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

Peter Rubie By

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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?




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