Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Dark Side of The Beat 2: Update

I got a lot of reactions to my recent post("The Dark Side Of The Beat"). I think that the struggle of trying to book gigs at New York clubs really struck a chord, no pun intended. Here are a few comments that I received:

I feel you brother. You're fate at that club rests on the bartender not satisfied with the tip you left him. What a drag.  

I have had similar experiences in other NY clubs....I'll have a killing night packed with people....everybody wins.....can't get another there....why? God owners are strange dudes. 

I had sort of the same experience last week, it wasn't even my gig, but the A hole manager (not even the owner who loves having live music) started screaming about how they were losing money over paying us $250 for the band. I usually hold myself but I started going at him about how much of a loser he was and how we were playing there for the love of music, and if he couldn't make money out of a packed place with amazing location it wasn't because of the money he was paying us. 

George, what's amazing is that you play all over the world have top shelf CDs and you are & play with top shelf players. It amazes me that club owners who want to build a business with live music have not the first clue about who they are getting.

So what are these club owners looking for? Whether it is a local club or the top tier places, how do we adapt our pitch to them for opportunity to perform to their expectations? What do they want?

And this was a good one from Jonny King. If you don't know King, he is a wonderful pianist and composer who worked with Joshua Redman in the 90's. He's also a lawyer, and he wrote an excellent book on jazz appreciation. But his comment was interesting.

I thought your rant was great and right on. I grew up playing at places like Bradley's and Basil's and Visiones, etc., and playing at them regularly. Two things made those experiences so important. First, the audiences (especially at Bradley's) were always filled with musicians. One time, at Bradley's not long before it shut down (maybe after it reopened after the fire?), I think Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan and Joe Zawinul were sitting at the bar at one time! Can you imagine anything similar today? A hang, or collective with that kind of magnetic vibe? Second, as just a regular-joe piano player, I had the direct relationship with the club owner/booker, whether it was Wendy at Bradley's or James Browne at Sweet Basil's or whomever. So I could just call and say, "I'd like to play with these guys", etc. There was no interrogation about what label, how will it be advertised, etc. Now, having been absent for some time and just returning to the scene, I really feel this new distance between the clubs and the musicians. It's not just that the contacts have changed -- that's gonna happen over time -- but that the criteria have. Some clubs are still great and respectful, but the clubs reflect a more diffuse, split-apart scene generally, where there's no sense of cultivating a community, a hang, where the musicians and the clubs are basically creating the scene. And forget our generation, but think of the generation above us. All those great piano players I used to follow around, and everyone else -- can you imagine how they feel? I don't know what the answer is, but I appreciate so much that someone who is out there, and indeed makes a living at these places, is willing to ask why the relationship has so soured with these clubs. We all bitched about it in the late 80s/early 90s too,  but there's no question that it's many times worse now. And yet the music lives on. Respectfully, pissed-offedly, and cautiously optimistically -

Jonny King

I thought that was a great summary of what is happening these days. It's nice to know that I'm not alone in my thoughts. I wish I knew what the solution was. Maybe part of it is merely speaking out in some form, not going quietly. As I've said, there are exceptions, like Spike Wilner of Smalls, or Peter Mazza at the Bar Next Door, or Cory Weeds at the Cellar in Vancouver: it's because they are musicians themselves, and they understand what it's like to be on the other side.

I wanted to update this because I actually received an apology from the unnamed curator at the unnamed New York club. I'm not sure if he read the blog, or if somebody told him about it, or if he just at an internal change of heart. He said that he realized that he was a little harsh and he didn't mean any disrespect, and that I was welcome to play there again. I was surprised, because you rarely get apologies these days. Of course, I accepted, and said no hard feelings

Pianist Jonny King
But I think Jonny King was really on to something with the separation that exists in the scene: it seems like many of the people who book the clubs put up this wall between themselves and the musicians. As if they are the Wizard of Oz or something.( Nobody gets in to see the Wizard! Not Nobody, not no how!) But this could be partially caused by the fact that some of these places are so bombarded by the thousands of musicians in New York, that they have to put up a wall just for the sake of sanity. It's probably akin to if you had to answer every spam email you received every day: you'd go crazy after a few days.

I often wonder, if I curated a jazz club, how would I do it? How would I accommodate all the musicians who would ultimately be sending me emails and calling. I'll have to give it more thought, but one thing I do know is that I would try to avoid insulating myself from the musicians. I say this because I think that musicians can also be customers; even if you let the musicians in free, they will still drink and eat, and also they can recommend your venue to others, and the whole thing perpetuates itself. If you alienate "the cats", you are alienating the people who probably love the music more than the mere fans, definitely more than the tourists who populate these places. If there was more of a sense of "we're all in this together", then these clubs would never lack support. I think because of this current atmosphere of " I'm up here, and you are down there", I rarely see musicians hanging at the venues. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe the musicians don't support the clubs. I know I would be more inclined to drop a bunch of money at some of these places if I felt like I was "a part of things." I hate to say it in terms of "I only support the clubs that return my emails," but hey, if the shoe fits.....


  1. I think what you are getting at reflects the declining power of the "hang" as an important space for incubating jazz talent -- what was once an irreplaceable social networking space has been replaced by other means for making connections: more great players coming through jazz schools, the internet, etc. A place like Smalls or Bar Next Door just isn't going to have the same impact as Smalls/Bradleys/etc. did in the '90s, in terms of connecting musicians and circulating new musical ideas.

    The question for me is: what can we do to foster those connections now, with a more geographically diffuse scene and these other opportunities to connect? Your blog, for one, is a great example of a step in the right direction!

  2. George, nice posts and I have many comments but not a lot of time :)

    Club owners have to understand that there is an inherent risk of having live music at their venue and although the 'non drawing' musician can easily become the club owners target it isn't fair. Im pretty sure in the 50s Monk wasn't responsible for getting people to the gig. It was the 5 Spot's job to get the people out and not the musicians'. Now, having said that the model has changed a lot and right or wrong more responsibility has been put on the musician to make sure that the house is full. Most of this is the case because a lot of renumeration is based on either a) the door receipts or b) a smaller garentee with a bonus structure. I think that in these cases its a big responsibility to make sure that the club is doing everything that it can get people out. Their website, mailing list, print calendar, media etc. It has to be in CONJUNCTION with the artist. Now more than ever clubs and musicians have to work together in order to ensure an audience. I guess this is basically what I'm trying to say. Its no longer a 'build it and they will come' mentality. You have to coddle, nuture and baby every aspect these days.

    The only time I get upset as a club owner is when a musician is so steeped in that old school attitude. "i am so and so, so I don't have to do fuck all to bring people out.' It's sad but its just not the case anymore. There are very few people that can do that and actually be right. It's so simple to set up an interview with local media, post a thing on Facebook or Twitter.

    The only time I get upset as a musician is when the club owner doesn't make any type of effort at all to help me get a few bums in the seats.

    Look if I'm paying $0 for a garentee and there are 10 people in the club at $10. Yeah, I don't lose money on the music but it costs me $500 just to turn the key to open the club so its a lose lose for everyone.

    Anyways, Im going off a bit here. As I stated earlier its as important as its ever been that we work together.

  3. This is a great discussion, and I especially appreciate Corey's comments above.

    I know you're interested in the big picture, George, so consider this: We are in the midst of a severe economic depression. The media won't acknowledge it, and the US govt fudges the figures to make things look better than they are. (e.g. emphasizing a specious unemployment rate of 9.2% when the real, common sense number is 17-20% -- comparable to the 1930's).

    So it shouldn't be surprising that the ease of doing business which we experienced in the booming 90's should be noticeably curtailed today.

    I think club owners in general are scared shitless, and I can't blame them. It makes them do things more harshly and with less perspective.

    The relationship between club owners and musicians is touchy in the best of times, and we're not living in them at the moment.

    Jeff from Winnipeg

  4. I don't know if you're familiar with the French pianist Laurent Coq, but he launched a similar debate on his own blog ( this spring. (An explanation of the circumstances is given in English, visible when you scroll down.) It stirred the pot quite a bit and now a group of musicians and other professionals have started a petition to the Ministry of Culture to garner more and smarter support for jazz. Of course, France *has* a Ministry of Culture which does provide some funding for schools, festivals and so on.

  5. I read this with little surprise but would like to draw your attention to a very similar event on the french jazz scene called "la revolution de jazzmine". (a wink to the tunisian revolution), there's quite a buzz going on in France and it has even resulted in a meeting with culture minister frédéric miterrand planned in september. Pianist Laurent Coq started it all by being publicly upset about a parisian jazzradio policy. I know you guys don't have such a thing as a culture ministry, things ain't easy in the states uh ! Keep up your blog George, I'm greatly enjoyng and identifying to every bit of it

  6. Dear George,

    Great post here. We need more musicians like you addressing these issues. This is complicated for sure and requires to be studied thoroughly, but nonetheless these problems needs to be addressed.

    I did opened a blog myself and we have been talking about the situation of jazz musicians a lot here in France, specially when it comes to the young musicians freshly graduated of all the school that have multiplied over the past years, with no perspectives in sight. But we are also talking about the situation of the older musicians as well. What we need as musicians is to stand united, regardless of style, age, or social background, and to be able to voice our frustrations in an ever-growing crisis.

    This all the more unbearable that Jazz is so creative these days. You are truly experiencing a golden era, and very few people outside our word realize that.

    I've put a link on my blog to this page. Keep it page alive, and keep making your beautiful music (I'm a big fan).


  7. Their website, mailing list, print calendar, media etc. It has to be in CONJUNCTION with the artist. Now more than ever clubs and musicians have to work together in order to ensure an audience.
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  8. There was no interrogation about what label, how will it be advertised, etc. Now, having been absent for some time and just returning to the scene, I really feel this new distance between the clubs and the musicians.

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