If you’re a jazz musician, you probably took one look at the headline “How jazz musicians can learn from Bon Jovi” and rolled your eyes. The rock group Bon Jovi is probably one of the least jazzy bands in the world, although there is a common influence of the blues in both genres.
If you’re rolling your eyes right now, stay with me for a minute, because it’s worth it.
A while ago, I read an interview with David Bryan, the keyboard player in Bon Jovi. Bryan was doing an instrumental duo tour with (I think) a sax player, which I thought was pretty cool for a rocker who was accustomed to playing hit songs to large stadiums of fans.
But in this tour, they were playing instrumental versions of their songs in smaller venues. In other words, Bryan was having fun doing something different.
What really got my attention was when the interviewer asked David what the biggest challenge was about playing in a duo setting. Since I play a lot of jazz in addition to rock, I expected Bryan to give an answer that involved the challenge of adapting the songs from a band to a duo, or something along those lines.
Instead, he said that the biggest challenge they faced was getting the audience involved.
I had to read that a few times before it sunk in, because getting the audience involved is probably the last thing most jazz musicians think about. Yes, the want the audience to enjoy their music, but it’s a strictly performer/listener situation. In fact, Chick Corea is one of the only jazz musicians I can think of who routinely gets his audiences involved during his concerts. Chick will get them singing his improvised phrases back to him and has recently begun inviting a few audience members onstage with him while he improvises musical “portraits” of them.
But besides Chick, not many jazz musicians are interested in this.
While David Bryan’s comment took me by surprise, it quickly began to =make sense to me. As a member of Bon Jovi, he frequently experiences the joy of having an audience participate, whether it’s by singing along or roaring it’s approval during the intro of a favorite song.
In the year or so since I first read Bryan’s remarks, I’ve begun experimenting with having the audience participate during my solo piano performances.
Sometimes I’ll ask them to do vocal percussion. (This works well in both jazz and pop styles.) I’ll also sometimes ask them to guess the title of my next piece, giving them a hint or two.
When I was performing a solo piano piece on July 20, 2018 at The Blue Loon, in Fairbanks, Alaska, I introduced the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” this way. I asked the audience if they could name which character in a Beatles song that “keeps her face in a jar by the door.” About 5 audience members immediately called out “Eleanor Rigby!” it was a fun moment.
And then I asked the left side of the room to sing the phrase “Ah, look at all the lonely people,” and the right side of the room to respond with the violin phrase “Da da da da da da da da da.” I then played a jazzy, improvised version of this great song and cued them in at those sections. We all had an enjoyable time collaborating and it was a nice way to involve the audience on a solo piano piece. While this performance wasn’t strictly “jazz,” it did involve a jazzy improvisation, and the lessons learned here can easily be applied to jazz performances. Audiences would enjoy clapping the responsive rhythm on the tune “Moanin'” or even singing that lyric as you play the chords.
You can check out “Eleanor Rigby” here, and then see if you can find similar ways to involve the audience on your own favorite pieces. And yes, we can thank David Bryan of Bon Jovi for the excellent idea!
Eleanor Rigby piano solo with audience participation
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