This column is about respect. It may be rather cranky, written as it was during New York's oppressive summer soup, but the issue is real: the disgraceful lack of respect for musicians. It's hardly news that most are paid far less than they're worth, and often treated more shabbily than the busboys in the clubs where they play. Today's exceptions are the relatively few shooting stars who vault to iconic status through a combination of good marketing, timing, and commercial massage. Although talent may be involved, in our world you don't need extraordinary talent to hit it big. A look or sound that fits the current zeitgeist can do it, especially when propelled by a well-oiled publicity machine.
The fact that many jazz musicians are just scraping by is documented in the recent NEA study, Changing the Beat: A Study of the Worklife of Jazz Musicians.
In 2000, researchers talked to 2700 jazz musicians in four metropolitan areas (Detroit, New Orleans, New York and San Francisco), and discovered some dismaying statistics. The most commonly-reported income range was $20-40,000, while non- musicians of comparable age and education earn between $54-66,000 (in San Francisco, almost 66% of jazz musicians earned less than $7000). More than half have no retirement plans or health coverage. Even grants are skimpy: 90% of them only $5000 and under. This lack of support is not surprising, given that jazz accounts for such a small slice of record sales, and classic reissues outsell all but the splashiest emerging artists. Meanwhile, a sports star can sign a contract for $90 million before he's out of high school. (I'll spare you my diatribe on cultural priorities, since it may also be hot and humid where you are.)
Again, there's no real news here. But I've recently noticed an irony: how many (and how often) jazz journalists complain about not making enough money, as if they expect to make a far more comfortable living than the people they write about. It's an odd detachment from reality, especially given the low rates paid by jazz mags and newspapers and the piecework nature of reviews and liner notes. After all, the word "freelance" combines both the freedom of being your own boss and the "lance" of endless hustling.
This detachment struck me hard at the last Jazz Journalists Awards, when most of the audience left their seats and became a great buzzing, networking hive that drowned out the music and the speakersincluding Dorthaan Kirk, who helped found WBGO, the only 24/7 "real" jazz station in the New York area, without which most musicians' efforts might never be heard. While accepting her award, she departed from her speech to object to the rudeness of the crowd. Similarly, the doctors who provide free medical care to jazz musicians should have gotten standing ovations from those who love the music; instead, they got sporadic applause from the relative few who were still paying attention.
To be fair, the crowd was not all journalists; there were many label people and musicians in attendance. And it was a rare opportunity to convene, a kind of midsummer IAJE. Maybe the problem lay in a certain (dis)organization of the event, in which program gaps encouraged people to drift. But it was disheartening. I left before AAJ won its best Web site award for the second year in a row, and blew my chance to be acknowledged from the stage. Oh, well.
There's a lot of "oh well" going around lately. There's not much anyone can do about the corporatizing of record labels except to discover new paths for independent production and distribution. (See the July 7 New Yorker Magazine for a scary, thorough article subtitled, "Can the record business survive?"). There's little chance of convincing those who practice it that downloading music is stealing, and the output of someone's mind and heart is at least as valuableand certainly should be as protectedas any more tangible product. Bringing jazz into the schools is a great idea, but it takes time to grow a new market, and given the epidemic spread of dumbth throughout the land, a music that rewards careful attention is too demanding for many.