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What's Wrong With Today's Live Jazz

Richard Lawn By

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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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