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Every year, university programs spit out thousands of highly trained jazz musicians sporting hard-earned diplomas and high hopes. But when these graduates hit the first formal rite of jazz passagea desperate trip to the local pawn shopthey learn that the diploma is literally not worth the paper it's printed on. Entering school, their dream was simple: To perform music they love for attentive audiences in jazz clubs, concert halls, and festivals, and to earn a fair wage for their efforts1. But set loose from the nurturing womb of the campus, they quickly experience the shock of an indifferent and often hostile new reality.
The world doesn't take kindly to jazz artists, and before long these graduates find their ideals displaced by bitter cynicism. At best, one percent of them will eventually realize their dreams, and only after years of paying dues. These are the Chosen Ones, whose success results from a rare combination of often freakish talent, perseverance, good looks, personality, ambition, geography and an ability to skillfully navigate unpredictably changing public tastes.
Why so few Chosen Ones? Simple economics: People who want to play jazz actually outnumber those who enjoy or even tolerate it, let alone pay to hear it. Consequently, in the microscopic jazz economy, there isn't nearly enough to go around, though competition for the crumbs is relentless and sometimes brutal. This simple financial reality underlies virtually all of the infighting, backbiting, and doomsaying that define the jazz condition.
But when the jazz bug bites, it's hard to shake. Of the remaining 99%, the vast majority continues the battle, even in the face of shattered dreams and personal defeat. How do they get by? By compromising their music, their lifestyle, their self-respect, or any combination of the three.
What, then, are the paths to survival? Whether through free choice or fate, hopeless devotion or clinical insanity, jazz musicians eventually sort themselves out into the following subtypes:
Jazz Classes, in Detail
Gig Whores are the largest class within the jazz community, and are the easiest to find. They ply their wares in hotel lobbies, restaurants, private parties of all types, and anywhere else that jazz is degraded to an artless commodity and sold to the highest bidder. This is done knowingly and willfully, but not without self-pity; while a Gig Whore may claim to be working "in the trenches," the jazz musician within knows that he's really plumbing untreated musical sewage.
Even outside the jazz arena, jazz Gig Whores, working undercover, populate the music world's ample underbelly: the pianist wearily accompanying a tone-deaf vocalist in a community musical theater production or demonstrating Costco's latest digital keyboard, the bugler announcing post parade at a horse racing track (slyly inserting a Charlie Parker lick disguised as a flourish), the off-camera bassist backing American Idol contestants, the herald trumpetersdressed in renaissance costumesserenading department store shoppers at Christmas time, the wedding band leader cajoling guests into a conga line for "Hot, Hot, Hot" (and the six accomplices to his musical crime, barely hiding their disgust and self-loathing), the drummer making "punch-line" sounds for a would-be comedian... Each banking part of his pay to subsidize the day when he might dare to take the jazz plunge, holding his nose with one hand as the other gratefully palms the ample paycheck.
Yet there is room for heroism in the Gig Whore's world. That same pianist might acrobatically shift keys and drop beats in tandem with the vocalist, magically masking her every misstep. The bassist might find mistakes in the vapid Idol charts and fix them on the fly with improvisational prowess. The wedding band members might "fake" the bride's favorite song, a last-minute obscure request they all just happen to know by ear. More often than not, jazz Gig Whores make up in talent what they lack in pride, taste or integrity.
While money motivates the Gig Whore's musical lifestyle, fear motivates his more immediate actions. Gig Whores have an intense phobia of open spaceson their calendarswhich can elicit sudden adrenaline-fueled outbreaks of cold-calls to contractors, restaurateurs and wedding planners. Between calls, they sit by their phones with the desperation of dateless adolescents. They're also terrified of their booking agents, clients and contracts, and compensate by overworkingshortening their breaks and prolonging their sets. You'll often find a Gig Whore (and his unfortunate band) playing in an empty room long after the clients and guests have left, a lone custodian angrily mopping the floor, his iPod unable to fully drown out the tired music emanating from the bandstand.
Tuxedo Bad toupee or comb-over Tie emblazoned with stylized jazz instrument Overzealous handshake
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.