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

Peter Rubie By

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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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