The kids sang well. The speaker was excellent. The slides were powerful. The timing was on. But something felt just a little bit off in our annual school Martin Luther King Ceremony. We held it in our Community Center, a place with good acoustics and decent enough low lighting. But it just felt too big and impersonal—the space didn’t support the energy and the intimacy it deserved. Having sung the songs in the resonant music room, the sound just wasn’t powerful enough. The Middle School kids sitting in the pull-out audience seats felt more like they were the audience at a theater show or the fans at a basketball game. Separated by arm rests, it was hard for them to feel connected. We did have the 100 elementary kids on the floor on the rug and that helped and perhaps if we had 100 more adults in the side seats, we might have filled the space with the energy it deserved. But we didn’t. And so it all felt a little flat.
That night I went to see an alum’s band at a grassroots performance space called The Red Poppy. It was a small room with folding chairs and the stage, such as it was, on the same level, with about 60 people crowded together in front and behind. The band (Taraf de Locos) was excellent— high energy Balkan and Cuban and Brazilian fusion that invited dancing after intermission. But had they played in a big theater (or a gym), it would have been a different experience all together. The small, intimate, crowded space gave it the intensity it needed.
Yeah, I know this is not a groundbreaking insight. That a performing space is an integral part of the performance. The jazz I’ve seen in big concert halls has never been as memorable as that in small clubs. Jazz itself grew in funky, crowded juke joints similar to the Red Poppy, kept growing at the Village Vanguard (where I was once seated so close to the piano that I could have played a few notes in the bass) and now is reincarnated at places like The SF Jazz Center— a bit bigger, more formal feeling, but still intimate enough to feel the vibrations of human endeavor. The culture has become so spectacle oriented, with big screen projections and such. (I often think it would be great to have an Academy Awards night in a high school auditorium some year.) The things that stir me have the intensity of intimacy, the energy of folks shoulder-to-shoulder, the feeling of huddling around a campfire.
So next year, we’re going to be crammed and crowded and uncomfortable to let Martin’s spirit fully fill the room. Yes, indeed.