A couple of weeks ago, Kanye West and Mos Def crashed a gig by the pianist/keyboardist/hip hop's official jazz guru Robert Glasper and the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. Lupe Fiasco was already on hand as a special guest, meaning this gig would have filled Giants Stadium, let alone the Blue Note's airliner-thin interior. CiscoNYC has the record here.
After the planned set, Mssrs. Def and West got into some spirited freestyle battling. I'm not going to pretend to be some arbiter of the match (though Kanye can make an egotistical rant sound riveting). To be frank, it was the audience involvement, especially during Kanye's go, that got me thinking.
For the the Glasper originals that opened the show, the audience was as polite as you could be at a jazz show, quietly chatting, applauding at appropriate points, etc. Even with Chris Dave digging into a massive pocket on the drums, the audience seemed to treat the whole thing as a mere sonic appetizer. When Kanye began his freestyle, the audience was deeply engaged. There were big responses when he rhymed "urine" with "touring," used big words like "Illuminati," and threw in a chorus-ending reference to "Jesus Walks."
Throughout West's performance, I couldn't help but think how they related to a great bebop solo. In any great solo, the player throws out some licks that feel irresistibly impressive - filled with lots of notes, flying in and out of the key, ending in the screaming upper range - just like West's virtuosic way with words. A well-timed musical quote, like those used by the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, can add a strong dose of humor as well. Considering that great jazz improvisers and great rap freestylers use the same improvisational techniques, the difference in contemporary audience response between a jazz solo and a piece of freestyle is jarring.
The easy answer for this discrepancy even within the Glasper gig is that young listeners haven't listened to much jazz at all and so impressive runs have no meaning to them. But then again, improvisation is well-received among the young, whether at a concert with Phish or the Roots or with the local party band that jams out over James Brown tunes. I think part of the audience response problem is the context in which people today here jazz the most - classy restaurants and concert halls. These two venues put a premium on manners and appropriate behavior, rather than letting the listener freely engage with the music by cheering or dancing.
If one moves hard-swinging jazz out of these venues and into basement rock clubs, the performance vibe skyrockets. A couple of years ago, I saw the saxophonist Joshua Redman at the Highline Ballroom, a club more inclined to more popular strains of music than what jazz is now. With most of the crowd on its feet scattered around the room, the unyielding groove of the band's two bass-two drum attack got bodies moving. And when Redman jumped into the saxophonic stratosphere (see 3:29 in the vid), there was a mighty cheer. Any listener will respond to great instrumental freestyle if there's no need for permission.