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David Berger

They Always Know That You’re Pandering


David Berger


I got the following email a few days ago (as is):


Hi everyone,

What would be your suggestions for a crowd pleaser ?

My band will play as an opener for 15' before a major act at a local 

I have 15' to make my boys ( and girls ) shine.

I guess people who will attend know nothing about jazz, let alone Big Band so I am kind of decided to let aside my musical tastes and try to please the audience ( and thus the contactor ) with material suited for non educated ears ;)



I responded:


2 things: 
  1. You didn’t say what level your band is at. Range, soloists, etc. are crucial for picking repertoire
  2. I’ve led big bands for the last 48 years performing all over the US and Europe. At no time have I ever pandered to the audience. My job is to raise the consciousness of my audience. It’s my responsibility to them to represent the greatest composers and arrangers of our music and to inspire my musicians to play the music with love and authenticity.


The response from audiences has been universally extremely positive, not only from jazz fans, but also from non-fans who have told me that they didn’t know that jazz could be so entertaining. We start by entertaining, but the hidden message deep down in the music is life-affirming and inspiring. Giving an audience anything less is shortchanging and demeaning them. 


And received the following response (as is):


Hi Mister Berger,

First let me say that I appreciate your post.

  1. Level of the band is : medium level adults ( lead trumpet around High D-E, good soloists and a really good rhythm section )
  2. The situation I am is quite special if I may say so :

The band is a town's Music School Band, and the politics kind of forced the Festival 's musical director to have us play for a very little time ( hey, we're free ! ).

So the MD ain't too happy to have us with his programmed artists ( Reggae/Ska/Electronic Music...). 

Last year, I spotted one horn player for the entire three days of performance : one of the Drum Machine guy blasted a couple of notes with a trumpet. That shows the ever decreasing [sic] call for live instruments....

I am ashamed of making such a statement as I want to please the crowd but I have to prove that our band is worth it !

Even with non educated people attending, I plan to make it roaring ;)

The MD is quite grining with us playing, and is a pain in the a.... with me, because HE did lots of Festival programs and knows such and such ( whom I never heard of by the way ). Always has this condescendant tone with me

He even asked me to tell my people to dress not like hobos !! Such a jerk ! 

So my willing to make us shine, even with the lack of confidence showed !

So far, my set list would be :

Lets go to work ( Electro Deluxe )

Caravan ( Chicago version )

Lupin the Third Theme 

and I was hoping to get the Callum Au arrangement of Game of Thrones but alas, he wont let it go ;(

Any further help appreciated


Obviously, this is not a good musical situation, but it made me think about a few issues. Let’s unpack it.

There is a local big band that is given 15 minutes to open for a pop act. The question is whether to play great big band music and risk that the audience won’t get it, or to play music similar to what the pop act will play and hope that the audience will not notice the difference.

This is an age-old musical dilemma. Back in the heyday of big bands (yes, they were once America’s popular music), symphony orchestras tried to play swing music with disastrous results. “The Boston Pops sounds just like Count Basie,” said no one. The same thing goes for symphonies playing the Beatles or Nine Inch Nails.

The big band was invented to play jazz (specifically, swing music) for dancers. It is the American equivalent of the European Symphony Orchestra. It was designed for acoustic instruments. Until the advent of amplification in Rock and Roll, the only amplification in big bands was the microphone for the singer. By 1970 big bands were a relic of the past, and the few survivors embraced amplification to compete with the ever-increasing volume of pop music—the first step in acquiescing to pop aesthetics.

Jazz producers tried over and over to capture pop audiences by playing pop songs or songs that sounded like pop music. There were a few commercial successes in this area and even fewer musical successes. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when I heard older jazz musicians trying to play Rock and Roll, it seemed pathetic to me—like middle-aged couples dressing like hippies and doing the twist. Yikes! I’m still uncomfortable with Ellington’s attempts at the Beatles or Bob Dylan. There’s just not enough common ground.

Getting back to the dilemma at hand, I had this thought: what if I were approached by a group of White Nationalist morons, whose only exposure to motion pictures was internet porn, and asked to screen a movie for them because their leader sees me as some kind of expert in film. I’m not going to show a porn flick—they probably have watched much kinkier stuff online. So should I show them soft-core porn (weak plot and characters where everyone remains dressed and there is only simulated sex), or should I screen The Godfather?

Obviously, they would hate the soft-core film, because it’s a weak imitation of the very thing they love. It has some of the trappings, but none of the explicit sex. They’ll certainly hate this. Now, I might be taking a chance with The Godfather, but my guess is that if they hang in there for 10 minutes, they will be hooked. They might not grasp why this is a great film, but they will experience the art of it in an internal, visceral way.

And so, what I would recommend to the person who wrote the above emails, is to shoot the moon, push all in, go for broke, and play the greatest big band charts ever written. Forget pop tunes, TV themes, New York, New York, all the mediocre big band hits like In The Mood and String Of Pearls, and all the stuff published for high school kids.

When I was the conductor of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, we made our first big US tour in 1992—31 cities. We began each concert with Ellington’s Rockin’ In Rhythm. My back was to the audience while we played. When the number was over, I turned to face the audience—everyone had a look on their face of sheer amazement—like they had never heard music before. This same scenario was repeated every night for the next 5 weeks.

Yes, Rockin’ In Rhythm is a great piece of music, and yes, we had a band of great musicians, but the magic that the audience connected to was our energy. That’s what the pop groups have. Pop musicians are usually light on music, but the audience loves the authenticity of their energy. Those people on stage are doing the best they can. When jazz musicians play pop music, we condescend to it. We feel it is primitive, uninformed, ignorant, and beneath us. If we try to impose our jazz aesthetic on it, we sound out of place. There have been rare exceptions, and they are almost all in the distant past.

So, unless you can figure out how to perform pop music authentically, stay away from it. You will be an impostor and found out as soon as you put your trumpet to your lips. Better to be great at what you do, than to lower yourself to your perception of the audience.

As for dressing like hobos, I’ve gotta agree with the promoter. Jon Hendricks taught me to always dress better than the audience. You can be an artist, but if we are not entertainers, we are not going to sell our music easily.  Why put up unnecessary obstacles?

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  • Kenny Berger on

    Interesting how the universal reaction to this dilemma seems to be to cast subtlety to the wind, come out roaring and try to pin their asses to the wall with pure visceral force, which is exactly what’s wrong with the programming at virtually every high school and college jazz festival in the country.Unitiated listeners will just have to hear three notes (it won’t matter which ones) coming from a stack of Marshalls with the volume cranked up to forget everything you tried to do. By all means have an opening gambit to draw their attention but to start that way and then maintain or increase that level of intensity is a fool’s errand. in my years of classroom and ensemble teaching I have discovered one and only one way to redirect the attention of an unruly crowd. I keep talking but lower my voice to a nearly inaudible level. It sometimes takes a few minutes but sooner or later the people interested in what i might say end up shutting up the noise makers and order is restored. There are musical parallels to this. The word “dynamics” comes to mind.

  • Dan Aldag on

    A big yes to everything David wrote here. Never pander, and if you can’t win an audience over with great music, at least you went down swingin’ (pun intended.) “Rockin’ In Rhythm” never fails to light up a crowd. There’s lots of Basie charts that have both a visceral punch and musical quality – Ernie Wilkins’ chart on “Moten Swing”, Benny Carter’s “Vine Street Rumble”, Frank Foster’s “Blues in Frankie’s Flat”, just to name a few. Some of the Mingus Big band charts would work well in this context. Many of them are basically head charts, but “good soloists and a really good rhythm section” will make them sound great. “Moanin’”, “Nostalgia In Times Square”, and “Haitian Fight Song” are all high-energy charts.

  • Ben Makinen on

    Play Sing Sing Sing by Benny Goodman- that pleases everybody every time and may even, god forbid, get people dancing (that is what big bands originally did… right?)

    You cannot go wrong opening the night with your drummer doing the “Krupa/Webb” tom tom beat… edit the arrangement if you must to fit your bands strengths (cut solos, etc).

    Rehearse the heck out of the closing chorus, and you’ll end on a high note: prepare to have biz cards to hand out to those in attendance salivating to have you open their next function!

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