What's Wrong With Today's Live Jazz

Richard Lawn By

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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.


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