I hope to organize these thoughts at some point and deal with this topic more seriously. But I wanted to write something to document the ideas I’ve been ruminating concerning remuneration in the performing arts, specifically jazz.
Last summer, I left New York. A few months prior I decided to leave and began to seriously approach the topic of re-entering academia. And a few months before that I ended a years long quest of hustling for every possible gig.
When people ask me why I left the hustle of the New York jazz scene, I often reply with some variation on one of the following phrases.
"I felt like a prostitute."
"I felt artistically stifled."
"Music had ceased to be an intellectual or creative pursuit."
These responses oversimplify the truth. My need for a change of pace had many causes, perhaps most notably my years-long struggle to achieve stable health. I had begun to associate every aspect of my previous life with the pain of dealing with a chronic disease, of being treated with steroids and chemotherapy. And the frustration of being so horribly misdiagnosed, and the recurring squashing of any momentum I had acquired made a change in lifestyle, occupation, and geography all welcome. School was the last place I had been happy, and perhaps the place I had grown the most as a musician. I had a lot of reasons for leaving.
With that disclaimer filed, as I have begun to play again and have become friends with many of the young musicians in the Bay Area’s vibrant music scene, I have found that these caveats with the music hustle, as exemplified by the New York jazz scene, are sincere.
Since beginning to play again, I have played most nights of the week. And I have made a policy of never concerning myself with the economics of music. If a gig pays, I’m honored to be considered worthy of the bread. But I do not accept gigs I would not pay for free; in fact, I don’t ever ask what they pay.
I have begun to wonder if indeed it would be such a terrible thing if altogether parted with the notion of music as a profession. Please don’t mistake this thought experiment as an assault on the livelihoods of the many talented musicians who deserve to survive and commit full time to music.
That stated, I think music’s survival is often discussed as contingent upon the economy that supports it. But I think it’s equally possible that it’s music’s reliance on the economy to facilitate its existence that is sapping it of life.
A few observations:
1) Things don’t have to be “jobs” to exist. No one is a professional yoga doer. Even most yoga teachers can’t make a full time go of it. Yet yoga studios proliferate across the country and no one questions the “viability” of yoga. There is an economy for yoga gear and videos but no one measures the health of yoga as a practice by it’s economic footprint. I can imagine a world in which many people get good at playing jazz and they get together and play, and have plenty of gigs and make no money, and they are also doctors, scientists, waiters, academics, taxi drivers, etc.
2) The meaning of jazz and most musics of the African diaspora is bound up in its participatory nature. The strict and perhaps toxic dichotomy between artist and audience inherent in the American music business is bolstered by the notion of “professionalism” in music as manifest in our schools and economy. Perhaps the music would be best served if it again became a thing that many people did, without a worry about how to profit from it. And perhaps it would be best served by a lowering of the perceived barriers to entry.
3) The appropriation of jazz by majority white professional schools and performance majors at universities across the country, and the consequent neglect of the folkloric elements of the music in favor of very trivial “theory” is made possible by the very existence of professional schools. Without the pulpit of New England Conservatory, no one would ever take Jerry Bergonzi’s exhaustive and inane methods for shredding on cheesy reharmonized standards seriously. Before the music became a conservatory product, people commonly talked about whether bands were swinging. Now jazz audiences just have a vague notion that they are attending a high brow cultural event. But they often don’t know what they’re supposed to be getting or whether they’ve gotten it. This is just painfully removed from the vital essence of this music!
4) It’s truly is artistically stifling to have to meet the demands for low dynamics, familiarity, and consonance required in most professional contexts. I think many of the musicians I know today were most creative when they were in college, even if not at the peak of their intellectual powers or execution, only because immediately after school, those lucky enough to have any gigs were typically hustling to pay the rent, not to make any particular artistic statement.
5) People don’t talk about politics at their 9-5s. People don’t go to their jobs in middle management and agitate for social justice, for health as a human right, or for racial equality in America. At “work”, people keep a low profile and try to project their skills and further their career aspirations.
5a) But this head-kept-down approach is in direct violation of everything good art has ever embodied. The very best in jazz always made a statement. The music was always bound up with powerful ideas about community, survival, respect, racial equality, integration. John Coltrane’s song Alabama explicitly referenced the 16th st Baptist Church bombing and it was performed with the urgency of a life-or-death matter. Max Roach produced protest music with the “Freedom Now” suite. Miles Davis often weighed in, however stylistically, on social issues. The point is not that music has to be so overtly political as “Alabama”, but that these motivations are essential to the music’s meaning and that the people who made the best music were motivated by more than just “getting gigs”. They held strong opinions about aesthetics and their culture and weren’t afraid to express them.
5c) Perhaps this is why rap is thriving as jazz struggles. No one except for the most famous expects to be paid for their work. People put their message out as an expression of their individuality, with the hope of being disruptive, not of being considered professional. Sure a lot of crap might get produced. But who in jazz has created a record have as culturally significant as Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid Maad City”?
6) Having time to delve deeply into the craft of playing music is important. But equally important to the art is context. Playing music all day every day is great for developing technique, but it makes it easy to be a musician without knowing anything about the world. I was shocked by how few musicians were fully aware of how the public was fleeced to the benefit of the finance industry during the bailouts of 2008. And now almost no musicians seem to be aware of how government surveillance is undermining the basis of our democracy. Some forced time away from music might break the insularity of the jazz world.
So, clubs don’t stop paying the hardworking musicians! But maybe in the absence of everyone quitting there is something instructive in this thought experiment?
If we all accept that nearly everyone has a day-job anyway, be it classroom teaching, private lessons, haranguing club owners, repairing instruments, walking dogs, writing jingles, or something else entirely.. If we part with the notion that music can be a profit-maximizing, or even economically sustaining activity. And then we decide to go ahead and play music anyway! Would we still be putting out the same ish?
An obvious caveat:
One would rightly ask why “jazz” musicians shouldn’t profit while others should from their endeavors. Again, I intend this only as a thought experiment so that we may consider the impact that economics has had on this music and what might be gained from relaxing our preconceptions regarding the connection between the business and the art.
I certainly have been guilty in the past of holding up degree of “professional” success as an indicator of accomplishment. As a kid, the idea of doing anything but playing for a living, even teaching, seemed anathema. There is an argument to made for the rigor imposed by an attempt to survive as a musician. I’m definitely a better reader and all-around musician for the time I spent trying to grind it out in NY. But perhaps in the long run, this life is at odds with creativity.