Booking Jazz: A Subjective Guide
Quite simply, whether you're a bistro, pub, gastropub, tavern, neighborhood bar, coffeehouse, boite or upscale restaurant, it's a given that you want your venue to stand for class and quality. A jazz group, properly chosen and presented, can only enhance your reputation. Fortunately, there are so many forms of jazz, from understated, tasteful and sophisticated music for listening; to rowdy and danceable (after the dinner hour, naturally); to non-rowdy but danceable. The choices are infinite.
The key is in hiring the appropriate band, i.e., a band that conveys the image you already have, or the image you want.
With all due respect, as they say, let's face it: "Sweet Caroline" on Karaoke night will only get you so far business-wise. It's been done.
WHAT KIND OF JAZZ?
Again, this is a matter of knowing who you are and identifying what you want to be. If you're attracting a well-dressed, upscale, big spending group of customersor want to attract themconsider a tight, tasty jazz trio or maybe a George Shearing-type combination with vibes and light vocals. If you want a venue where the night starts out that way, but gradually ups the energy and volume as the night goes onvia a stylistic mix think about a group with a horn or two. Also think about whether or not you want dancing in your place. If so, there needs to be a space for it and the band needs to be capable of playing for that purpose.
Playing for dancing, for at least a small part of the evening, does not mean a group has to sacrifice quality. Some of the best jazz in history was, is and will always be quite danceable.
Ideally, and the bands are out there in great, great numbers, consider hiring a band that can do it all. Establishments that present or want to present live music have never had more choices than they have today.
HOW DO I FIND THE PROPER JAZZ GROUP?
In all probability, several groups, in their unending quest to find a gig, have already found you. Hopefully, it's just the band for you. If not, and if no one has sought you out yet, finding the appropriate jazz group for your venue is easy, because live jazz is virtually everywhere. After all, those 20 million Americans who have been listening to live jazz found it somewhere.
Check the newspaper listings, especially those in weekly or "alternative" newspapers, community publications, "shoppers," etc. Search the web, starting with All About Jazz, naturally, and see what groups are playing where. These listings can often lead you to the band's web site where sound samples are sometimes available, as are photos of the members and tour schedules.
If all you have are names of bands and places they work, intensify your search by going to the venue that's similar to yours, or is the type of venue that you'd like to be. Listings on the web or in the paper are great, as are sound samples, YouTube videos and photos, but there is no substitute for seeing and hearing the band in person.
The next checklist is obvious: Do you like the way the band sounds? The way they look? The way they conduct themselves on and off the bandstand? Are they flexible musically and willing, if necessary, to addor subtractplayers? Are they flexible in terms of their availability? And after you've met the leader and the band members, do you like them personally? This is important. I don't care how great they are musically. If you hire them, you've got to live with them. Once you've made your decision, it's time to talk about...
PAYING THE PIPER
This section is completely subjective, though I'll say at the outset that I'm in total agreement with the late and great singer, Abbey Lincoln, who sang a tune called "You Gotta Pay the Band."
Some folks don't agree. I've gotten a number of emails over the past several years, in response to columns I've written about the "lack of bread for jazz musicians" issue, which in essence said, "Music should be free for everyone."
I emailed one of these "free music folks" and asked him what he did for a living. He replied, "I'm a brick layer."
In my reply, I said, "Well, I've always believed that brick laying should be free for everyone."
Like it or not, it's happening, often in jam session settings, where the player or players running the jam does it for free. Those who do this presumably have their reasons. I think it's deplorable.
Working for the door is nothing new, either, and though it does have its place as, shall we say, an "honorarium" for an auditioning group, it should not serve as the primary method of payment. There is no denying the importance of a band's "fan base"that used to be called "a following"but the owner or manager of a venue can not and should not depend on that week after week.
The door? I'll work for the door only with one stipulation: That at the end of the night, I physically walk out of the place with the club's actual front door.