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A to JazZ Talks 2019: The Road To International Stage

A to JazZ Talks 2019: The Road To International Stage

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Figure out where you want to be a year, two years, three years from now. You need to figure out the steps needed to get you there. This is a critical thing to do
—Katherine McVicker, professional music agent, Music Works International
A to JazZ Talks: The Road To International Stage
Literature Club Peroto
National Palace of Culture
Sofia, Bulgaria
July 5, 2019

For the majority of young musicians, the very notion of pursuing a career in music can be daunting, to say the least. Admittedly, it is perhaps easier than ever before to make and record music, but what then? How can a musician get reviews for their CD in the media? How can a band attract promoters and get gigs in clubs and on festival stages? How can a band build a fan base? What's the best way to approach a record company? Is a manager necessary in this DIY age? What funding opportunities exist? In short, what are the steps required to make it professionally?

The A to JazZ Talks, part of the A to JazZ Festival 2019 (see separate article) is the brainchild of Mila Georgieva, International Relations Manager, and is designed to answer just such questions.

The Literature Club Peroto, a cosy café/book-shop in Sofia's National Palace of Culture, was the venue for a series of panel discussions and Q&A sessions with industry professionals, whose aim was to encourage Bulgarian jazz musicians—and musicians in general—in their careers.

Alongside the author—representing All About Jazz—were Virgo Sillamaa of Music Estonia and Katherine McVicker of Music Works International. A special panel/presentation saw German musician/composer Ulrich Beckerhoff share his insider's knowledge on Jazzahead!—the world's largest jazz fair.

The talks were filmed and broadcast by Mezzo, an international TV company specializing in classical music, jazz and dance.


Moderator Dimitar Bodurov—one of Bulgaria's most celebrated contemporary jazz musicians—began by asking what the jazz markets are currently looking for. Are there, he asked, obvious trends or preferred formats?

Katherine McVicker, a professional agent since 1987, the last twenty of those in Europe, began by recognizing the diversity of markets. America may be one country, but smooth jazz may dominate in California while New York or Washington would be used to more sophisticated forms of jazz. Likewise, she said, every country in Europe represents a different challenge. "Every market has to be taken on its own terms."

The biggest change in the music industry has been the collapse of the record industry, which has meant that musicians have to tour extensively to make a living This means, it follows, researching and knowing the markets they are aiming for. The agent, therefore, has become a central figure in the music world. In short, McVicker emphasized that the markets are looking for artists "who have all their business stuff together."

Fielding the question on the openness of markets from a global perspective, the author noted that whilst American jazz artists have long made their living from touring Europe and Asia, the traffic is nearly all one-way. The web of red tape and visa costs generally prohibits the majority of European and Asian jazz artists from touring America.

More specifically, European jazz festivals in particular like marketable projects from an artist, as opposed to artists touring to simply plug their latest record. One only has to look at Herbie Hancock's records/tours over the past couple of decades—The New Standard, Gershwin's World, River: The Joni Letters The River, The Imagine Project, etc to see this in action. Jason Moran is another artist who has thrived with specific projects, such as his theatrical Fats Waller tribute.

Bodurov made the point that American jazz artists still exert a great pull, and that there is perhaps more pressure on European jazz musicians, competing for gigs, to find an original, marketable voice.

For piano trios and small ensembles, it is difficult to carve an original path within the jazz tradition. Consequently, following the lead of the now-defunct E.S.T., groups have tended to embrace a greater pop sensibility, adopt more urbane rhythms (hip-hop, break-beat etc) and channel the latest technology. Turntables, [think Pawel Kaczmarczyk or Aki Takase], loops, sampling and audio-visual effects are all commonplace.

As a former jazz musician, and now someone who helps musicians build their careers, Sillamaa sees the bigger picture. Whilst it is perhaps primarily the festival directors, club owners and agents—with their power to present acts—who effectively shape the markets, Sillamaa cautioned against underestimating the audiences. An audience survey at Jazkaar, Estonia's major international jazz festival, revealed that the audience had no fear of long solos, and furthermore, that they appreciated hearing the artists talk about their music onstage. They looked for an immersive experience, where the music is central, but is not the only thing to enjoy.

Whereas a fifteen-minute drum solo might work a treat in a club, it mightn't go down quite so well at a festival or in a concert hall, McVicker noted, urging musicians to be mindful of how best to engage audiences in different spaces.

Sponsors also play into the narrative of the marketing of jazz, McVicker added, with the worldwide trend for jazz to fuse with other musics often a response to commercial demands. Such fusions are nothing new, McVicker said, citing the examples of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Joe Zawinul in the 1970s.

Sillamaa observed that we are living in a post-genre age where young audiences do not perceive genre differentiation in the same way as people in the past. New musical platforms, the changing nature of music distribution and how music is consumed, have all altered perceptions of genre. In fact, musical tastes for the Spotify generation are not defined or restricted by genre.

The notion of genre and identity in music tied in with Dimitar's question, directed first to the author, on whether or not it is possible to talk about a Bulgarian jazz identity. It is of course possible to recognize Bulgarian rhythms-some of the fastest in this part of Europe—and Bulgarian folkloric melodies in certain jazz musicians, just as it is possible to hear certain rhythmic and melodic traits in much Cuban jazz, for example. But it would be odd, not to say rather contrived, if all the jazz musicians of a given country felt the necessity to adopt their national rhythms and melodies.

A number of individuals have done so brilliantly, however, and one thinks of Lars Gullin and Jan Johansson in Sweden, Isfar Sarabski in Azerbaijan, South African Abdullah Ibrahim, Indonesian group simakDialog, Serbian pianist Bojan Z, and Spanish saxophonist Pedro Iturralde, to give just a few examples.

In Bulgaria, perhaps Milcho Leviev is the preeminent jazz musician to have adapted Bulgarian folk music. The point is, however, that these are all individuals and don't necessarily represent a national jazz identity or broader movement. Most musicians aspire to be recognizable for their individuality, and it is precisely because of this that the jazz of almost any country you care to think of is usually extremely diverse in nature.

Giving the example of the North Sea Jazz Festival 1989, which the author attended, an American-centric programme offered up artists as diverse as Stan Getz, James Blood Ulmer and George Benson. The spirit of New Orleans sounded with the Rebirth Jazz Band. Stride pianist Dorothy Donegan, and Cab Calloway's Hi-di-Ho Orchestra harked back to jazz's entertainment roots. Miles Davis conducted a very 1980s jazz-funk that referenced Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson.

Kenny G raised the flag of smooth jazz—by far the most popular form of jazz on the planet—while Oscar Peterson mined the romance of the Great American songbook. There was Afro-Cuban bop from Dizzy Gillespie and driving hard bop from Art Blakey. Vocal jazz of contrasting hues came from Manhattan Transfer and the North California Jazz Choir. Ray Barretto plied pachanga, boogaloo and salsa-tinged Latin-jazz.

The long list of American jazz artists performing in the Hague that year also included Henry Threadgill, Bill Frisell, The Yellowjackets and Etta James—all distinctive artists coming from quite different traditions. Where, the author asked, is the common musical thread between all these artists? Each was quite unique, which begs the question, what do we mean when we talk about American jazz? Or any country's jazz, for that matter. For all the talk of a Nordic sound—a theme addressed in Luca Vitali's book The Sound of the North: Norway and the European Jazz Scene (2014), it's fair to say that the Norwegian jazz panorama is arguably the most eclectic on the planet.

Moderator Bodurov made the point that Italian jazz and German jazz do not sound at all the same. That may be true, but it would be stranger still if they did. Not all Italian jazz, for example, sounds the same, just as the food, language, sports, customs and topography also vary from region to region.

It's credible that countries that have been isolated politically, such as Cuba, say, might have a stronger indigenous jazz identity than more internationally integrated nations. And it's maybe no coincidence, given its far-flung position on the planet, that Australia has preserved traditional , New Orelans-style jazz better than most, with the annual trad-jazz festival that is the Australian Jazz Convention fast approaching its eightieth year. That, of course, is only one face of Australian jazz.

In Europe, where many countries share multiple borders and where historically, the movements of people have been fairly constant—and often dramatic in scale due to wars—it follows that cultures overlap. In an area like the Balkans, the provenance of instruments is often hard to establish exactly, given their place in the culture of multiple countries. Who can say for certain that the bagpipe or the kaval originated in one particular country? It is certainly easier to talk about a Balkan folkloric sound than it is to talk about a Bulgarian jazz sound, but it's also a little too easy to generalize about either.

National identity, Sillamaa observed, is often a loaded term, and when people talk about a Norwegian jazz sound, for example, they are perhaps referring to a micro jazz scene that has developed at a given place at a given time. There is nearly always a bigger, more complex picture. In conclusion to the first part of the panel discussion, Bodurov encouraged the musicians present in the audience and those watching on Mezzo TV to find their own voice and to find or create their own market.


The second half of the conference panel saw broad-ranging discussion on how jazz musicians can best represent themselves to promoters and media. Moderator Bodurov began by asking what agents look for in musicians as potential clients. Katherine McVicker said that if a musician cannot explain their music to her, then how can she explain it to a festival director or a club owner. "You have to be able to communicate what it is that makes you special." Musicians must pay attention to the business side of music, McVicker underlined, "because this is a business." In her experience, many musicians don't want to acknowledge the business side of music or else they don't want to deal with it, usually because they find it so overwhelming.

The first step, McVicker said, to compete in a crowded market, is to have professional promotional material: good quality photographs, a biography and an electronic press kit (EPK). It is advantageous to use social media platforms, to get your music streamed. "Those things are really, really important." Musicians should approach the business of promoting themselves with the same professionalism and attention to detail as any business looking to attract customers. If a musician has all the material together then promoters are much more likely to work with them because they don't have to chase them up for quality pictures.

It's important to invest yourself in this aspect of the music, McVicker said, because "No-one will be more interested in your career than you." And, if a musician is too shy to handle this side of the business McVicker advised them to hire somebody to represent them.

Bodurov stressed that if your product looks cheap (amateurish photos, or cheap-looking CD covers) then people are less likely to listen to your music.

The author fielded the question on how to contact media and obtain a review. Sending a CD unsolicited, without any accompanying note is definitely not the way to go. However, such a poorly thought out strategy is all too common. With the majority of reviewers receiving far more CDs each year than they can possibly listen to, never mind review, an unsolicited CD carries no obligation for the journalist to listen to it.

It's always advisable to personalize your contact with a journalist. After you have introduced yourself, it's a good idea to tell the journalist why you have approached them. For example, you've read their reviews before and believe they would be interested in your music. A brief bio helps to set the scene for the potential reviewer. A link to a quality You Tube recording or streaming service such as Bandcamp helps, but ensure that the recordings of are good quality and that the links are not broken.

Less is more. Do not bombard the journalist with half a dozen links and a rambling bio with no paragraphing. Be succinct and clear. It's also worth remembering that if you approach a journalist months after your CD has been released, they are already likely to be up to their eyeballs in CDs awaiting their attention. Try and make the initial contact with a journalist at least a month or two before its release date, if possible, and send the music well before the official release date. This takes pressure off the journalist, as there is no rush to review. As Bodurov mentioned before, a professional-looking , attractive CD cover is more likely to entice a journalist to listen to the music.

Persistence and a thick skin are also important. Many doors will remain closed to musicians, emails will go unanswered and journalists and promoters will say no. But the more doors a musician knocks on, the more that will open. An example of the reality facing jazz musicians, and of the rewards for perseverance, was provided at the 2018 A to JazZ Talks in Sofia by Nicole Johaenntgen.

The Zurich-based German saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator is the co-founder of Support of Female Improvising Artist [SOFIA for short, by happy coincidence) was speaking about how women—still underrepresented on live jazz stages-can equip themselves to build careers as professional musicians. Johaenntgen related how in 2016, in an effort to secure gigs on the back of her new, self-produced CD Henry, she wrote 170 emails to promoters in Austria. Three responded positively.

It might sound like a poor return, but three gigs in multiple countries adds up to a sizable tour. A glance at Johaenntgen's bio or her tour dates reveals that the saxophonist has toured in Asia, North America and widely across Europe. It may look like she doesn't have to try to hard to secure gigs, but the truth is that a lot of hard work and a refusal to give in are the cornerstones of her success.

One of her Asian dates was at the Penang Island Jazz Festival, in Malaysia in 2016. In a 2017 interview with All About Jazz Johaenntgen revealed that every year for eight years she ran into the PIJF festival director, Paul Augustin, at Jazzahead! in Bremen. They would chat and every year she asked him if she could play in Penang. In the end, her persistence paid off and her show was one of the stand-out shows of the festival. Part of that particular success lay in the personal relationship that Johaenntgen had established with Augustin and her perseverance.

Clearly it pays to patiently build relationships with people in the industry, even if the pay-off is much further down the line. At the end of the day, a musician is building a forty, or fifty-year career. It's worth noting that agents, promoters, club owners, festival directors like working with people that they get on well with.

McVicker added that musicians should harness the power of the internet. If you like a band, and think your own music is in some way similar, look at where they play and target those venues, because they are more likely to be receptive to your music. She encouraged musicians to investigate funding possibilities for a tour, or to create a Go Fund Me campaign.

A member of the audience asked whether the physical CD is still a viable format for musicians today? There were a range of opinions, but the general consensus was that digital formats and physical formats are both valid. A CD can be a work of art that acts as an attractive calling card, and that can be sold at gigs. A digital link might work best for some journalists while streaming music will certainly appeal more to a certain demographic.

The important thing, McVicker stressed, was that musician need to plan ahead. "Figure out where you want to be a year, two years, three years from now. You need to figure out the steps needed to get you there. This is a critical thing to do. "

Musicians may be interested in checking out Music Works International's on-line course, designed specifically to help musicians navigate today's DIY market. "It doesn't have to be overwhelming," McVicker assured the audience. "Just take it one step at a time." She advised musicians record all the gigs that they play in a spreadsheet, to save the details of their ticket prices and to log the number of people at each of their concerts. This allows musicians to remind a venue owner that the last time they played that venue they sold 150 ticket, so can they raise the ticket price. "You're trying to build your business up," McVicker said.

"Merch is always good," added Silamaa, "especially if you figure out the kind of stuff that your fans would be interested in. This is a platform where the musician can directly make a relationship with the fans." Silamaa gave the example of an Estonia band who, via an email database, send all the fans who come to their concerts an email thanking them for coming, and in addition, giving them a link to an exclusive song recorded at the concert they attended. There is also a link to buy the band's vinyl at a discounted rate. Twenty-five per cent of the fans contacted by email bought the special offer vinyl. Professional, courteous and business savvy.

On the subject of email lists, McVicker said that if a band wishing to play a venue in Romania, for example, tells the promoter or venue owner that they have email addresses of 150 fans and that 100 are likely to turn up then the promoter/club owner will be delighted because the band is helping them promote the show. "Then you're a partner with the promoter. You're saying, 'I want to see this show be a success.'

In conclusion, Silamaa spoke directly to those musicians who find the whole business side too daunting, and who believe that only the music matters. The internet has democratized the music industry to a degree, he said. Now everybody can enter the room. The trick now is to find a way to cut through the noise. "It was never only about the music," Silamaa said. "It was always about the personality. It has always been hard but today you have a fighting chance."

Uli Beckerhoff: Introducing Jazzahead!

As founder and Artistic Director of Jazzahead!, the world's largest jazz trade fair, trumpeter/composer Uli Beckerhoff is in a unique position to give advice to musicians aspiring to build an international career.

The idea for Jazzahead! actually came from the head of the German Trade Fairs organisation. There were fairs for cars, for dogs and everything else, why not jazz? Beckerhoff conceded that he thought it was a risk, but they went ahead and the first edition of Jazzahead! was held in 2006.

Beckerhoff has led a distinguished career as a musician and bandleader these past fifty years, playing with the likes of John Marshall, Norma Winstone, Albert Mangelsdorff, Zbigniew Seifert, John Abercrombie and John Scofield, to name but a handful. He began the session by acknowledging that jazz is black American culture, with the rhythms from Africa and the harmonics from Western Europe. It was World Music, Beckerhoff, said, from the very beginning, decades before the term was coined.

He went on to say that jazz as a culture is fairly unique because it doesn't discriminate against age, sex, nationality, the cultural background, the color, or the religion of people. This doesn't happen in an office or a factory, Beckerhoff observed.

Jazzahead! exists to bring together all the professionals involved in the jazz business—agents, promoters, record companies, publishers and so on. All of these people are important, but "none of this would be possible if it wasn't for musicians," Beckerhoff stated, addressing the musicians listening to his talk. "You are the center of the world of music." Beckerhoff sympathized with young musicians starting out in their careers who might find the business side of jazz a little intimidating.

Jazzahead! runs from a Thursday to a Saturday in April each year. In 2019 there were 3,400 professional exhibitors from 64 countries, around 200 journalists and 500 promoters. "If you play there, or if you go there, you have a chance to meet all these people." Worldwide, reviews of Jazzahead! in the international press reach millions of people.

There are four showcase tracks at Jazz ahead! Germany, Europe, the partner country—which changes every year—and overseas countries. Forty bands are chosen to play the official showcases. About 20,000 visitors came to the 2019 fair. "It is important if you are planning a career as a musician to go there, even if you are not playing," Beckerhoff advised. It is necessary to register, which costs a small fee, and then you are listed in the guide along with all the professionals attending.

"If you want to talk to promoters, you'll find them here. If you want a record deal, all the record companies are there, like Universal, ACT and ECM. I had a student who went there and immediately got a contract with Gold Label in Germany. He had professional material with him and he got a contract."

One of the most useful things about registering with Jazzahead! is that meetings are formally arranged between musicians and industry professionals. "It's a kind of match-making," Beckerhoff explained. "The bureau of Jazzahead! will take care of arranging any meetings and when you get to Jazzahead! you might already have a full schedule of meetings."

Nor is Jazzahead! simply a closed shop for professionals as many people from the general public come to see the numerous showcase concerts, each of which lasts for thirty minutes. All the bands who perform at Jazzahead! receive a high-quality video recording of their concerts as a gift, which they can then use for promotional purposes. Given the costs of producing professional live videos this represents a considerable reward for participating bands. The following day, the concerts are available to view on-line, enabling any promoter or festival director who missed the gig to see it in full.

How are the bands selected? Four juries select the bands that will perform, Beckerhoff explained. These juries are made up of seven international promoters. The jurists change every year. Just over 800 bands apply for the forty slots. These showcase slots have the potential to kick-start a career. Beckerhoff gave the example of Canadian singer Chloe Charles, who immediately following her performance at Jazzahead! in 2013, was signed by Beejazz Records. She also secured eleven bookings for festival appearances on four continents.

There are also club nights at Jazzahead!, to which any band can apply to play. If selected to play, a fee is paid, and hotel costs covered. For the 760 bands whose application proves unsuccessful, there is consolation in the knowledge that at least seven promoters will have heard their music.

Each year a partner country showcases a number of its best bands. Around these showcase a cultural festival exists, highlighting the dance, literature, cinema, exhibitions and so on. "We want to present the partner country as a cultural nation," Beckerhoff explained.

Wrapping up, Beckerhoff encouraged musicians to develop their career internationally. "It cannot be only in one country," he cautioned. Beckerhoff urged musicians to play with other musicians from other countries, as this way your band has the chance to play in three different countries. "Be prepared and go step by step. Never give up."

In 2020, the Bulgarian Music Association will have a stand at Jazzahead! and musicians interested in being represented should get in touch.

Funding Tools

The third part of A to JazZ Talks spoke directly and in practical terms to Bulgarian musicians with regard to funding opportunities. First, Lydia Peycheva, Chief Export Officer for the National Concert Fund, followed by Professor Todor Chobanov, the Deputy Mayor of Sofia, outlined existing funding programmes for musicians who require financial support in the creation of and promotion of their music. This information was relayed in Bulgarian.

Finally, a two-hour mentoring session followed, whereby all the speakers were available to answer specific questions and offer advice to anyone who wanted. This session followed a speed-dating format, though in a thoroughly relaxed manner. Without exception, all those musicians who took advantage of the mentoring session remarked upon the usefulness of the A to JazZ Talks.

The A to JazZ Talks clearly have the potential to inspire young musicians to embark on a professional career, or, for those who already have the ball rolling, to continue to do so with renewed focus. Forward planning, professionalism and perseverance are the keys to success.

Photos: Courtesy of A to JazZ Festival

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