Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"I'm A Jazz Musician, Not An Entertainer"

I go out a lot to the various jazz, blues and other music venues in and around New York City to see and hear other vocalists and musicians, and have even worked in a few of them myself.  I also happen to know a lot of musicians, and most of them are working in one way or another, despite the seemingly diminishing gigs in New York City and elsewhere. They keep working by playing as many weddings, bar mitzvahs and other special occasions and events as they can book.  Some are able to do pit work in Broadway shows, others will take whatever gig it takes to keep making money doing what they really love to do.  

For example, a really good friend of mine, a sax player who also doubles on flute and clarinet, which he has to do to get many of these gigs, will take a gig regardless of musical style. His whole approach is, whether he really likes the music or not, he will play it and have fun with it.  He has a wardrobe to fit any occasion.  He's got the suits for the jazz gigs, the leather, chains and other paraphernalia for rock and funk gigs, and when he's onstage, he will play to the audience and entertain them.  He is the one that wins the crowd and has them cheering and out of their seats, dancing and whooping it up.  Why?  Because he entertains, and because he entertains and gets the crowd pumped, the crowd stays, buys more food and drink, has fun, and when it's over the crowd is happy, the club owner happy because he made money, and my friend and the band are happy because they also made some money, made some friends, occasionally get "lucky" and are asked to play again, thereby securing another night they will get paid, and maybe get "lucky" and be asked to play again.  In more than several instances, they were hired for a wedding gig or bar mitzvah or for a different club date by people who were in attendance at one of their gigs.

I also have a few friends who are a very special breed of musician.  They have worked long and hard on their craft, practiced hours a day, learned every scale and chord sequence backwards and forwards and up and down.  They can take any tune in existence and re-harmonize it to the point where you had no idea that was the tune they were playing.  They get gigs in certain venues, occasionally get paid for them, if at all, because you know "it's not about the money", and when they're not playing, they have to work their day jobs like other mere mortals.  Some work in music stores, but most work jobs unrelated to music.  They hate their jobs, even the ones working the music stores, because they want to be out there showing the world all of the musical knowledge and wisdom they have accumulated through all of the years of intense practice and playing.  The thing is, when they play a gig, the only people in attendance are their friends, and a few people who actually like that stuff, whom are very few.  Very often the band outnumbers the audience.  

One of my friends, a brass player was once lamenting this fact to me.  I told him that the all the places I have either played or gone to see other players that were packed were because of one big factor.  We and they entertained the crowd, played music they enjoyed and could have fun with, got them involved in the show, etc.  When a person walks into any venue, if they see that crowd having fun, and hear music that makes them tap their feet and want to dance, they will come in and stay a while. The big name Jazz venues in NYC like Blue Note for example, will have a crowd no matter what, because they will always have big names playing them.  Smaller local venues, many playing in the same areas as the big name clubs need another angle to attract the crowd.  They can't get the big names and charge the big cover charges clubs like the Blue Note Note can and so need a different way to bring in the crowds.  In the West Village in NYC for instance, where several of the world's great jazz clubs are located, there are a few places that have no cover and where bands like my friend's band play regularly.  They are all excellent musicians, but they entertain, play music people recognize, get them involved with call and response routines and finally get them up to dance.  Whenever his band is onstage, they look and act like they're having fun and impart that to the crowd. As a result, the club stays packed from the time the music begins until closing time.  A lot of food and drink sold by the house, a lot in tips for the bartender and waitresses.  Everybody is happy. 

I told my brass playing friend this, and his response was, "I'm a jazz musician, not an entertainer.  I just don't do that shit.  I'm not going to start doing covers of pop tunes for some tourist who doesn't understand real music".  That one really got me.  Real music!  I asked him what the hell is real music?  His response was "music that relates to spirit, to what's inside you, that speaks to you".  So I said "Yeah, but the swing, bop, blues, soul, funk and pop tunes I and my other friends play speak to a lot of people, and when we entertain them and have fun with the music, they love it".  "That's just pandering man.  Anyway, I have fun playing my music".  I said, "Well, to be honest with you, it may be fun for you to play, but it sure isn't fun to listen to", and then left it at that.  

I am not going to tell you or any musician what kind of music you should like or play, that is always a personal choice.  However, don't get the attitude that the world thinks like you do and that they are unenlightened and just don't get your music.  I respect the time and effort you put into playing your music, but really, sometimes it's just musical masturbation, and no one else is interested, because if they were, you would be playing to crowds instead of an empty room, with people occasionally walking out once they've had the chance to pay attention to what you were doing.  Don't complain about not making money as a musician and then berate those who do.  If you want to make money, don't be afraid to take the weddings and bar mitzvahs, and above all, don't be afraid to entertain. Don't think that the players who entertain aren't every bit the musician you purport to be, that they didn't spend as much time and effort honing their skills as you did, maybe even more so.  And in case you need a reminder that great innovative world-class musicians can also be world-class entertainers, here are some examples to remind you.  Happy New Year everyone and I will see you next year.


1 comment:

  1. Jazz has always straddled the fine line between high art and pandering entertainment. I don't think that one needs to Dizzy it up it that's not their bag (although it sure worked for him). Weddings, etc. have been ubered by DJs in my hometown (Detroit) for decades. I do law for bread, but now that I'm in NYC I'd like to gig in the Jazz, etc. idiom. The big name clubs prove there's a market for Jazz. The real problem, IMHO, is that younger players, as you so eloquently put it (especially on our instrument), ahem, "masturbate" instead of playing music. Nobody wants to hear a scale-fest except the player. Chalk that problem up to so-called "Jazz College," learning to play out of a book and focusing on the "contest" and "athletic" aspects of playing (presumably, in hopes of acquiring gigs on the basis of one's sterling command of their axe). I learned from some Funk Brothers. I've got the chops, but I listen to Miles, too. Play music, people, and the audience will dig it.