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Booking Jazz: A Subjective Guide

Booking Jazz: A Subjective Guide
Bruce Klauber By

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According to a study called the Jazz Audiences Initiative, one-third of all Americans--over 100 million people--report that they like jazz.
There is no rule book, reference work or formal set of regulations that club and restaurant owners can consult about how to book and present jazz.

There was a quasi-model of sorts in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, given the proliferation of cafés, boites, bistros, bars, ballrooms, and all types of nightspots that used live jazz, whether local or national. Whatever the template was back then, if there even was one, it no longer applies.

However, a rather singular era in jazz history, which lasted roughly from 1955 to 1965, is worth looking at today. Jazz—all kinds of jazz—was actually popular in those days. Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong made the cover of Time Magazine; jazz was regularly presented on national television and local radio; and artists like Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, Cal Tjader, Ramsey Lewis, Eddie Harris, George Shearing, Count Basie with Joe Williams, and Maynard Ferguson were selling lots of records, many to those who may not have liked jazz before or since.

Bars and restaurants in big cities wanted to capitalize on what may or may not have been a fad. Rules for booking groups? Owners made them up as they went along, but from the outset, they did realize five things: A piano was needed, a "p.a. system," as it was called then, was needed; an appropriate space had to be set aside or a stage had to be built to present the music; talent had to be booked, and advertising had to be purchased.

As a youngster, I remember such a place in Philadelphia's Overbrook Park section. A restaurant/bar called, of all things, The Picasso, had been open for years before the owners decided to jump on the jazz bandwagon in the late 1950s. The proprietors did the obvious, outlined above: bought or rented a piano and sound gear, built a little stage, booked area talent like pianist Bernard Peiffer and his trio, and advertised same. The Picasso, like hundreds of other places like it throughout the country, did quite well.

These joints, if nothing else, became "the" places to go. Hey, it was the hip thing to do. But with the arrival of The Beatles, the very nature of the entertainment business changed. Some, like the venerable Metropole Café in New York city, hung on by making some concessions to rock that were, in retrospect, misguided. They booked go-go dancers to perform opposite mainstream jazz attractions like Gene Krupa. "I saw the progression from none, to a little, to a lot," Gene once said.

Indications are that we've come full circle. It would be a cliché and inaccurate to say "jazz is back," but the numbers say that it is. According to a study called the Jazz Audiences Initiative, one-third of all Americans—over 100 million people—report that they "like jazz," and an astounding 20 million people attended a jazz event last year, up from 9.6 million in 1982. That's growth. And that's a lot of tables and bar stools that could be filled in clubs, coffeehouses and restaurants by booking jazz.

Jazz Audiences Initiative, by the way, was a 21-month research project—funded in part with a $200,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation—commissioned by Columbus, Ohio's Jazz Arts Group.

WHY ME?

Interested and prospective bookers of jazz may be asking at this juncture, "What qualifies this fellow to tell us how to book jazz?" I guess I know as much or as little as the next guy, but I worked my first club gig when I was 16 years of age, backing the legendary saxophonist Charlie Ventura. That was about 44 years ago, and since then, I've worked in hundreds of clubs all over the world, and have also had the luck and good fortune to work on the "other side of the counter" as a booker, public relations director, advertising coordinator and entertainment journalist. Still, whatever my qualifications may or may not be, the business of jazz—whether on a local, national or international level—is still a "seat of the pants"-type operation, made up as one goes along.

The difference between "seat of the pants" methodology and the following, informal "guide"?

This one's in writing.

WHY JAZZ?

Enough already with the disc jockeys, rock cover bands and karaoke nights. Booking a jazz group, whatever the style, will make your venue—whatever your venue might be—stand out. Ideally, presenting jazz can enhance what you're already doing in line with your current customer base, help fulfill your mission and goals, gain more customers, attract those who spend and spend consistently, and return to your place again and again.

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