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Careers in Jazz

Bill Anschell By

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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:


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