Careers in Jazz

Bill Anschell By

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Artists in this group are envious of Gig Whores, who are more successfully able to troll the depths of the music world for scraps. They view Epiphytes with ambivalence, being reluctant to admit that they are separated from them only by a lack of talent.

Identifying Signs
  • Air of desperation
  • Bad teeth
  • Domino's car-tops
Survival Techniques
  • Pyramid schemes
  • Selling cell phones and sunglasses in makeshift mall kiosks
  • Drug-dealing
Working wives2

Jazz musicians with working wives may be nearly as fortunate as the Silver Spoons, and freed to lead similarly privileged lifestyles. Or they may discover over time that their jazz career and the terms of their marital relationship are virtually incompatible. It all depends on a complex formula that charts the timing of an artist's marriage against the progress of his career to that point. The results of this equation can be distilled into two subsets, with highly divergent outcomes.

A jazz artist who marries young, when his bride shares his delusion that he might become a Chosen One, eventually develops an inevitable air of failure and defeat. His once idealistic wife, hardened by the burden of becoming the family provider, reminds him constantly that his career choice has proven to be a selfish indulgence. Though she once bought into the jazz community's inflated sense of self-importance, she quickly loses interest in her husband's gigs, considering them—as does the rest of the outside world—trivial and irrelevant. Forced to carry his weight, he becomes unavailable for rehearsals, instead preparing family meals or driving his kids to soccer games. He may cancel gigs at the last minute because his wife needs "a night out with the girls," and he can't find a sitter. Deemed unreliable and uncommitted by his jazz peers, he gets fewer and fewer calls. Under pressure—especially if his wife can't fully pay the bills—he gradually morphs into a Gig Whore of the most desperate variety, eventually landing in a high-paying, soul-crushing variety band. In the worst-case scenario, the wife at that point discovers that her husband—who if nothing else was at least once an idealistic artist—has lost all appeal. She leaves him for a successful businessman who has a clear concept of self, doesn't work nights, and listens to music that isn't all crazy. The artist's life continues its downward spiral until he hits bottom as a bitter Survivalist.

By contrast, the jazz artist who is already an established Epiphyte by the time he meets his future wife has found his salvation. The wife-to-be understands the realities of the jazz world, perceives her future husband's devotion to his financially unviable art form as romantic, and marries the husband and his music alike. Such women are the angels of mercy in the jazz world; the sole counter-evidence to cosmic indifference. Their fortunate husbands become, in a sense, quasi-Chosen Ones, minus the true Chosen Ones' fame and (modest) fortune.

Identifying Signs, Survival Techniques

  • Artists supported by their spouses are better dressed, better fed, and better mannered than most of their peers. They have no survival techniques, as their fate is fully in the hands of another.

Jazz Educators3

Jazz music, like philosophy, ancient literature, and other insular fields with limited real-world application, has created its own cozy home in the educational system. In secondary schools, it gives young musicians a relatively harmless introduction to a music they'll later discard as outdated and irrelevant. But at the college level, jazz majors are irretrievably immersed in the music's history, theory and—above all—performance. Once the real world shatters their performing aspirations, many flee right back to the university or conservatory where, safely ensconced in a tenured position, they perpetuate the vicious cycle.

Tenured university teaching posts are probably the most coveted positions in the jazz field (other than the exclusive province of the Chosen Ones). Ironically, the personality traits that make for success in the academic world have nothing in common with jazz artistry. Jazz professorships require advanced degrees, and those who pursue them are by nature practical, career-minded and—with their orientation to future security rather than present artistic expression—far from spontaneous.

Perhaps that's why the university professors have pioneered their own form of jazz. As they'll explain to their Jazz History classes, jazz music has evolved since its inception to reflect the lives and times of its practitioners. From bebop through free jazz, the music has been the artists' vehicle for reacting to their social, political and cultural environment. No surprise then, that jazz enables these same professors to express their own unique academic milieu: their music is the sound of personal ambition and scholarly thought. Performance and composition alike are theory-driven, and the ability to navigate complex written chord changes is paramount. Rather than relying on their ears, faculty performers are glued to their scores, negotiating obtuse chords by calculating scale choices with mathematical efficiency. Unfortunately, the music's intellectual underpinnings render it inaccessible to all but fellow professors and advanced students. Undereducated audiences are left behind, even those who recognize that appreciation of such intricate music is a mark of personal sophistication.

Although jazz professors rarely overlap in style with the Chosen Ones, most still aspire to join their ranks. Toward that end, they book Chosen Ones for concerts, often finding ways to share the stage with them, sometimes composing a special tune for the occasion (and typically naming the tune after the Chosen One, thereby marking their relationship for eternity). They wine and dine them, take joint photos, and if possible book them on the side for personal recording projects. Interestingly, although Chosen Ones are the subject of great envy among jazz professors, many aging Chosen Ones who neglected to plan for retirement eventually seek and easily land University posts. There they are allowed to bypass normal hiring procedures in exchange for lending their credibility and doing virtually nothing.

Like other tenured faculty, jazz professors are required to publish, and as the number of jazz PhDs increases, so does the obscurity of their topics. Jazz Educators' conferences are full of presentations—scheduled early in the morning and sparsely attended—on subjects ranging from "The Scalar Implications of Minor Seventh Flat Nine Chords in Mid-period Bill Evans Voicings" to "A Study of Coltrane's Reed and Mouthpiece Choices in Relationship to His Late Career Dental Work" to "Post-Chromatic Stress Disorder in the Neo Lydian Landscape."

If you, Reader, were to try to look like a jazz artist, you would wind up looking like the jazz professor, who tries far harder to look like a jazz artist than an actual jazz artist does. Goatees, berets, tinted glasses, African scull caps, ponytails, and earrings are standard fare. By contrast the committed jazz artist, especially the Epiphyte, doesn't much care what he looks like and doesn't have the money to try anyway.

Identifying Signs

  • The aforementioned jazz disguise

Survival Techniques

  • The university professor is fully bilingual, equally at home with the pinched, grammatically correct language of the academic, and the jargon-laced, "street" banter of the jazz artist. By necessity, he has multiple personalities to complement his linguistics: entering a music department meeting, he can readily swap out his loose jazz cool for the requisite constipated classical clench.

"The Industry"

We've all heard the story of the awkward kid taunted throughout his school years. He's the first to be bullied, the last to be picked for sports teams, and the least likely to land a date; his only recourse is to plan his eventual revenge. Entering adulthood, he channels his rage into his career, fighting his way, dog-eat-dog, to the top. Whether a greedy CEO, an evil slumlord, or a powerful politician, underlying his every move is the subconscious desire to exact payback on his early enemies and redeem his tormented youth.

So it is with the child who is drawn to music, but simply has no talent for it. No matter how much he practices he never makes it past third chair in band, never gets to play in rock bands with his friends, and never gets picked to solo in stage band. Undaunted, he pursues a music degree, majoring in jazz—the most challenging and hopeless musical form. He gets called for a few scattered gigs at first, then never called back, shunned once again for his tin ear.

It doesn't take him long to discover that there's only one path to success; best of all, by taking it, he'll be able to wield devastating power over those who have rejected him. Without looking back, he joins "The Industry" or its periphery: label executives, radio programmers and promoters, critics, arts administrators, booking agents, soundmen, and recording engineers. Collectively, they ruthlessly bully working musicians and ensure that the jazz world will forever be a career cesspool.

Describing the industry's destructiveness could be a full story in itself, but for the sake of brevity, here are single examples of how each of its component parts might suppress an artist. In reality, the examples are endless, and the whole—the machinery's ability to demolish aspiring musicians—is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Booking Agent: Promises the client a polka band; books three jazz artists and a french accordian player, omits all details until the day of the gig, then assigns the artists a complete setlist for the evening—all authentic polkas—and insists they wear lederhosen and pretend to be German.

Critic: In a race against his peers to discover and give birth to the next Chosen One, finds the least accessible new artist on the scene and writes a review glorifying his music as simply too sophisticated for less enlightened ears, provoking the other critics, in the spirit of competition, to trash the young artist as "utterly without talent," destroying his career before it has even begun.

Soundman: Working with an acoustic jazz trio in a small hall, uses the concert as an opportunity to show off massive new gear. Tapping into finely honed heavy metal sensibilities, mixes the kick drum and bass above all else, rocking the house with his thunderous, state-of-the-art subwoofers.

Recording Engineer: In the middle of a sensitive song, where the band members are interacting at an artistic level previously unknown to them, accidentally hits a button that not only destroys the take, but sends a deafening, ear-piercing squeal through the headphones.

Arts Administrator4: Diverts and sucks dry the scant dollars that governmental agencies and charitable foundations earmark for jazz artists.

Club Owner: Books a jazz artist for a weeklong stint, persuading him to cancel several lesser gigs already on his calendar. Shortly before the week begins, dumps him for a better-known Smooth Jazz5 act.

Radio Programmer: Conducts focus groups to determine which new jazz CDs are least likely to distract "listeners" in their office environments. Broadcasts this music exclusively, rejecting any jazz that is remotely assertive or interesting, thereby convincing the station's audience that jazz is, indeed, dead.

Radio Promoter: Charges artists exorbitant fees in exchange for pestering radio programmers to play the artists' new recordings. Easily gets compliance of the radio programmers, who are happy to be relieved of the task of sorting through hundreds of new CDs that arrive every week from other hopeful, but less wealthy, musicians. Thereby ensures that airplay goes to the artists with the most money, rather than to those who make the best music.


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