Jazz Forum Has Become too Performance Focused


Photo taken by John Jiang; Small Jazz Ensembles perform at the Cat in the Cream for Jazz Forum.

Every Friday at noon, the Cat in the Cream comes alive for Jazz Forum. Conservatory and College students quickly fill up the tables, squeeze onto couches, or perch atop the makeshift bench lining the back wall. Often, even more students are left leaning against the bartop, all in eager anticipation of live music.

But what is Jazz Forum — or, more importantly, what is it supposed to be — and why is it so popular to Conservatory and College students alike? In my three semesters at Oberlin, I’ve noticed Jazz Forum becoming increasingly synonymous with a jazz concert, which is another performance opportunity for small jazz ensembles. Concerts usually take place in the evenings on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. But by definition, a forum is far different from a concert.

“Jazz Forum provides invaluable opportunities to perform in front of an enthusiastic audience, discuss your work and receive feedback, [and] polish your stage presence,” Division of Jazz Studies Director and Professor of Jazz Trombone Jay Ashby said in the YouTube video “Oberlin Conservatory: About Jazz Forum.”

What I find currently lacking in Jazz Forum is an emphasis on dialogue. Forum should be a time where groups bring in their less polished material — pieces they’re struggling to refine. If you have any original compositions, bring them in to get input from others. Maybe you’re having trouble narrowing down the story or arc of your composition, or you’re not quite sure if the bridge should have a swing or even eighth note rhythm. Fortunately, your audience is full of talented, opinionated jazz musicians.

I think every audience member, Jazz major or not, has something they like and dislike about any given performance. However, I’ve noticed a hesitancy to voice those opinions when the time comes. Perhaps there’s a fear of coming off as too nitpicky, but that’s precisely why the space exists. If the band members can’t handle the finer critiques, maybe it’s time the musicians ask themselves: Am I going into this performance with the mindset of being receptive to feedback? The goal should be to approach Forum like a masterclass, except you’re playing for your friends and peers instead of a world-class musician — although, really, we’re all already professional musicians.

Back-and-forth conversation between the audience and performers is something I would really love to see more of during the feedback portion of Forum. Many of the audience’s comments aren’t clear-cut suggestions and would benefit from further elaboration. If you, the performer, truly want feedback, don’t just sit there and take it. Engage with it. Offer a justified rebuttal if you disagree with the critique. From a non-musician’s perspective, I imagine this dialogue is also quite interesting to witness, and I think there should generally be more of it.

Unfortunately, this time for discussion has been getting reduced by increasingly long set times. Forums tend to be more well-attended than concerts, despite the fact that students are usually busier at 12:15 p.m. on a Friday than at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Audience engagement and energy can greatly affect the performers’ stage presence, and when the crowd is thin, it can be difficult to put on a good show. Consequently, I think that jazz ensembles squeeze as much music as possible into their forum sets to compensate for the lower turnout at concerts. 40-minute, four-song sets have become the new standard, despite there only being time for one 30-minute set per ensemble. What’s left is only a couple of minutes for feedback, which feels more like an obligation than an opportunity.

Additionally, the Cat in the Cream is a deceptively large venue; it claims to have capacity for 325 people. If 40 people show up to a jazz concert, which isn’t necessarily a small number, it can still feel quite empty — especially since we have a tendency to fill up the back of the room first. I myself have fallen into the trap of focusing my practice time on songs I’ll be playing at Forum because I know more people will hear it. For the concert, I’ll just wing it. When everyone in the group has this mentality, the concert may be more lackluster, furthering the cycle of low audience attendance.

This brings me to a potential solution for the concerts’ waning popularity: utilize the other amazing performance spaces in the Conservatory. If we want more people to come to jazz concerts, perhaps they could be held in a space other than the Cat in the Cream, which is so heavily associated with Jazz Forum. Having these concerts in the David H. Stull Recital Hall or the Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space, for instance, could help others realize that they are true showcases of talent not to be missed. Some ensembles have photoshoots and make posters for their concerts to be pinned up around campus or posted on an Instagram story. I think this is a fantastic idea, and I would encourage other groups to do the same. Any sort of self-promotion will emphasize the idea that concerts and Jazz Forum serve different and uniquely important purposes.

I don’t believe that Forum is living up to what it could be. I think shortening the Forum set times to allow for more discussion and putting more energy and intention behind concerts could help form a clearer distinction between Forums and concerts, further uplifting them both.