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!