Summer 2015

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Neil Tesser ’73 is a jazz critic who has written on and broadcast jazz in Chicago for four decades. He recently wrote "Zach Brock Almost Never Was," spring 2015.

Smartphone-wielding patrons distract others at arts performances — but they’re also missing out.
Not long ago I attended a jazz concert at Symphony Center, Chicago’s downtown jewel of an auditorium, home of the hallowed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where I had seats in the mezzanine level.

Toward the concert’s end, I glanced down at the main floor and noticed a friend of mine — a devoted jazz aficionado and committed patron, and an established lawyer in his mid-60s — still in his seat as a standing ovation raged around him. Deeply immersed in the message on his cellphone, he appeared as an island of disturbing calm within a sea of swirling enthusiasm.

Now, I can rant with the best of ’em at the millennials, a generation whose addiction to smartphones has shortened the attention span of the average young adult; invaded the dark of theaters with a thousand points of Facebook-backlit LED screens; and turned strapping youths into stoop-shouldered palm-starers.

You know that guy muttering under his breath when you, immersed in the latest meme, blindly stumble into him on the sidewalk? I’m that guy. The fellow who shoots you a dirty look, then blocks his vision when your phone lights up in the movies? That’s me. The curmudgeonly chap who shakes his head in disgust at the driver who blows through a red light because, OMG, that text from Cathy is just so LMAO? Guilty as charged.

I’ve learned to expect this behavior from people young enough to have fondled a cellphone from infancy. Increasingly, I’ve come to anticipate it even from people in their 40s and 50s — young middle-agers who grew up with the Internet and who feel inconsolably isolated without a continuing flow of information (useful or otherwise). But when I see my pal at Orchestra Hall turn away from the music he came to hear in order to read an email at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, I figure, “Game over.”

As a jazz critic and journalist, I attend a lot of music events — in concert halls of varying sizes, at outdoor venues, in nightclubs and restaurants — and as many plays and movies as I can reasonably fit into my schedule. You might think this would have desensitized me to the kinds of interruptions posed by our ubiquitous digital tether. It has not.

Before you write me off as just a grumpy old coot, you should know: I’m no Luddite. Now in my 60s, I have been computer-savvy for almost 35 years: in the 1980s I became an early adopter of the first home computers that went beyond toys and games, and I signed on to the Web some 20 years ago. I too have experienced the siren song of the silent pixel; slowly, I’ve learned when to ignore it.

I’ve also finally developed some tolerance for behavior that, in most contexts, should be considered indefensibly rude. So I no longer take offense when, during a lunch meeting or over drinks, my companions regularly break eye contact to check their phones. I temper my scorn with indulgence; after all, they can’t help it. (I reserve the rest of my scorn for the couple in the next restaurant booth who sit silently across from each other, each checking his or her device, alone together.)

But there’s one place that scorn and resignation give way to pity: the performance space, whether concert hall or piano bar, Broadway odeon or shoebox theater, movie theater or dance studio or any other site of artistic endeavor.

Ever since the Greeks first started wearing masks on stage (and likely before), the performing arts have beckoned people to escape the prosaic and enter another realm: to turn from their everyday distractions and buy into the vision of a writer or composer or choreographer or director. Sometimes, you leave that realm refreshed, sometimes devastated — but ideally, you return to your daily responsibilities with restored perspective. And that can’t happen if you haven’t removed yourself from those mundane distractions to begin with.

Sure, I still get irritated when the woman standing next to me at a jazz club spends half the set glued to her iPhone, putting it aside just long enough to applaud a song she hasn’t really heard. And one of these days, when I get too old to care, I’ll probably just grab and smash the device used by the dilettante one row in front of me at Steppenwolf Theatre. But for now, I just feel sorry for these folks. They’re missing out.

When I caught up with my friend from Symphony Center and tweaked him about his smartphone use, he laughed sheepishly and said, “It was important.”

It always is. But it’s almost never as important as turning the damned thing off and escaping into the alternate reality that art promises, to re-emerge with sensibilities reset.

Or rebooted, if you prefer.