How Not to Act Like a Garage Band on Your Next Jazz Gig

Earlier this week, while one vacation, I found myself in a local coffee shop (no wifi where we were staying) checking up on the world, when three musicians started setting up. I was actually excited, because I love live music and well, honestly, even poorly executed live music is often less irritating to me than some of the pop played on radio stations.

As the trio warmed up, I got even more excited because I was hearing some jazz. As the night wore on they mixed things up with interesting mash-ups of rock, jazz and blues. As far as the music was concerned it was great. They played well together, they played interesting music and there was some variety.

Unfortunately, there was only 5 people in the coffee shop and maybe another dozen or so outside. It was beautiful outside, and truthfully that’s where I would have been if I hadn’t needed to be near an outlet. Because of the lack of audience, which I know is super challenging as a performer, this trio performed like a garage band having a jam session.


This is where things went downhill for me…

  • There was next to no interaction with the audience
  • When I did clap at the end of the tune they were shocked and instead of thanking me they made a sarcastic comment about “how that never happens”
  • They didn’t announce who they were or what tunes they were playing
  • They sat in the dark and didn’t clear away their cases from the stage. (I realize that sometimes you are at the mercy of the venue on things like that.)
  • They didn’t come and talk to anyone in the room on break or when they were done

This is one of the biggest mistakes musicians, and especially jazz musicians make. I’ve seen it time and time again – it’s not the music, it’s the rest. The stuff that no one teaches you in school, but which is arguably the most important! Yes, you have to have your music together, but that’s just the beginning. Every time you perform you have to:



Play to 5 people the same way you would play to 50 people the same way you would play to 500 people the same way you would to 5000 people. Your audience, no matter how they happen to get there, deserves your very best.

But what does that mean? It means that you

  • Play your best. Take risks. Enjoy yourself. Show the audience that you’re happy to be there. Show the audience you’re happy they are there too.
  • Interact with the audience. Even if it’s just one person. Make that person know that you appreciate them.
  • Talk to your audience both on and off the bandstand – not just your friends, but new faces too. You never know who might be in the audience. (This trio made the mistake of assuming that I was just another coffee shop college student too engrossed in my iPad to be paying attention to their music – but they were wrong!)

What’s the best way to learn stage presence and audience interaction? Watch and mimic. Know someone who is amazing with an audience? Someone who sucks you in and makes you forget about the world outside? Talk to them and ask them how they do it. Most likely they will be wiling to share.

By the way, I did go up to these guys after the gig and told them that I was a jazz musician on vacation and that I enjoyed their music. They were shocked. But they were really nice. They asked about me and what I did. I wish that I had seen that kind of kindness and interest during their set. Turns out this is a regular gig for them. Maybe that’s part of the problem too – you get a comfortable gig and you maybe you start to relax. But if the only sure thing in life is change, steady gigs end. Make the most of them!

How do you interact with the audience? Or do you know someone who is amazing? Share your story in the comments below!


6 thoughts on “How Not to Act Like a Garage Band on Your Next Jazz Gig

  1. My best ever audience was pretty big – over 200 – and college kids who liked both the familiar AND something new. Open mic, Bullfeathers, Buffalo NY, 1983. I introduced myself with a falsehood: “those who know me, know I open with the pledge of allegiance…” so I began and by the end of it most had joined in. Then I hit hard with the lyric: “there were jokes I heard when I was young / the simple life, the American dream, justice be done / I must have had no sense of humor, I must have had none at all / to have taken such a great step / stake on such a fall…” they loved the bite – and through a series of originals showed great enthusiasm, joining the “Do Dodoo du do” chorus of QUIETLY SOMEWHERE ELSE. I finished with the Beatle’s SHE LOVES YOU. But I sang a harmony of the verses and chorus – so they were compelled to provide the main melodies. Roaring exit with many hands grabbing for a shake and compliment. It’s a bit sad if only five people come to your gig – but it’s true they deserve your best. Don’t be mad at them for the thousands who stayed home.

    • Hi Robert,
      Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your story. Sounds like a great gig you had there. Did anyone teach you how to interact with the audience or did you just know intuitively?

      It can be hard not to be bummed when you have more people on stage than in the audience (old joke), but you have to just suck it up. You just never know who might be in the audience, ya know?

  2. Wonderful article! It always amazes me how some musicians completely ignore and/or alienate themselves from their audience. In my opinion, much of this rises from insecurity. In these coffee house (and other small venue) situations, it almost seems a bit of a “preemptive strike” to dis your audience before they dis you. As if saying, “Yes, I know you’re not listening, but so what. We’re probably too hip for you anyhow.” Very sad when that happens. Your advice was spot on. Bottom line, stay present when performing, and that means acknowledging and interacting with your audience. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thanks so much Bill! (I apologize for taking so long to reply.) I notice musicians ignoring or alienating the audience as well, sometimes intentionally and sometimes they are completely unaware. It’s like the person who can’t take a compliment – you’re supposed say “thank you” and leave it at that. I see this often with younger less experienced musicians (or students) and it’s like no one talked to them about how to acknowledge, more or less engage the audience. And then they never work on that skill and grow up to be skilled professional musicians lacking the ability to interact with the audience. It’s a terrible cycle.

  3. It may be old fashioned, and I know it’s not currently trendy, but I also like to see musicians dressed up, even a little, no matter what the venue. Makes it seem like they went to a little effort to make their gig a special occasion.

    • Hi Tom! Thanks so the comment. (I apologize for taking so long to reply.) I have mixed feelings about dressing up, but it’s only because of personal reasons – I hate dressing up and always have. I’m a jeans and t-shirt girl and if I could wear that on every gig I would be comfortable and happy. But I agree that looking nice carries with it a sense of professionalism. Any gig is a special occasion, I agree! (Although, if it goes too far it’s just stuffy). I’m sure there is a balance in there somewhere. 🙂

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