Recently, I’ve been thinking about a clip of jazz pianist and singer, Harry Connick Jr., where he’s playing a concert in France and the audience is clapping on the 1 & 3. In a split moment of genius, he plays a 5/4 measure and, thus, tricks the audience to clapping on the 2 & 4.

The reason this clip has popped into my brain space is because this past week I’ve been doing show watches for the musical I’ve helped choreograph (South Pacific), and during the curtain call, every audience has clapped on the odd beats of the jazziest rendition of Bloody Mary you’ve ever heard! In looking for solace from my fellow creative team (choreographers and even the conductor), no one seemed to be as offended as I nor even understand why this was a problem. 

“In Jazz, you’ve got to clap on the 2 & the 4.” I can’t even remember who it was that first taught me that rule nor when I first learned it. But I know that it’s a rule so sacrosanct that to violate it feels unforgivable. 

In trying to explain to my fellow creatives where the issue(s) lie, I struggled to articulate why the rhythmic transgression posed such a problem for me. Is it just me who sees (or hears) the problem? Am I a jazz snob who expects everyone to know when to clap? Why is it a big deal, anyway, or is it even an issue at all? 

I then stumbled onto this lovely clip on YouTube posted by Andy Lewis, in which 3 different sources – Rev. Jeremiah White, Dawn Hampton, and Duke Ellington – discuss where one should participate in adding percussive support when listening to African American-derived music.

I implore you to take a moment now to watch the video here before proceeding, as they each layout a simple and powerful case for how (and why we want) to clap/snap on the even beat.

However, appealing to one’s sense of cool and belonging may not be enough for some people when simply insisting that this is the way it is, the way it should be. And even if people understand the concept, not wanting to appear corny by clapping on the wrong beat is perhaps not a compelling enough argument to convince people to switch over to the other beats.

When I agreed to be a part of the project, I did so under the auspices that we’d examine the material critically. The creative team (direction, choreography, sound, lighting, costume, etc.) has spent months looking at this piece from every angle and has questioned choices at every step. Yet the fact that something as minor as clapping on the odd beats to no more than a phrase of music during the curtain call causes no pangs or vibrations of discomfort illustrates the blind spots that even those with the best of intentions and abilities have. 

I think a stronger argument for why it matters where people clap when listening to a jazz tune lies in the idea of cultural understanding. Meeting people where they’re at. And in this case it’s not about meeting the audience where they’re at with their Euro-centric sensibilities of music, but rather it’s for them to understand that the tune they’re listening to is a Jazzy one. And being that Jazz music is an African American invention perhaps it’s important to know basic things like when to clap.

As I’ve said, the initial incident – a predominantly white, English audience clapping on the heavy beats during a curtain call – is a minor one. Perhaps it belies the criticism I am now placing upon it. But it is important to me that people think before they clap. I have since found one such saying on the internet in my subsequent search for answers and support on this topic that simply states: Friends don’t let friends clap on the 1 & 3. If you didn’t know before, then let me be that friend to you now.