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A Professional Jazz Musician? Really? What's That?


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A professional jazz musician is someone who makes their living spreading their love of and commitment to getting others excited about jazz. It's about being an ambassador for the music. For me, being a professional jazz musician is about helping to sustain a community.
—Kelly Green
I've been around as a musician long enough to understand when a promoter or booker ghosts me. "Yeah, sure, send me an email," they say in that sincere way that sounds like someone saying, "Of course I love you" just to shut you up. It comes with the territory, and a musician has to be Zen about the whole thing. Getting work as a professional freelance artist has always been like trying to join an exclusive club you can usually only get into after some potential hazing, hard work and perseverance. I get gigs that I don't always advertise, and turn things down, so I'm not complaining—though like pretty much every musician there could always be more work.

A case in point: I've known one booker (who also plays) for years, ever since he was a student of a close friend . Whenever I see him at his gig, he promises to give me a spot on his gig roster down the road, but never responds to my emails (which he asks me to send him as reminders). I get the passive aggressive, "go-forth-and-multiply" non-response, though it took me a while to figure it out. Why not just simply be honest and say, "Sorry, I hate how you play," or "I just don't want to hire you." Is it really better to ignore someone that contacts you, rather than find a nice way of saying, "I'd rather book a Tiny Tim impersonator than you (though I don't mean that in a bad way)?" I have to say "no" to people all the time in my day job but do my best to treat them with the dignity of a response, regardless of the quality of their work.

Another example: I recently had a number of conversations with a promoter whom I've known for years but never worked for. In my other life as a writer and editor, he has asked for my help several times with things that he and his clients want to do in the book world. He also knows that I play and he works regularly with a musician friend of mine. I mentioned that I'd like a shot at a gig at a venue he hosts, and he immediately brought up the thorny problem of how much money he'd make putting me on the bill. A reasonable concern: can I bring in people? I can, though certainly not the crowds that major artists can draw. But not everyone he books is in that league either. I asked about working with a friend whom he often hires who will draw people in. He said that might work. My friend was certainly willing to do the gig, and playing with him is always a gas, so it seemed like a win-win. Perhaps not, as it turned out.

I emailed the promoter saying that I was pretty sure I had fixed the audience problem. He wrote back to say "[I am] only hiring artists who . . . do only one thing, play music. I have no interest in booking an amateur guitarist, even if you can play well. . . . I am cherry-picking only the best musicians in the world.''

I have no issues with someone choosing not to book me if they're honest about it, because that's the nature of the beast and I made my peace with it years ago. But "amateur guitarist?" I've paid my dues, both in apprenticeships with some serious people that I've studied with one-on-one as well as with people I've played with over the years. The idea that I could be snarkily dismissed as not being a real jazz musician (by a non-musician) because it wasn't the only thing I do to make a living touched a nerve.

Defining a professional artist as someone who makes a living by ONLY creating his or her art is, to my mind, arbitrary and shortsighted. Some jazz musicians do earn a living just doing gigs, but frankly they're not all great players and their gigs are often not where most musicians would choose to play. Loud, acoustically horrible restaurants where no one is listening to the music for example. These players have learned to give a performance that is usually consistent because it's the same every time: same tunes and same licks, sometimes filled with "look at me" pyrotechnics, which quickly get boring to listen to because, deep down, the musicians are frightened to skate on the thin ice of on-the-spot creativity everyone strives for in a performance. It is called "improvisation," remember? It's creativity. You're going to get wet sometimes. Deal with it. Sometimes you're going to pirouette and soar! Revel in it. An equal number of writers and musicians have other sources of income besides their art but still create terrific music and books. Are they not professionals? Surely, the mark of being a professional is simply that someone is good enough to get paid for what they do when they do it, not whether or not they make a living at it?

Being straight with someone in an industry as subjective as the arts is at least a respectful acknowledgment of their professionalism, if not their playing (or whatever it is they do). Anything else is condescending and childishly spiteful. Of all the professional jazz musicians I know and know of, a hardy few actually earn a living just by playing real jazz, and are often on the road many months throughout the year as a result. When you're young and single, that's cool. As you get older and want to settle down with a family, it becomes a tougher part of the job. At one point in his career Warne Marsh cleaned swimming pools (I know because we actually talked about it once). Ted Dunbar, Ted Greene, Sal Mosca, Billy Bauer and Jimmy Wyble immediately spring to mind as musicians who don't or didn't gig much for most of their careers (except sometimes at local jazz spots or parties). My brother Steve Rubie runs a jazz club as well as plays. So does Spike Wilner. Aren't they professional jazz musicians? I certainly think so. Almost all musicians do something else, if for no other reason than promoters often only pay $100 a man (if you're lucky) for a trio! That is what they're offering the best musicians in the world in New York City, arguably the jazz capital of the world? Really? In Yiddish, that's called chutzpah. The majority of professional jazz musicians can't subsist off that kind of income alone, so they teach, arrange, play pop music, work at websites, and in music management. Or write. Whatever it takes.

But the promoter's comment also got me thinking: What is a professional jazz musician these days? What does it take to become one?

Kelly Green recently released her first CD entitled Kelly Green: Volume One after first recording with Christian McBride. She has a great take on what a professional jazz musician is now. "A professional jazz musician is someone who makes their living spreading their love of and commitment to getting others excited about jazz. It's about being an ambassador for the music. For example, I do this gig in Brooklyn at the moment [2019] at a neighborhood bar, The Wilky, and I get great feedback from the audience and bring them into my world. For me, being a professional jazz musician is about helping to sustain a community."

Peter Bernstein impressed others so much as a young player at The New School in the early '80s that he was invited to play in public several times with Jim Hall (one of his teachers) and then as a sideman for Lou Donaldson. "There isn't the apprentice system there was when I was coming up," Peter explained. "My generation was maybe the last to experience that."

I was lucky enough to do a couple of short tours as a young player and wish I had done more. During a two-week tour of England with a jazz swing quartet with Claude Williams, for example, as we listened to music between gigs on a tinny-sounding cassette player the size of a small brick, for hours at a time in the backseat of a car, we also talked a lot. He told me about playing with an alcoholic organ player he had to continually trick into staying sober before the gig started back home in the Midwest. In a slightly high-pitched voice filled with an Oklahoma accent by way of Kansas City (that made the words "cot" and "caught" sound almost the same), he said, "I'd call her at fahv [five], and tell her the gig started tat ate [eight] and then jump in ma car and git raht' over t'her house and pick her up afore she had a chance to start drinkin.' Sometimes, after I called, in the ten minutes it took to git over t'her place, she would start in on that bottle and then it was too late." At dinner, he would talk about knowing people like Jay McShann and Charlie Christian. He would order a glass of red wine and then put sugar in it, stirring it vigorously while saying, "Man, this is too sour!" We'd also talk about music and harmony, about bebop and swing, what he liked and wanted to hear in my playing, and what he didn't.

When he isn't performing or recording, Larry Koonse, one of the world's great jazz guitarists, teaches at CalArts and has just started online teaching at a new site called The Elite Guitarist (www.eliteguitaristjazz.com). When asked what a professional jazz musician is these days, he said, "This [is] a really multilayered [question]. [It means] . . . doing multiple things well. First of all, the notion of apprenticeship that you mention only takes place in various colleges and universities that have jazz programs, with faculty that are primarily comprised of the first generation that came through the college system with degrees. I remember talking with Chuck Berghofer about his early days as a budding musician. He had no formal lessons ever and basically started gigging professionally after spending about a year practicing with records. He got a six night a week gig with Pete Jolly and that was his education. This doesn't exist any longer [unfortunately] . . . [that] 'sink or swim' [environment] involved learning in a multidimensional way—dynamics, empathy, communication, touch, time flow, sound, all elements which are just as important as note choice."

In the mid '70s, the great guitarist Sean Levitt, son of drummer Alan Levitt and then in his early twenties, told me how he would go and watch his dad play gigs in the Village as a young teen in New York, and then go across the street and hang out with Bill Evans, a family friend. "Bill used to take me home if my dad's gigs went late, and we'd often talk about harmony in the car on the way there." Imagine! What a unique part of his apprenticeship that must have been.

I had a taste of that world, like a kid briefly allowed to sit in the restaurant and only allowed to have an appetizer but not a real meal, and it left me envious. But the people I played with and befriended in London like Dave Cliff and Bobby Wellins, when I was a student of Peter Ind, helped me to cobble together some decent skills that got me to New York. There I studied more and hung out and played with musicians I met through my teachers and at sessions. Pretty much for three years straight, I was broke, eating a lot of beans and rice, living in one room in an apartment building filled with musicians just like me, and playing almost every day for hours at a stretch with stunningly talented unknown musicians and more established players like Junior Cook, gigging when I could and working odd jobs under the radar when I couldn't. I was never happier than in that hardscrabble apprenticeship.

For Nate Brown, a working bassist and founder of Brownbass Music, an entertainment management and consulting company for jazz artists, this question of who is a professional jazz musician is at the heart of what he does. "The apprenticeship thing is pretty much done now. I mean, maybe if you're part of the rhythm section [then] some masters are looking to hire young players, but otherwise you won't find a jazz musician who only just performs."

Jazz guitarist Brent Vaartstra agrees. As well as performing, he devotes a lot of his time to his website, Learn Jazz Standards. "If someone wants to become a professional jazz musician today, they need to think outside the box. . . . [and] cobble together multiple revenue sources in order to make it a full-time job, and only a very small percentage are able to make a comfortable living actually performing, especially if [they're] doing [that] exclusively. Generally, there's an element of education in the mix of revenue streams (such as private lessons, teaching at an institution, music books, online courses...etc). [As an example, even though I'm a player] I make my living almost entirely off of my jazz education website, which is a blog, podcast and YouTube channel."

Nate Brown added, "To make it nowadays you need to do other stuff, like teaching. Honestly, you can't just play jazz, you have to master other styles as well, the more musical styles the better. What I discovered I'm good at is working on the business side. I got obsessed with it. And there are others out there who are really into the technology. If that's you, then whatever is new that relates to our industry, you should investigate it and incorporate it into your music. Even though the jazz apprenticeship thing is over, there are so many opportunities if you look around. These days you can be a ten-year-old kid in Malaysia and become a YouTube sensation. Grow your social media numbers. If your social media is good enough you can get invited to play all sorts of shows and festivals. Obviously, your music skills need to be good when the opportunities come along. And if you can't do this kind of stuff yourself, then you should think about hiring someone like me . . ."

Brent agrees, "Talent alone will not allow you to 'make it' in the industry [these days]. I know tons of uber-talented musicians who struggle or simply aren't making ends meet at all. Musicians need to invest in themselves, set aside the instrument a little bit, and learn about marketing and business. These are topics I find many musicians (especially jazz musicians) are clueless [about]. Musicians are natural entrepreneurs, many just don't know it."

Larry Koonse agrees with their assessments. "To make a living in today's world, students need to contend with the multi-faceted nature of what it means to be a musician in our society. Purists that neglect musical situations that are out of their zone are likely to not thrive. I play in all sorts of acoustic based situations: singer/songwriter, Brazilian, 20th century classical music with improvisation (such as Billy Childs), music that has hip-hop or pop influences. These are not necessarily my favorite environments but I enjoy the challenge of finding my voice in all of these different contexts."

Or, you do what I and a number of other professionals do. You choose a life that balances playing and practicing with other things that help pay the bills enough so that you can continue to engage in what you love to do most and have invested blood, sweat, tears and years into trying to master, with just enough social media engagement to let people know you're out there, but not enough to fall into the trap of narcissism that social media can lay for us if we're not careful. It's a tough balancing act.

What do you think?

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