Jazz Club Etiquette for First-Timers

BY: Sarah Gorr |Jul 25, 2016

Jazz Club

Couples have been tapping their toes and squeezing into booths at jazz clubs for more than a century. Customs change, however, and somewhere along the way people started questioning how to listen to jazz in a live setting. These days, the whole live jazz experience seems to have—if not quite a formal, academic tone—at least secret code of conduct that can leave first-timers scratching their heads.

Dave Jemilo, the owner of Chicago nightlife institution The Green Mill, thinks it shouldn’t be that way. With his help, we’ve put together a guide that answers some common questions about jazz shows and concert etiquette. Read on, and the next time you get the urge to cut a rug or bob to the beat, you’ll be armed with everything you need to know.

That bass solo was great! Am I allowed to clap?

“It’s pretty much standard to clap after solos,” Jemilo explains, but you should definitely wait to make sure the solo’s actually over. It’s common for bands to engage in a technique called “trading fours,” in which various members play four-bar solos one after another. Instead of clapping after each of these, wait for the song to return to its principal melody and then clap all you want. If all else fails, Jemilo suggests watching other people in the crowd for a cue.

Can I snap some quick photos on my phone?

For better or worse, smartphones are a common sight at jazz clubs and they aren’t going away anytime soon. If you must take a photo, try to keep your phone out of sight and always remember to turn the flash off. And, though a quick photo is generally OK, keep your phone tucked away for the rest of the live jazz performance. “If you’re right in the front row and you’re texting the whole time,” Jemilo says, “the bands get really aggravated.”

Jazz Club

Can I chat with my date during the jazz show?

Talking during a jazz show is a faux pas that trips up many first-timers, especially those who come to socialize and view the band merely as background noise. “It’s not polite, especially if the band’s quieter,” Jemilo says. Louder bands allow for a little more chatter, but it’s important to be mindful of what’s going on around you—if a bass solo kicks in, for example, it’s time to quiet down. This policy has its benefits; if you’re on a date and it’s not going well, you can always suggest an avant-garde jazz show. Chatter is highly discouraged, “so you have a reason not to talk without being rude!”

I want another drink. When’s a good time to ask?

This can vary depending on the place. If there’s table service, feel free to order drinks whenever your server comes around. Otherwise, it’s not absolutely necessary to wait for a song to end before getting up to use the restroom or order a drink at the bar, though it is considered good manners. In any case, drink up. “That’s how the joint stays open and makes enough money to have the band play,” Jemilo wisely points out.

I love this song! Can I get up and dance?

Well, maybe. The band might not always take it as a compliment if you get up and start moving to the beat during the jazz show. If the dance floor isn’t open, “the focus should be on the band. When you start dancing in the aisle … you’re actually being inconsiderate” by shifting attention away from the band, Jemilo explains. Call ahead of time and ask the club if the dance floor will be open, and pay attention to the calendar, as big bands and swing bands are more likely to welcome dancing.