What I Learned from John Pizzarelli

My wife and I attended a John Pizzarelli concert a few weeks ago. Pizzarelli puts on a fantastic show and I’m a big fan. I have seen him in concert before and knew what to expect: great performances from the American Songbook, burning solos, and great story telling. This night, I was assuming, would be no different.

When Pizzarelli and his quartet stepped on the stage you could sense something was off, something was not what I expected. He looked like he might be ill. His piano player seemed to be holding on the piano for dear life in between tunes and seemed worse off than Pizzarelli. Two of these high caliber musicians were not 100%. You could tell by looking at them Pizzarelli and his pianist were not feeling well. You could not, however, tell by the music they were producing. Every tune was executed with great precision and spontaneity. Stories were funny and gripping. The entire concert was an absolute joy to experience.

So what did I learn from an ill jazzer?

1) Let people know how you feel but don’t make them feel sorry for you
Pizzarelli made mention of his “212 degree body temperature” but did so in a humorous way. He did not lament about his horrible condition but used this to endear himself to the audience. He didn’t hide how he was feeling. He let the audience know. I feel this kind of honesty is important in performance. Let people know what is going on without having them pity you. Humor goes a long way in making the audience feel at ease when you are not 100%.

2) The music never suffered 
A great jazz ensemble communicates with one another, listening intently to how a soloist is expressing a line or comping. Pizzarelli was in the moment, as was his pianist, the duration of the concert. How one is feeling physically should not effect the music being performed. I had a guitar teacher tell me once that, “you should know your music so well, that even if you have the flu every note and nuance can still be executed with perfection.” Pizzarelli and his group knew every tune (chords, melody, form) perfectly and executed flawlessly. This kind of “perfection” is worked out in the practice room.

3) The audience comes to hear you perform your music, not to hear your music
We went to watch and hear Pizzarelli perform his music, not just listen to his music. Obvious statement, right? If people are coming to watch you perform your music then you must engage the audience. Pizzarelli is a master of this. There is never a doubt that he is not taking in every moment, watching the reactions of the crowd, heckling people who entering late, noticing when people laugh. Sometimes I miss the crowd. I focus more on my playing, my sound, my execution. I miss the reason people are there in the first place. People come to watch and hear you perform your music. If they want to hear your music an iPod playing your music in the comforts of home is a better choice for most.

4) Every audience is different
Each place you perform is comprised of different people. Engaging with the audience means that you have to be aware of your surroundings and tailor your stories and music appropriately. Pizzarelli made mention of his father, Bucky Pizzarelli, early on in the show. He could sense the crowd knew who his father was and responded well to that story. The remainder of the night he recounted story after story about his father. He was spot on with his stories and subject, the crowd listened intently to them. Every audience is different. Get to know them. Sense what they are responding to and go there, not what you have pre-programmed. 

Preparation is key to successful performance in any situation. Engaging with your audience is equally important.

What are some ways you engage your audience? 



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