Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Dark Side Of The Beat


Buddy, can you spare a jazz gig?
I've been truly blessed to have an actual career in jazz. I mean, it's pretty astounding: I was a lousy classical trumpet player, ready to quit playing, when I discovered the piano. All of a sudden, I had a job! I was playing two nights a week at a hotel in Baltimore. My rent was $250 a month(this was 1989). I was making $220 a week, so I was richer than I had ever been in my life. I was making money IMPROVISING on jazz tunes. And not even very well! I was on top of the world.


And then the gig ended. Another band came in and told the manager they would play for less money. And so was my first lesson in the ugly side of playing music for a living. I was depressed, but I had made a lot of contacts, so the work picked up again. And  now, looking back on over twenty years of playing music for a living, and it always ebbs and flows: sometimes there is work, sometimes not. Still, I'm extremely lucky: most of my Peabody Conservatory classmates have quit playing music, at least professionally. Times are tough for even legendary musicians. The economy sucks. Debt ceiling.....yada yada......You know what I mean.


I've been in New York since 1995 (with a brief pit stop in Winnipeg for 2 years, see previous posts) and the jazz scene has changed a lot. A lot of great venues have closed(Bradley's, Visiones, Zinno's,Fat Tuesday's, Detour, Sweet Basil's/Rhythm, to name a few). Touring has slowed: I remember nine week tours, eleven week tours. Now, a three week stint seems eternal. Even 10 days is a rarity. Also, the jazz audience has changed in New York. The demographic has shifted from die- hard New Yorkers along with European and Japanese tourists supporting the clubs, into American tourists, who come to clubs with little real love of the music. (I played at the Blue Note with the Christian McBride Trio a few years ago, and McBride was telling an anecdote about trumpeter Roy Hargrove. McBride looked out at the packed house and assumed, "Y'all know Roy Hargrove, right?" You could hear a pin drop.) 9/11 didn't help things. The rise of Wall Street hasn't added any listeners: it doesn't seem like Hedge Fund Managers like jazz as much as cigar bars, or whatever. Sometimes I wonder if New York still deserves to be called the Jazz Capital of the World. (Although there are still more musicians here than ever....)


But beyond the economic realities of jazz music, I think what bothers me more than anything is the lack of community and respect shown by people who curate/book/own some of these venues. I would have to say that overall, I'm treated so much better in Europe and Japan, even in clubs. And not just by the audiences, but by the management/staff/bookers/etc...Even outside of New York, I tend to get more respect. Now, obviously, there are exceptions (Small's is great, because Spike Wilner is a working musician, and he really understands the music and what it means to be a musician.), but I am continually surprised by how little musicians are respected in New York, the so-called Jazz Capital of the World. Maybe it's always been this way; mind you, I've never been beaten by cops for standing outside of a club for being Black and talking to a White lady, a la Miles Davis ( I mean, let's have some perspective, please!). But I'm surprised by people who probably should know better, even managers/bookers/staff who are musicians themselves!


I heard a story about one of the most well known venues in the city, and why one very well known young (still young) trumpeter refuses to perform there. One night, after this trumpeter and his band had finished their set, the "proprietor" of the venue turned on the lights and yelled "You guys didn't play anything good all night!" And this is a renowned venue. If this is how we are treated there, how can we expect better anywhere else in New York?


I hate to complain, because like I initially said, I am extremely lucky; I have work, a roof over my head, food in my stomach, bank account, family, used car, etc... And it's not even a money thing; my pay scale is sliding like my tires on the Winnipeg highways in January. But I think what's missing is a bit of respect and decency.


Just as an example, I had an experience recently with the curator of the music at a cafe in Greenwich Village. I have been playing at this venue for many years; it's a small venue, and even with standing room only, it's hard to make any real money. I mean, it's essentially a door gig! Musicians play here because it has a decent atmosphere and it's a place to present their original music. Small establishments like this are bombarded with musicians looking for a place to play. Unfortunately, the people who book these venues sometimes develop an attitude of disrespect towards the musicians. I was a victim of this kind of attitude.

I have played at this particular venue for 15 years, dealing with a succession of bookers, most of whom were friendly and easy to deal with. Not so with a recent exchange. My wife and I played a double bill there this past spring, and we had a respectable, if not terrific, turnout. But when I contacted the booker to ask about another date, I was dismissed with comments to the effect of: "Feedback I got from the bartender and waiters about your show was not too good, to say the least. Your turnout was way below average, I was told that your sets did not start on time, the whole evening was poorly run, and you didn't even know what instrument you were going to be playing the second set."

I think what bugged me the most was that this booker was judging me by what the host and bartender said about the performance. (This to me is akin to getting a review of the New York Philharmonic from one of the ushers in the concert hall...no offense to ushers.) I wanted to ask him if they were musicians or not, but my wife stopped me. I really had to hold back some choice words. Anyway, It's not like I need to play there to make a living; on the contrary, I usually tried to hold back booking stuff there in fear of a conflict with a tour or better paying gig. So as I was saying, it's not about the money, it's about the respect. And this is from a fellow musician, who is probably struggling as much as we all are. Where's the sense of community?
....WE'RE LIVING IN A SOCIETY!.....


23 comments:

  1. Lemme guess. Does this club rhyme with Zornelia Beet Sashay?

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  2. this is all so true

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  3. well-said--well-typed
    let me guess
    one of the places mentioned rhymes with the Omni Hotel in Baltimore-rhymes exactly-am I right?
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  4. This is such a well-written, sad, enraging article. I think you do a disservice to yourself by "downplaying" your playing, because you are an excellent pianist, but that's neither here nor there. I wish there was a strong jazz union/confederation/cooperative--something that would allow musicians some control and power. I've thought about it frequently--having a circuit of musician-owned, musician-run venues and/or series, where the music is treated with the respect and financial remuneration it deserves.

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  5. That could easily apply to a couple rooms in the area(not including Spike at Smalls).The sad part is one in particular( which is actually run by a musician who has taken it upon themself to take this tiny speck of an opportunity to turn it into their last bastion of trying to exert some power in order to get recognition, because hardly enyone else will book them on a gig outside of that particular room.)

    This individual resorts to writing 2 page diatribes of neurotic drivel,including comments along the lines as mentioned by George, that actually reveal the deep- seated insecurity that is plain to see within their words, to musicians one should be so lucky to share a drink with, let alone the stage with, then ironically their due recognition is achieved.Albeit recognition as a complete and total tool, as opposed to what they were ultimately hoping for through the association.

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  6. Musicians play here because it has a decent atmosphere and it's a place to present their original music. Small establishments like this are bombarded with musicians looking for a place to play.
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  7. I am continually surprised by how little musicians are respected in New York, the so-called Jazz Capital of the World. Maybe it's always been this way; mind you, I've never been beaten by cops for standing outside of a club for being Black and talking to a White lady, a la Miles Davis ( I mean, let's have some perspective, please!).
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