Sing the Standards

Photo by Yan Krukau on

I was annoyed when an audience member asked singer Cecile McLorin Salvant to “sing the standards” after she’d presented an absorbing story cycle through song replete with visual art to an audience at SFJAZZ last week. She was sharing work from her most recent album, Melusine, which follows an ancient folkloric story of love, trust, power struggle, and shape shifting. She talked to the audience, leading into songs sung in Occitan, French, and Haitian Kreyol. Melusine’s story and Salvant’s beautiful voice combined with the rhythms, lyrics in multiple languages, and top notch musicians wove a special evening for the live and virtual audiences. I was watching the performance virtually through SFJAZZ at Home, which I’ve had a membership to since the lockdown days of the most recent COVID-19 pandemic.

I loved the journey Salvant took us on as she told the compelling and unusual story, displayed artwork on the screen above and behind the stage, and shared reflections about her life and its link to folklore as she talked between the music. And I was annoyed at an audience member, whom I could not see in the darkened hall, when they asked her to sing a standard toward the end of the performance. 

Why couldn’t they be satisfied with what she’d blessed them with? Why did she, the artist and presenter, have to dance to their tune? Artists are not puppets, why can’t audience members just listen and take the time to reflect on what is offered? So, the story didn’t follow the linear, familiar road that they were used to and thought they deserved. I wanted to say “Get over yourself and make an effort to accept the gift that’s being presented to you.” 

I judged this person in the live audience, whom I couldn’t see on the screen, but to whose voice Cecile responded with grace and as if she was addressing a petulant child. “You’ve been patient so far, yes I will sing standards [again], this is a parenthesis.” And then she sang a few bars of “My Man,” to indulge the audience member who felt they should be provided with songs they were used to, comfortable with, and had heard in the past. 

Audience is something every artist is aware of and has to contend with. As a writer, my audience consists of those who read my work. And although I am aware that someone will read my work when it appears publicly in print or digital form, in the process of writing I am not creating to please an audience. I am most often writing because I have something I want to explore, and am mostly doing it for myself. This doesn’t mean that I’m unaware of someone reading my publicly placed words. It does mean that depending upon the purpose of what I am writing, I will write several drafts and then revise the work with a focus on the audience. In this regard, my knowledge of an audience helps me to revise for clarity and access. I think about who this audience is, what they might be coming to my writing with as background knowledge and experience, and what I might need to explain to help them to access my ideas. And I do all of this revision not with the intent on making my work accessible to everyone, which is impossible, but to help the work to stand on its own solid ground so that it can be digested by a reader. Then it goes out into the world if that’s what I’ve decided to do with it. Readers are free to glean what they can and evaluate as they see fit, as the words land on them. I’ve let it go.

If a reader were to say to me, “write standards, I want to read standards” they would be out of luck. And I’m not saying that Cecile McLorin Salvant should have had any response to that audience member other than the one she had. I’m just using my experience as an audience member at Salvant’s generous sharing of her gifts during the concert a few weeks ago at SFJAZZ to reflect on my own creative process as someone who creates artistic work using words. 

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