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Careers in Jazz

Bill Anschell By

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Like Silver Spoons, Career Professionals have no shortage of money; the difference is that they work for it. Although they take their "straight gig" seriously—often earning advanced college degrees and struggling to climb the corporate ladder—they still self-identify primarily as jazz artists. This creates an inevitable disconnect between their day-to-day and stage personae.

In their suburban neighborhoods they're accepted as hard-working citizens, lent an air of the exotic by their occasional late-night jazz gigs. Among their jazz peers, they spin their personal narratives along these lines: By making a living outside the workaday jazz world, they're able to keep their music "unpolluted" by artistically compromising gigs. The reality beneath the spin—that they and/or their spouse simply don't want to forgo the creature comforts that a jazz income can't buy—goes unstated, but is silently understood by all.

Career Professionals have tremendous admiration for Epiphytes, but are reluctant to take the corresponding vow of poverty. On the other hand, they view Gig Whores with outright disdain; ugly cousins who have chosen the musical low road.

The biggest challenge faced by Career Professionals is maintaining their chops. Working nine to five makes it difficult to keep up any sort of practice regimen, and insisting on playing only meaningful gigs minimizes their time on stage. They compensate with intensive bursts of practice before each performance, shutting themselves off from their families and shortening their sleep habits. At the same time, they insist that mere chops are irrelevant to any music of significance, which is, by definition, the only music they play.

Identifying Signs
  • Air of dignity Pricy but inexpensive-looking new outfits for each concert Chronic fatigue
Survival Techniques
  • None needed

Unlike the more highly trained and thoroughly moneyed Career Professionals, Survivalists typically bounce among unskilled jobs, taking them mainly out of desperation as their gigging income falls short. More often than not this sets off a perpetual cycle of gigging, falling into debt, washing dishes or working at a music store to get back ahead, quitting to gig full-time again, then falling back into debt. Few have the wisdom to leave the jazz world altogether; many are trombonists.

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.


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