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Careers in Jazz

Bill Anschell By

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Record Label: Signs an artist to an exclusive deal, does nothing to promote his music, then discards him as used goods, yesterday's news, tomorrow's Gig Whore.

These disparate industry segments don't lend themselves to generalization, beyond their destructive effect on the jazz environment. However, those who reach the top of their profession—particularly the more highly paid record label executives—may share certain characteristics:

Identifying Signs
  • Blood on their hands
  • Blatant displays of excess, including expensive cars, single-malt scotches, cigars, and professionally reconstructed women
Survival Techniques
  • The industry itself is a survival method for those drawn to jazz, money and power, which are otherwise never found in the same place
When times get tough, industry members survive by moving from bankrupt company to soon-to-be-bankrupt company. Most recently they've discovered a more sure-fire survival technique, stacking their supposed jazz rosters with artists who actually have nothing whatsoever to do with jazz. This fires up a "jazz revival," wherein the public—now fed a diet of pop music labeled as jazz—suddenly discovers that it likes jazz after all.

Update: The jazz industry in the digital age

The industry, as described above, still exists, but breakthroughs in digital technology have created promising new opportunities for better exploiting na?ve jazz artists. Digitally enabled predators include jazz-specific web-hosting sites (charging more than double the typical web-hosting fee in exchange for burying the artists' information among hundreds of his peers), database companies selling lists of email contacts (primarily addresses of festivals that don't accept unsolicited materials), and international "promoters" who request CDs from artists looking to perform at festivals abroad, then sell them on eBay. All have in common that—in a field where there's not nearly enough to go around—they siphon money directly from artists, further reducing their minimal incomes by preying on desperate, false hope.

The Classes at Play, and at War

The jazz class system is both hierarchical and pliable. This enables an artist not only to interact with artists from other classes, but also to move from one class to others below it as his career inevitably declines.

Jazz Class Hierarchy

  • Chosen Ones
  • Epiphytes
  • Jazz Educators
  • Silver Spoons
  • Gig Whores
  • Working Spouses
  • Career Professionals
  • Survivalists
  • Industry
Sample interactions among classes

When musicians from two or more classes interact professionally, the results are both predictable and entertaining.

Example One: A bandleader, knowing an Epiphyte has fallen on hard times, invites him to play a wedding gig, along with the leader's usual assemblage of Gig Whores. What happens?

The Epiphyte shows up for the tux gig wearing black jeans, black tennis shoes, white tee-shirt, dark navy blazer, and bow tie. He begins the gig playing in a correctly subdued, unswinging style. During each break, he eats frantically off the buffet, then stuffs more food—cocktail shrimp, brie cheese, spanakopita, and swedish meatballs—into his pockets. He also drinks furiously from the open bar. Each subsequent set, his playing becomes louder and more adventurous, and before long he's embarking on long, angular, ear-bending solos, even as he's swearing at the drummer for not digging in hard enough. The rest of the Gig Whores, caught between wanting to please the leader and emulate the Epiphyte, begin to similarly stretch. The bride's mother complains, the Epiphyte storms off the bandstand, and the leader silently vows to replace his entire band.

Example Two: A record label, impressed by a Gig Whore's resourcefulness, invites him to join its staff. Now, instead of wearing a clown nose and playing "Pop Goes the Weasel" for toddlers' birthday parties, he can have a dignified day job oppressing his fellow jazz artists. What is his response?

"How much does it pay?"

Career trajectories

Jazz career trajectories conform directly to the law of gravitational forces: Any and all movement is downward. One Gig Whore might marry a woman who financially supports but personally belittles him; another, when times get lean, might be forced to take a low-level day job for survival. An Epiphyte, finding his available oxygen supply running low, might compromise his musical ideals by becoming a Gig Whore, or stand on principle and join the Survivalists. A Silver Spoon, tired of playing inaccessible music for audiences of four to eight people, might instead enter the industry, founding a new record label that documents, for eternity, the same inaccessible music.

Full Circle #1:

A label A&R man hears a standout young soloist at a New York club one night and quickly signs him to a deal. The thusly anointed Chosen One puts out several critically acclaimed releases and tours internationally for a number of years before falling out of favor with changing public tastes. Moving back to his hometown, staying rent-free at his parents' house, he becomes an Epiphyte, playing with the best local musicians, but—with gigs far from plentiful in a relatively small city—barely making enough money to cover his living expenses. Memories of his glory days make it hard for him to accept this austere lifestyle, and he gradually lowers the bar, earning more money and retaining less dignity as he becomes a Gig Whore. The demeaning gigs eventually drive him to drink, and he becomes notoriously unreliable. Before long, his calendar starts to empty, and he's forced to look for non-playing work. He holds a series of meaningless part-time day jobs while gradually building a roster of untalented private students. One day, having hit rock-bottom, he is seemingly rescued when his old label calls, looking for a new A&R man, hoping to cash in on his name recognition. He relocates to New York where, his first week on the job, he hears a standout young soloist at a club....

Full Circle #2:

An impressionable young jazz pianist is booked by an agent for a solo gig in a hotel lobby. He quickly discovers that the clientele hate it when he plays Coltrane tunes, but love it when he sings Sinatra songs, no matter how badly. Soon, he parlays his vocal success into a steady gig with a bassist and drummer, and before long begins to get lucrative work playing corporate receptions. He hires more band members, and expands the repertoire to include pop favorites. He stops playing piano, preferring instead to front the band on vocals, adding dance steps, shaking his ever-widening butt. One night while singing "Mustang Sally" at a wedding reception, he coaxes the drunken crowd to yell "Ride, Sally, Ride," and discovers the euphoria of audience participation. From there, his life as an entertainer becomes an unquenchable thirst for affirmation. When he occasionally encounters a quiet audience, attentive to the music, it frightens him, sweat flowing from his brow as he tries ever harder to get them dancing and singing. His eventual midlife crisis points him toward the more lucrative, less stressful life of an agent, and the day he books his first job he will have successfully matured from whore to pimp, sending an innocent young pianist into the very lobby where he got his own start.

The variations are endless.

1. Additionally, a declining but still significant subgroup of males enter the jazz world motivated by the idea that, as artists, they might somehow have special appeal to women. Their miscalculation is gross, in that: 1) Women prefer men who aren't broke; 2) Women prefer men who bathe regularly; 3) Women prefer men whose music isn't antiquated and irrelevant; 4) Women can grow tired, after spending another lonely night on a barstool in a deserted jazz club, of assuring men that the first two measures of their second chorus in the fourth tune of the last set didn't really suck—in fact, were pretty good, actually very good—especially knowing that the singer's charts were pathetic, the drummer was rushing maniacally, the bassist was drunk and near comatose, the piano was painfully out of tune, and the sound coming from the stage monitors was like a chamber of horrors; really, in light of all that, the whole solo was practically super-human, the work of a great artist overcoming adversity to make a powerful, transcendent statement.

2. A more gender-neutral report might recognize the growing number of female instrumentalists by referring to "working spouses" rather than "working wives." However, the sample of female players hasn't been large enough, for long enough, to yield statistically significant results. It is hoped that they will be more grateful than resentful for being excluded from this admittedly phallocentric document. Female vocalists—as has been extensively documented outside this report—are a different species altogether.

3. While this discussion of "Jazz Educators" focuses on university professors, jazz is also taught in the secondary schools and through private instruction. These lower-level teachers have one commonality with university faculty: They'd really rather be gigging. Beyond that, though, they have their own unique profiles:

Secondary school teachers: Although these teachers rank beneath university teachers in the jazz pecking order and in societal standing, theirs is the more noble calling. While university professors are largely responsible for the flooding of the market with aspiring professionals—highly trained and largely generic—secondary school teachers are more interested in building the future jazz audience. Their focus is on instilling an understanding of and appreciation for jazz among their students; unfortunately, this appreciation quickly fades with the students' maturity.

Private instructors: Whether teaching in the back rooms of music stores or out of their own homes, these are individuals who tried and failed to make it as Gig Whores. Although most other musicians consider private instruction the final stop before suicide, society is kinder to these unfortunates, allowing them to hide their indignity behind "the importance of arts education," "passing knowledge from generation to generation," and "keeping youth off the streets."

4. This well-fed, parasitic middleman—typically a jealous amateur musician formally trained in non-profit business administration—may work either directly for the government or for a government-funded non-profit presenting agency. Either way, he or she enjoys a salary and accompanying benefits unthinkable for a working jazz artist.

5. Smooth Jazz is, of course, not jazz at all. Apart from the fact that its bass and drum parts are actually repetitive pop patterns and its harmonies are simple pop progressions, its practitioners are entirely unlike jazz artists. They are well-paid, well-balanced, enjoy normal hobbies, have many fans, appreciate their audiences, and seem to harbor minimal disdain for mankind as a whole.

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