Call-and-response is one of the most defining characteristics of jazz, one that comes straight out of the music’s African origin.
In the work songs, there would be a leader calling a line and a group responding to that line. So in jazz (especially early jazz), there would be an instrument proposing a melody and the other instruments would respond to it, would improvise around it.
But call-and-response went beyond the bandstand. The same way musicians influenced and prompted each other, so would the public. The audience’s reaction was vital to the performance because musicians would improvise on the base of the audience’s input.
This was particularly true when people danced to jazz music. Dancers would react to the music, improvising new steps, and musicians would catch the new steps, their rhythm, and improvise new music on that.
Jazz was a powerful communal creation any way you looked at it, still how call-and-response was understood and practised was always one of the things that most distinguished black from white jazz in America.
White jazz was not only more mellow compared to the hot black jazz, it was also consumed in a more ‘European’ way. There would always be an invisible line between musicians and audience that was very seldom crossed.
In black establishments, the public would participate in the performance and would actually influence it. In addition to communal creation of music between musicians and dancers, listeners would often comment the music and would protest loudly if they didn’t like it, or cheer hotly when they did like it. Throwing objects to the band to signal the audience’s displeasure wasn’t unheard of.
White establishments tried to adopt a more direct enjoyment of jazz by trying to blur the barrier between audience and performers, for example by bringing the show on the dance floor, on the same level as the audience. Dancers would often move among the tables, the audience was encouraged to show their appreciation or displeasure by clapping their hands or banging cutlery on the tables. But it always remained, at heart, a very different kind of involvement than the African American version.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Jazz in America – African music