Jazz Recession: Twin Cities Chapter

Jazz musicians in America experience “the grind” daily. Allow me to elaborate. Our clubs have closed, are closing, or can’t afford to pay. If they can pay, a musician is lucky to make $30 on a weeknight, with the “added bonus” of food and drinks. Many musicians “play for fun,” accepting gigs for free. This makes it increasingly difficult for those of us making our living as musicians to ask a fair wage of a venue. Our clubs that once billed themselves as “jazz clubs” now host mostly other genres, or only national jazz acts. Singers, horn players… all a dime a dozen. So, why do we do what we do? Why don’t we just give up?

Because we love it.

We have a responsibility to keep jazz alive. We are passionate about America’s only true original art form, and the interaction it facilitates between musicians, and performers and audience. Music-goers agree that the spontaneity and creativity of a live jazz performance is exciting, fresh, and ever changing.
Many of us hold Music degrees, in Performance, Jazz, Classical, and so forth.  I cannot tell you how many times musician friends and I have been asked to “donate our time” or “play a free gig.” Honestly, it’s a smack in the face. How often are lawyers and doctors asked for a free appointment? Never. We have student loans to pay off for the degrees we hold as well, we just make substantially less money in the process.  This all seems completely backward. There is a common misconception that musicians do what we do “for fun.” Don’t get me wrong, we love what we do, but we do it for a living! Most of us are asked quite often what our day jobs are. What if our day jobs are being professional performing artists? Rehearsing, composing, performing. This is what we do. I know it is increasingly difficult to believe that this is possible, especially in America, but there are those of us who are unwilling to give up on the music.

My advice?  Musicians, channel your hardships into your music. The musician’s struggle is what has made jazz great throughout its history. In the midst of this long economic recession, times for performing artists are more difficult than ever. So, we compose. It’s much better than the alternative, to DEcompose. Ha. No, but seriously, some amazing music will result.  And Twin Cities jazz musicians, go out and hear one another play! I am speaking to myself just as much as everyone else. It is surprising how few jazz musicians actually go out and hear each other’s music. I am sure one major reason for this is we are all fighting tooth and nail for the same low paying gigs, and there is an underlying resentment when someone lands one. No one can blame us. But getting back to what it’s all about, the MUSIC, and attending shows is a step in the right direction. Musical friendships are possible! It doesn’t have to be only competitive. Support is partly what’s lacking right now,  from multiple directions, and attending one another’s shows is a step in the right direction. The added bonus is that live performances are exciting and inspiring! It’s how everyone in NYC used to learn back in the day, attending live shows, and jamming afterward. It is a part of the jazz culture that must be preserved, and this power is in the musicians’ hands.

“Jazz Central” is a great place to check out if you haven’t yet.  Jazz Central was created by musicians, FOR musicians. Monday nights they host a guest artist followed by a jam session, and occasionally Tuesday nights there is a featured modern jazz group.  This concept, presented by owners, Mac Santiago, and Tanner Taylor, has been quite successful. It is fueled by donations to compensate the performers, and keep Jazz Central afloat. There is a suggested donation hovers around $5 for attendees, but it’s never required.  The ambiance is like a 70s low light lounge, with a speakeasy feel, as there’s no signage and it’s a bit of a maze getting down there. It would be sacrilege for me to reveal to you where this venue is, so you’ll just have to ask around. A community fridge facilitates the giving and taking of beverages. I’ve enjoyed all of my experiences at Jazz Central, have been inspired by the performances, and have loved partaking in a legitimate jam session, something I think the cities has been lacking for a long time.

Coincidentally, after having mulled this over writing this blog today, I had the honor of attending a forum at the Landmark in St. Paul, hosted by Chamber Music America’s Chief Executive Officer, Margaret M. Lioi, accompanied by Richard Kessler, a dean at The New School. Their purpose in holding forums specifically for jazz musicians/composers is to open up honest conversation surrounding issues jazz artists are experiencing, and what changes can be made to help.  So far, Lioi and Kessler have been to Seattle, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and now, St. Paul. Great conversations ensued with the overarching theme of what has changed specifically since 2008. We covered topics such as venues and venue closures, wages, insurance or lack thereof, unions, supplementary incomes, accrediting official jazz venues, what universities and conservatories should be including in their curriculum to yield more prepared professional artists, and so on. Incredible ideas percolated to the surface, and an hour and a half flew by. I hope this is just the starting point for jazz musicians to feel comfortable opening up this conversation nationally and globally, to acknowledge there is a problem, and come together to improve the jazz world. With so many venues folding, gigs paying nothing, or next to it, and spirits low, we will benefit from partaking in this conversation. I left this forum feeling revitalized, and I realized why. Someone is asking what can be done to improve the professional jazz musician’s experience, which means someone is listening, and someone cares. I thank you, Margaret and Richard, for shedding light on these important issues. Your work is important, and incredibly meaningful. Perhaps now is the time to ride this momentum to a more hopeful jazz future. Count me in!

3 responses to “Jazz Recession: Twin Cities Chapter

  1. I am responding to your thoughtful & “well-put” post; not as a fellow jazz artist, but as one who is so grateful for the Twin Cities jazz musicians and venues.

    It has been our (the Elrod family) pleasure to attend shows, get to know the musicians (who are not only great artists but, in our experience, great people) and explore exciting venues. A point that I want to add to your listing of advantages to supporting this enterprise is that there is an incomparable value to LOCAL artists. With three kids who all aim for a career in the arts (music, cinematography, and drama/literature), I can say that their main source of inspiration & coaching has come from our own local artists. For example, our bass playing son admires several well-deserving national/international musicians but he is not likely to meet & get pointers from Geddy Lee anytime soon! But hanging around after a high quality evening of jazz at a local venue, he has access to the musicians and has received so much advice, encouragement, and real-life insight. Because of this access, all three kids are confident that they can achieve their dreams and they have a realistic view of the work & sacrifice that is necessary.

    So, we will continue to “stalk” your shows 🙂 and introduce our friends & family to this treasure that we have in the twin cities. We will continue to return to the venues, even at times when there is no live music, and tell them that they have our business because we discovered them when we attended a jazz show. And we will thank them for hosting such fine entertainment! Please educate non-artist people like us in any other ways that we can support you. We will do whatever we can to make sure that we have many, many more memorable evenings of live music, and that the various local art scenes are all still here when our kids are ready to be a part of them. And please….keep on making music!! The Elrods love you!!

    • This thoughtful response is incredibly kind, thank you! Your endless support doesn’t go unnoticed, in fact, we are often quite impressed by your perfect attendance!:) It’s so great that you are bringing your kids up in an artistically rich way! One thing you may wish to consider is hosting a “home concert” sometime. It is a really cool concept we are looking into, and it is explained well by a great poet we love, Derrick Brown, at this link:
      Thank you, Lois! You and your family are the best 🙂

  2. America has not been receptive to jazz since the times between WWI and WWII. That generation, that went through the Depreesion still has a higher calling to help others. It is encouraging to hear that musicians are getting together to support each other. In this age of ‘us and them’, co-operation is scarse. But jazz musicians have often needed to go abroad to find an audience, or find small venues in the land of its birth.

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