can certainly be said to be the case at Wally's; but it might be more appropriate to call Wally's a jazz bar. The room is about 50 feet deep, but only about ten feet wide, half of which is taken up by the twenty-foot long bar. There is never a cover charge. On Friday and Saturday nights, the room is completely packed, with a line of customers waiting outside. From about the third bar stool from the bandstand forward, the audience is attentively focused on the band; but from that point back towards the door, which comprises about ¾ of the room's floor space, people are talking and drinking in twos, threes, and fours, and facing each other, only occasionally looking over towards the musicians or clapping at the end of a song. But their semi-engagement or divided attention doesn't seem to detract from what is a palpably vital musical and social setting. The audience members in the front seem to be adding a necessary intensity; the rest provide necessary numbers.
I'm interested in the ecology of this financially successful, vital, and longstanding jazz venue: How familiar are different audience members with jazz? Are they committed listeners? Are they insiders? Or merely outsiders drawn to a spectacle? What brings them to the bar? Does it have a reputation for its vibe and as a destination? How important is live jazz to the bar's appeal? Conversely, how important is the nature of the setting to the music's appeal? This line of inquiry will build a more holistic, ethnographically-grounded understanding of jazz as a contemporary music-culture.

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