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Careers in Jazz

Bill Anschell By

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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:

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