What's Wrong With Today's Live Jazz

Richard Lawn By

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What happened to the jazz clubs that would present a band for a week or at least a few consecutive dates?
What's wrong with today's live jazz scene?

There has been a great deal of whining about the climate for live jazz these days. The complaints are sometimes accompanied by speculation about why jazz seems to have slipped off the radar, particularly in many major cities such as Philadelphia. The complaints, however, are often unaccompanied by suggestions about fixing the problems, or any specific theories about why and how things have disintegrated.

Before I go any further in presenting my own analysis of the situation, let me first make several confessions and clarifications. I am a musician—a jazz composer, arranger, educator and bandleader. I am also card-carrying member of AARP and the AFof M. In more youthful days I performed with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Chuck Mangione, Mel Torme, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Diane Schuur, and others. While I was born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, I spent 34 years away from the area before returning a little more than a decade ago. Some may therefore argue that I'm an "outsider" to the local jazz scene, a relative newcomer whose observations aren't well informed.

I am grateful for the few gigs I get with my band, so don't get me wrong, but my observations may be perceived as sour grapes for not getting more gigs. I assure you that is not the case, if for no other reason than as a "senior citizen" who is retired from his day job I don't care to be working in clubs five nights a week (though I wouldn't mind a few more than I currently enjoy).

My observations and concerns are not directed merely at the Philly scene, as I think they are also appropriate to many other cities where one might find jazz including Austin, Texas, the self proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World." I spent 21 years living and working in that city, so I'm well versed in that music scene up until about 10 years ago. I continue to maintain communications with Austin jazz musicians.

I have set the table framing my opinions with personal background, context, and possible biases. I'm going to tell you one of the specific problems that lies at the core of the jazz malaise, and some possible solutions. It is important to understand that this malaise affects both musicians and audiences for jazz.

My wife and I recently returned from a short visit to NYC, after soaking in some amazing live jazz. What I'm about to identify as a significant problem was reinforced by this trip to the city that continues to be the epicenter of jazz, and the problem I'm about to focus on is not so prevalent there.

What happened to jazz clubs that would present a band for a week or at least a few consecutive dates? In days gone by this was common practice in many, many cities such as Philadelphia. Fans had multiple nights to catch a group's performance, and for that matter, a band had the opportunity to develop a fan base since they could be heard over the course of many nights at a single club or even multiple clubs. Their residencies might even move from one club to another. Consecutive performances are an important factor in helping a band to develop its sound, a musical DNA that over time is what generates a fan base. You can still encounter such opportunities in NYC, but they have disappeared in most other cities.

If a band does not have the opportunity for multiple consecutive performances, how is this important group sound and concept to coalesce? Are musicians supposed to rehearse for hours and hours in someone's basement or garage in order to develop a special musical style? Rehearsing is an important part of the process, of course, but at some point the music must be shared with an audience for feedback, encouragement, or even criticism. After a point, practicing also doesn't pay the bills. Whether for economic reasons, or simply management whims, the opportunities for more regular employment are becoming more scarce, if not obsolete. What bands typically get now is what might be termed showcases—one night a month if they are lucky.

This situation has encouraged what I refer to as "revolving or interchangeable bands" frequenting our clubs. I've witnessed the practice in Philly and cities like Austin. I use this term to describe a small group of top-flight musicians who seem to rotate in and out of different bands, with different leaders and featuring sometimes a slightly different repertoire. Often, however, the repertoire is quite similar and based on the jazz canon of standards found in most "fake books."

Don't get me wrong, these groups usually perform at a high level, but it's not uncommon to see the musicians talking off mic between tunes, deciding what they'll play next from the standard repertoire they have a shared knowledge of. Notice I didn't mention that they play original material. They don't normally perform original music outside the jazz canon, or even standards that demonstrate some unique arrangement which could be associated with that particular band, because that would require that they rehearse.

A one-night stand just doesn't justify time spent in rehearsal, especially considering the minimal take home pay that is often a percentage of the door (cover charge). It is this lack of original material that helps shape a band's musical identity as much as it is the musicians themselves. Without original material, a band becomes little more than another pick-up band formed by a revolving group of musicians in interchangeable roles.

Clubs have now passed on the responsibility of audience development to the musicians. While musicians and the bands they form have always been responsible for attracting a loyal group of fans, the burden on musicians for audience development is now greater than ever before. Musicians can unfortunately anticipate little or no publicity from the clubs, so now marketing is added to other artistic responsibilities such as composing and arranging, practicing their instruments, rehearsing as a band, putting out their next recording, and so on.

Some clubs now ask musicians how many "fans" will they bring in and that number is a prerequisite for the opportunity of performing for ONE NIGHT ONLY. Musicians therefore are trapped in an impossible dilemma since reoccurring gigs cultivate audiences, but seem to be few and far between; and when a gig does become available it is for ONE NIGHT ONLY!

I also believe too much emphasis has been placed on the value of social media. Social media certainly provides a mechanism to notify fans of upcoming gigs, provide examples of the band's recordings, and communicate with fans in other ways. But I would assert that social media is not the solution and single mechanism to grow a fan base. Many of the great bands that have developed in cities like Philadelphia and New York did so over time, through an ongoing relationship with one or more clubs where they played regularly, and if not for consecutive nights at least more predictably than random dates.

For example, the Mingus Big Band currently performs on Mondays at The Jazz Standard in NYC. Maria Schneider's Orchestra once performed at Visiones in New York's Greenwich Village and did so once a week for five years! It's not surprising that both of these bands now have a rather large fan base and their recordings make money for the artists, the record label, and the clubs they frequent. There was an ecosystem under which jazz flourished. This system is now fractured and in many cases broken altogether.

I confidently suggest that the bands that I've mentioned, and those before them like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and many more would not have succeeded as artists and group leaders without the relationship they enjoyed with the live music venues who supported them through multi-night gigs. Most cities don't provide these opportunities for musicians, and consequently we do not see unique bands emerging with a unique, identifiable sound as we once did.

The exception, of course, are the few bands that blossom in NYC through support from clubs, foundation grants and performance venues not frequented by jazz fans, like libraries, museums and churches. In some cities these non traditional jazz venues are helping to pick up the slack from failing clubs.

Many jazz musicians have turned to teaching and playing gigs that can take them orbits away from playing jazz music, all in an effort to survive and enable them to accept the few, often low paying jazz gigs that come their way. Don't misunderstand, teaching jazz to young people can be personally rewarding and a very admirable profession that has gained much traction in the ivory towers over the past several decades. But on closer examination we find that this success has opened the floodgates to what seems an endless flow of exceptionally talented young musicians graduating from universities, perhaps even more prepared for careers in jazz than their mentors might have been.

This begs the question whether there is any career promise for these budding artists, since touring "road bands" are nearly non- existent and the live music scene is suffering as I've described. There is no substitute, however, for live music, and if there were, clubs would have no reason to even try to exist except to sell food and liquor.

I remain convinced there is still an audience for live jazz. For example, I recently performed at a local one-day jazz festival in a small local Southwest New Jersey town, population 2,833. The main street was teaming with people, clearly there for the music. The few restaurants and clubs that line Main Street were jammed as were other local venues, not considered music venues but pressed into service by the community festival presenters. The club I was playing in was packed from the first note we played until we finished and turned the stage over to another band. Up and down the street the musical quality was high, and yet there was not one musician I knew. Where did they all come from? I know for a fact that most, if not all, were locals, willing and eager to find the next such engagement. Surely this audience would support more live jazz if it were made available even if it wasn't associated with a special event like a festival.

Now that I've described what seems to be a conundrum for both club owners and musicians, what is the solution? I would assert that clubs, audiences and musicians would be much better off if they followed one or both of the following two booking policies: 1) Book bands for multiple, consecutive nights; 2) Book bands on reoccurring nights each week, such as every Monday night. I could see a combination of both approaches working, but as it stands, there seems to be more of a very random, buckshot approach to booking with no plan to help a band with potential in generating a significant fan base while also cultivating a personal musical sound. As things stand today, if a fan likes a band, there is no way to predict when that band will play the same venue again.

It might also be possible to follow both these approaches while still providing room for young, developing bands to perform on later sets in mid-week which is currently the policy in a number of clubs I'm familiar with here and elsewhere.

I know I am sticking my neck out suggesting that something different could actually work and be appealing to many of my comrades, as well as club owners and fans. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe musicians are content with the status quo, but I'm convinced that many are not and that we all deserve more nurturing environments that would be good for clubs, musicians, audiences, and the advancement of the music we love.

Perhaps I'll see you at my next gig.

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