Belgian Beer and American Jazz
There is a striking analogy between European attitudes toward jazz and American feelings for Belgian beer.

When a famous American jazz musician gives a concert in Europe, the audience sits in rapt, reverent silence, savoring every note. People nod their heads knowledgeably if an obscure Coleman Hawkins phrase is quoted, and they come away with strong opinions of the group's abilities and theories about their stylistic influences, ready for passionate debate. Fans buy every new record that comes out, and are often more adept than many musicians at identifying songs and players.

The less devoted European concertgoer sits patiently, enjoying the novelty of the sounds, trying to find something he can grab hold of and understand. He's bored, but like a good child in a museum, he dutifully sits through it all, squirming only occasionally.

Neither listener is able to clap in time to the music, but no one will ever find out since they would never be so undignified as to clap, anyway.

Although grateful for all the attention, the musician feels like an exhibit in a museum - the intellectuals poking at him and taking notes, the children yawning.


In the basement of Carmichael's Soul Food Diner, in a tough New York City neighborhood near the airport, a mostly Black, late-middle-aged crowd gathers to listen to local jazz musicians jam. They hoot and holler if they like something, and dissolve into not-so-quiet conversation if their interest isn't held. When things really start swinging, hands clap and energy runs high; there's little use for quiet, introspective playing in this noisy atmosphere. Dressed in their best clothes, the audience enjoys cocktails and conversation - the whole boisterous social scene - as much as the music that sets the mood. Not one of them has bought a new jazz record in more than 25 years, but they would all, if asked, describe themselves as big fans of the music. They "know what they like".


On my first trip to Belgium, I dashed off the bus, carrying two large suitcases, three smaller bags and my trombone, and headed straight to the first bar I could find, overwhelmed with joy and enthusiasm at finally having arrived in the Holy Land. The entire pub fell silent and looked over as the door slammed open and I (sweating and unshaven) dragged my enormous load - suitcases scraping the floor - over to the bar.

It took at least 10 minutes for me to place my order, first making the poor bartender recite his menu several times, bring me bottles for inspection, and then wait while I searched for my precious beer books, dirty clothes flying in all directions as I dug through overstuffed suitcases. Taking careful notes after every bottle, each sip receiving my full attention, I was as completely absorbed in my beer as a monk in his prayer.

When the Belgian customer next to me recommended a Duvel, I confidently (but politely) refused - it's too obvious, too classic, and I've drunk it so many times. I needed more obscure drinks. He shrugged, and went back to contentedly sipping his third or fourth Duvel, watching with mild amusement as I giggled ecstatically at each new discovery.

Things soon turned bittersweet, though. I was shocked to discover bars that sometimes serve in the wrong glasses, I was exasperated by bartenders who thoughtlessly disturbed my Trappistes' sediment, and with local drinkers for their shameful lack of knowledge. Each drinking session invariably started with locals trying to instruct the ignorant American, and ended with me lecturing a respectful, embarrassed audience about the history and artistic subtleties of their own beer.


Back in New York, my fellow Belgian beer lovers and I attend tastings and lectures, we eagerly buy glasses and coasters and videos, we read about beer, we discuss it, we obsess over it. I scream at guests who tilt bottles of my prized 9-year-old Chimay Grande Reserve, which I feel lovingly against my cheek to check for the perfect serving temperature.


I had thought that Belgium would be a utopia where everyone knows everything about beer and the lowliest bartender pours with profound skillful awareness.

I had never imagined that people there just shut up and drink the stuff.