Talking Jazz

By Sholto Byrnes
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Last week, I did something I've never done before. I walked out of a concert that I was reviewing. This is quite different to not staying for both halves of a gig, which, in practical terms, is a necessity at, say, Ronnie Scott's.

In the days when I earned a living playing jazz rather than writing about it, I made it a rule never to get up before midday, so a late night at Ronnie's (the last set doesn't generally finish until 2.30am) was no problem at all. Most reviewers, though, must send in their copy in the morning, or even the same night, so it's rare to see a jazz critic in Frith Street after the headliners have finished their first set at midnight.

It is also different to sitting through a gig that you haven't enjoyed and leaving at the interval, by which time you will probably have heard at least 40 minutes and a full set, which ought to be representative of the artist's powers and sufficient material on which to write a critical assessment.

Walking out, however, is a completely different matter. I remember being outraged when a reviewer from another paper got up in the middle of an Al Jarreau concert, which he duly slated. He should, I thought, have stayed until the end, bitter though it might have been for him. I now look on his action with some sympathy, having experienced a concert of such offensive banality, and so below what the artist in question - who shall remain nameless - is capable of, that, if I was not to climb on stage and wrench the saxophone out of the wretched leader's mouth, the only option was to leave.

Television critics have it easy; they can just turn the box off. Theatre critics can enjoy a gentle snooze. I've seen two of our most eminent writers on the dramatic arts do just that during an extraordinarily tedious play. But unless you've brought earplugs, this is not possible when a highly amplified electric band is blaring in the Festival Hall.

Yet, breaking the code of the live performance, during which walking in late is almost as bad as departing early, is not done with a light heart. Just as some of us were taught that you don't get down from the table until every morsel has been consumed, however unpalatable, the concert demands that you remain in your seat until the end, and if there are seconds, in the form of an encore, it's polite to stay for those, too. It's drilled into you, it's as wired in the brain as an aversion to split infinitives or ready-made bow ties.

There is, too, the question of whether a critic can write a fair review having only sampled part of an artist's wares. Would a literary editor accept a review of a novel only half-read? I think so, under certain circumstances. If a reviewer was so disgusted by a novel that, after wading through 150 pages, he couldn't bear to turn another leaf, that reaction in itself is indicative of a critical opinion. The same applies to a concert. Miles Davis once said that if a man thinks a piece of music utter rubbish, he should have the self-respect to say so. And walk out, too, I like to think he meant.