Kevin's Advice to Save the Music We Love -
My jazz manifesto.
OK, take this with a grain of salt. First off, one could argue that jazz does not need saving. While there is much to be said for the creativity that we continue to see in the jazz it is hard to say that it is thriving in a business sense. In the last 70 years, the dollar has inflated by 15 times while the wages of a jazz musician hasn't even doubled. There was a time when a jazz musician could make a great living just by gigging. I hate to boil things down to money, but it is how our society keeps score. We were once stars, now we are just the hired help, if we even get a job.
Of course, another criticism would be to point out that I don't have the standing or stature to give marching orders to the jazz world. True, I don't. I am just a local jazz guy, tying to make a living. But I am a smart guy who does a lot of thinking. And what I lack in brains, I more than make up for in obnoxious opinions. ;)
So, here are my ideas on how to change things. ¡Viva la revalución! True, probably no one will heed my advice. And true, even if they did, it probably wouldn't make any difference. But I'm bored, I'm working on my third Sam Adams, so here it is.
Remember that jazz is supposed to be fun.
New Orleans was an eye opener for me. Strike that, it was a revelation. Throughout school and my early years if gigging, I'd come to the unconscious conclusion that jazz was about showing off. Jazz was about playing the coolest licks and trying to show up your friends. If it wasn't hip, if it wasn't cool, if it wasn't on the edge – then it wasn't worth playing.I know it sounds strange, but this was how I'd been trained to feel about jazz.
But that changed when I moved to The Big Easy. There, jazz was fun. The musicians had fun. True, there was a little one-upmanship going on, but it was always in the spirit of fun. And the fun wasn't just on the stage. There was a tangible connection with the audience that I'd only rarely felt before. The fun wasn't just for the musicians, but was for the audience too. Whereas before, that subliminal connection between audience and performer was a rare and fleeting thing, here it was required.
OK, maybe I'm being a bit hyperbolic here. But there was a big difference. While jazz had been becoming increasingly tedious to me (all the unnecessary competition and worrying about being "cool"), here jazz was light and fun. And most importantly, the audience could feel it. There was a connection between the audience and performer that had been lost.
So where did this connection go? If I can put on my amateur jazz historian hat, and if you'll allow me to generalize, I can tell you what I think. This idea of the audience sharing in the excitement of the musicians was certainly there in the beginning of jazz. It can still be felt in the music halls of New Orleans. Go to Preservation Hall and listen to the band play. They lay down some fun Dixie jazz and the audience responds. The audience hoots and hollers and the band responds. The band stomps their feet and puts them out there for the people, and the and the audience responds. In New Orleans, musicians would march down the street with the audience dancing, clapping their hands, and singing along. The "second line" of fans would march behind the main musicians, sometimes bringing their own instrument. Music in the New Orleans of old was much more of a "tribal," in the best sense of the word.
In the swing era, the relationship changed a little. Now jazz tried to become more "sophisticated," not necessarily a good thing. But there was still a relationship with the audience — now they were responding by dancing in a more organized way. Jazz had gone from being part of a tribal celebration to a structured setting of dance. The musicians were on the bandstand, dressed in their tuxes, and the audience was down on the floor dancing. But that is not to say that there was no interaction — anyone who has had the fun of playing in a good dance band knows that the band feeds off the energy of the dancers, and vice versa.
A big shift took place in the bebop era. As we all know, bebop was started by the musicians getting off their big band gigs and heading up to Harlem for late night jam sessions in places like Minton's. We now see the gradual taking place — musicians are starting to think less and less about performing for the audience and thinking more and more about performing for each other. I have no doubt that those early jam sessions were thrilling to watch. I've listened to a few of the bootleg recordings of those early jams and I can hear the crowd hooting and hollering. It is easy to imagine the musicians feeding off the crowd. But this is the beginning of the "shut-up and listen" attitude in music. No one is dancing. This is far removed from a tribal, communal experience — now we are seeing a performance.
Bow, please don't misunderstand me, I love bebop and all the wonderful music that came out of it. But this is a very different experience for the audience. Over the coming decades, jazz musicians would become further removed from communion with the audience. Whereas it was once the job of a performer to find a way to connect with his audience, now the onus has been put on the audience to understand the music. There is the famous story that Miles Davis tells of a woman standing up at a gig and protesting that she couldn't understand what he was playing, to which he replied that it had taken him so many years for him to understand it, how could she expect to understand it in one sitting. Am I the only one to whom this sounds a little arrogant? (As much as I love him, I wouldn't be the first to accuse Miles of being a wee bit arrogant.) Can you imagine Louis Armstrong saying something like that?
So, where did the tribal experience go? Is it a coincidence that within a decade of jazz adopting its "sit down, shut up, and listen" approach that the beginnings of a new "tribal" music emerges? Rock and roll filled the void left when jazz stopped being about "fun." Watch those early film clips of rock a roll fans screaming and yelling and realize that a few decades before it was the jazz musicians getting that reception. I remember hearing about a musician getting mobbed by a bunch of teens and getting his shirt ripped off. Who was this? Elvis? The Beatles? No, it was Artie Shaw. Picture your average rock concert nowadays — teens and twenty-somethings drinking beer, dancing in the aisles, and screaming until they are hoarse. This is how jazz used to be. Now look at the modern jazz venue. People are sitting quietly in the dark, sipping their chardonnay, and politely clapping at the appointed times. Sure, there may be some foot tapping, and a rare standout may cry out with a "Yeah!" only to get a glare from nearby audience members. The experience of the jazz audience evolved to the point that it more resembles a classical concert than what it originally was.
So, is sophisticated, "shut up and listen" jazz a bad thing? No, it's a great thing, I love it. There is an audience for this type of music. But there is an even bigger audience for the visceral, tribal experience. Sophisticated jazz is great for sophisticated listeners, but as less money is put into music education in the schools, there are fewer of those to go around. Can we try and reconnect with those that want music that hits them in the gut?
Play what the audience wants to hear.
Hmmm, you'd think that this would be obvious. To many jazz musicians play want they want to hear instead of what the audience wants to hear. I went to a wedding reception, and when the bride's father asked for a waltz so he could dance with his daughter. What did the band play? "Footprints" at about 220. The band was completely oblivious to the frustrations of the dances as they stretched this tune into a 20-minute harmonic exploration. When I worked on the cruise ship, I was frustrated as band leaders would call inappropriate tunes for the dance sets we would play, or even if they were they were too fast (Some guys would do "In the Mood" at 240 &mdash: I used to joke that if only Glen Miller had known the right tempo, his career might have gone somewhere.)
It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where audiences would pay us to play what we want to play, but is that a reasonable expectation? Imagine if we went to a restaurant and ordered lasagna, but the chef decided to make us clam chowder instead. To the best of my knowledge, jazz music is one of the only services where the artist dictates to the customer. Do we think that that makes the audience like us more? I think that it only frustrates them and makes them less likely to want to pay for jazz in the future. It is not our job to force something on them that they don't want in a hope of "educating" them.
I'm not saying that there aren't times to go for it. If you are playing a jazz club, then by all means you are in charge. The audience is there to have you push the boundaries and to take them on a journey. This is the situation where the audience is paying to hear what you want to play. Go for it. But there are also many gigs where we need to be more aware of what the audience wants. If you are playing a wedding reception with dancing, then "Footprints" is not the best choice. If you are playing in a restaurant, then keep it down and keep it tasteful. Most of all, always, don't forget that the audience is the customer and you work for them. Maybe then you'll get hired again.
Set a high standard.
I am so tired of seeing musicians walk in five minutes late and then lazily set-up. Be professionals, show up on time. You are being paid to do a job. When it's time to take a break, don't stretch it out for 23 minutes. In between tunes, don't stand around for 3 and a half minutes talking about the movie you just saw.
And dress the part. OK, I know that not all gigs need to be jackets and ties, but we shouldn't look like we just got done mowing the lawn. When I lived in New Orleans, I went to see Ellis Marsalis play at Snug Harbor and he'd invited one of his students from the University, a sax player, to come and sit in. You are going to sit in with a jazz legend at one of the best jazz clubs in the country, what do you wear? How about jeans, sneakers, an un-tucked tee-shirt, and a woolen stocking cap. Granted, the rest of the band was only wearing slacks and nice shirts, but if I'd been afforded the chance to sit in with a jazz legend, I would have at least dressed at least as well as he did. My rule of thumb is that I always want to be dressed at least one notch better than the audience.
Additionally, some of us need to learn how to dress. Sneakers never go with nice pants, even if they are black sneakers. Brown shoes don't go with a black suit. Your socks should roughly match the color of your pants. The belt and shoes should always match. Tuxedos need tux shirts. Learn how to properly tie a tie. Etc., etc. Learn a little about how to dress. And don't forget to shave. We want to look like we want to be there, not like we just happened to show up.
Don't sell yourself short.
When I was learning jazz guitar in Portland, there was a jazz club called Jazz de Opus. It was a cool place. It was connected to a great Mediterranean restaurant with a mesquite grill so the food was amazing. I used to go there for Tuesday nights to see the Leroy Vinegar Quartet with Dan Faehnle on guitar. There were other cool places to play in Portland, but to my friends and I, this was the place to dream of playing. A friend of mine from school, a fellow jazz guitarist, had bumped into the manager of the club somewhere and pitched to him. My friend suggested that his group come in and play Monday nights, when there normally wasn't any music. The owner loved the idea, they could come in and play for tips. My friend and his band were ecstatic — they were going to play one of the premier spots in Portland. A week or so later, he ran into a local jazz big wig (I'll leave out his name to avoid embarrasment) and the guy asked him, "Hey, you're the guy that's going to play Opus for tips, right?" After my friend confirmed this, the guys tone turned more bitter, he looked my friend in the eye, and said, "No, you're not. Not if you ever want to work with other musicians in this town again." His point was that there were musicians all over that depended on gigs like that to make a living. If a band starts going in there to play for free, then it runs the risk of driving down the wages. At some point maybe the manager will ask himself, "If there are musicians willing to come in here and play for free, why am I paying these other guys so much?"
I look on Craig's List and all the time I see people posting that they are willing to work for free, or for tips. I see ads posted by restaurant and club owners saying things like, "Pay: $50 plus a free meal." For a trio? On a Friday night? I can understand the appeal to the young players; they simply want to get out and play. And there are even some older guys who may not be supporting themselves by music; they have day jobs so they just want to get out and play.
And don't underestimate the plight of the venue owner. Think about it, in order dish out $300 for a jazz trio for three hours, he has to make up that $300 somehow. Let's say that his profit margin is 15% (as near as I can research, that is an industry average), and let's say that this is a decent place so he's averaging about $30 per person. That means that he only sees $4.50 profit per person. That means that it will take 67 people to make back his $300. Now realize, this is not 67 people overall he needs to seat, but 67 additional people in those three hours, above what he would have had if there was no band. That is a hard nut to crack. Now of course, there are other benefits to live music. There is the prestige that comes with live music, and if people are having a good time, then maybe they will be more tempted to come back on night that don't have music. But owners often don't see it that way.
Unfortunately, cheap gigs can cause other problems. The musicians who are willing to take these gigs may not be of the same caliber. Maybe they don't show up on time, maybe they didn't bother shaving, maybe they goof off too much onstage, etc. At some point the owner may ask himself, "Why am I paying for this crap?" Eventually he may lower wages (bringing in a lower class of musician) or even decide to just used piped in music.
We really need to stop taking cheap gigs. Now, I understand that there situations where you want to take free gigs, for example a charity event. And there is a place for cheap gigs: cafés or small restaurants on a Monday night. But when we start playing that swanky place with 30 tables for tips and a free meal, we are only hurting each other. We should be making more than the immigrant dishwashers.
If you want free gigs, there are plenty to be had. Volunteer for charity events. Go play for the local retirement community. Go play at a local school. There are countless other free gigs out there that won't steal from working musicians. True, they might not be as cool as playing in some trendy bar so you can pretend that you are a big success, but you will be able to look yourself in the mirrors.
One last story on the subject. When I lived in New Orleans, I used to teach in the North Shore (the other side of Lake Pontchartrain) and I wanted to try and generate some students. I went to a local café that had no music and I offered to come in and play Tuesday nights. The guy wasn't sure so I said we could do it for tips to start out. Fine. After a month, it was clear that I was generating a slight following, and people were asking about me. So I went to the guy and laid it out and we both agreed that $40 would be good, not bad for a Tuesday night in a small café in Mandeville. So, the free gig in this case was actually a useful tool. But the interesting thing was what happened next. The employees had always been a little condescending to me, but as soon as they heard that I was getting paid their attitude changed overnight. Now they treated me like one of the team. If we don't respect ourselves enough to demand a fair wage, why would anyone else respect us?
Don't take yourself too seriously.
I hate to see cocky jazz musicians on stage with so much attitude. Somehow Miles Davis became the prototype of the stage demeanor as he would stand on stage with his back to the audience, only turning occasionally to give them a scowl. Now, granted, most of us aren't that bad (and of course Miles was good enough that he could get away with that.) To often I see jazz musicians with haughty scowls who seem to have nothing but disdain for the audience.
I've seen actual overt rudeness. I remember once in a club a customer came up to make a request. "Please, it's my wife's birthday. Her favorite song is 'Misty.'" The musician sneered and said, "Sorry, we don't know any corny songs like that" and turned back to the rest of the band with a chuckle. Really, was that necessary? I could see the Real Book on his music stand so I know he was lying. Even if he really didn't want to play that song, couldn't he have found a more graceful way to not play it? Or couldn't they just have played once through the head to make the birthday girl happy? I also remember hearing a jazz concert on the radio and one the performers was talking to the audience. He was telling a mocking story about an idiot audience member who had once come up and asked for "Midnight in Tunisia" (having confalted "Midnight at the Oasis" and "Night in Tunisia.") True, the audience member that was being mocked was not present, but doesn't this mockery insult all audience members. Most audience members are not jazz historians, especially the ones we are trying to attract. Now, all audience members will feel a little frightened to approach a jazz musician in fear that their question or request won't meet the musicians high standards and will become an anecdote that will be laughed at for years to come.
I'm not saying that we should be obsequiously falling over ourselves to please the audience, but isn't there something in the middle? I'm not sure we should go back to the days of Louis Armstrong with his wide servile grin or Cab Calloway, clowning for the audience. (Yes, I know that there are more complicated issues involving race and society in these examples, but I hope you get my point.) I hope that there is a place in the middle where we can meet. The symbiotic relationship between audience and performer is a special covenant; they can't listen unless we play and if there is no audience then we have no purpose. We should respect each other. True, audiences are not always respectful, but we should set the example.
There is one last way that we sometimes insult the audience, often without realizing it, especially less experienced musicians. I can't tell you how many times I've seen an audience member pay a musician a compliment only to have the musician mutter back, "Nah, that sucked." or something to that effect. I know that the musician is just trying to be humble, but how do you think that makes the audience member feel? What the musician might have well have said was, "Sure you liked it, because you're not smart enough to realize how much it sucked." When someone pays you a compliment, the only answer is to smile and say, "Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Come see us again." You can whine about your mistakes with the rest of the band after the gig.
Take yourself seriously.
OK, so I'm contradicting myself, but there is one pet peeve that I have — musicians who dress up in costumes. Please understand, I'm not talking about wearing a costume if it's a costume party. And if it is a 1940s theme party, then go for it. I'm talking about dressing up as part of the "show."
Some musicians feel the need to dress up in vintage suits, two tone shoes, and a pocket watch with a long chain. But the people in the 40s and 50s that wore that were dressing that way because it was the fashion of the time. They were not dressed that way as a "costume," but because that was simply dressing up. And the hat gets in my craw in particular. Men wore hats to keep their heads warm and hair neat because men walked outside a lot more. When they came indoors they took off their hats — that is why they had hat check girls. Throughout the 20th century, for a man to wear a hat indoors was an act of rudeness and bad breading. True, you would certainly see old jazz musicians wearing hats outdoors or in photo shoots to look cool, but they rarely wore them indoors. Look through old photos of jazz musicians and you will be hard pressed to find them wearing hats indoors, they had too much class.
So, what is the harm? Why not just play along with this illusion? Because it diminishes what we are, talented artists. When Yo-yo Ma plays Bach, does he dress up in tights and powdered wig? No. Why should we be expected to dress up like an exhibit in a museum. Music that is not dead, does not need this artifice. When we try to supplement it with artificial means, then we are saying that it is not good enough to stand on its own. If you want to wear costumes, go become an Elvis impersonator.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't dress up. Quite to the contrary, as I stated before, I think that we should dress well. But let's not turn ourselves into cartoon characters. Let's not be a part of the Disneyland exhibit, Hall of Dead Music from the Past. What we do is alive and well and relevant to the modern world. It does not need to be a museum piece.
Am I being too pendantic? Perhaps. Someone should argue that maybe we should dress up in costumes to appeal to the audience more. But what is an Elvis impersonator? It is someone who can't sustain the audiences interest through music alone but must create a retro-experience in order to get their attention. No one wants to hear Eliot Kaminsky from Des Moines sing 45 minutes of Elvis tunes. But if he dresses up in the sequined suit jumpsuit and puts on the wig and sneers like Elvis, then they can pretend that they have been transported back in time. All the Elvis fans can please forgive me, but this is not a sign that The King's music is alive and well; it is a piece of the past. When we do the eqivalent for jazz (zoot or retro suits, hats, etc.) then I fear that we are admitting that jazz is dead. I don't like the sound of that.
Can't we make music out of this stuff?
My last complaint is how lame we are playing the music. Too many combos are playing the music on a level that wouldn't be acceptable in a garage band. How can we expect people to respect our music if we don't. Too many musicians have become lazy.
First of all, we need to respect the melody. I know that we love to improvise, but that doesn't mean that we can sloppily rush through it so that we can get to the "good stuff" in the middle. The audience loves "Georgia" because it has a great melody, not because it has great blowing changes. They want to hear the melody and they are the customer. I hear too many musicians who don't really know the melody. I hear too many musicians that practically start their solo three bars into the melody. I hear too many musicians who phrase a melody in a way that shows that they clearly don't know the words (especially on ballads.) My rule of thumb is that the first A section should be played "correctly" (but with good phrasing.) After that, each time it can be a little more embellished each time, but it should still be recognizable to non-expert listeners. Some may disagree, but that is how I approach it.
Secondly, can't we find another road map? We all play these songs the same: head, solos (usually in same order), head, iii-vi-ii-V tag. Listen to the great combos of the swing era, they mixed things up. Every group had a different intro for "Honeysuckle Rose." They had shout choruses. They might stick a modulation in the middle. They might write a send off for the solos. They had and ending to the tune. People could tell the who's recording it was just by listening to the arrangement. Contrast that with the modern "let's just open up the book and play something" attitude.
Yes, I know that some of this is simply a product of the market in which we find ourselves. Bands don't tend play together with the same people night after night like they used to. I know that there is a tendency to want to just get up there and "wing it." But couple of tunes could be arranged. Someone could right out a shout chorus for few tunes. You could agree to modulate before the last head. Start with a 32 bar drum solo before the head. Just do something to spice it up. Otherwise we all just sound the same. Do we all need to do the exact same arrangement of "Autumn Leaves"?
Lastly, let's write some new tunes. Don't get me wrong, I love playing standards, maybe even to a fault. And I would even say that on many gigs, they should be the focus. But if all we do is play tunes from the past, then it becomes musical necrophilia. Sure, if you're playing background jazz in some restaurant, then you should be playing a lot of Ellington, Gershwin, Jobim, etc (Play what the audience wants to hear.) But why not mix in a few originals, if they are of the right mood? And if you are playing a jazz club, then please do something original — I would even say that the majority of your tunes should be original. (I hate going to a jazz club and the band is just doing Real Book tunes — how uninspired.) In order to jazz to survive it needs fresh blood. Of course there are some people who are more than pulling their own weight in this department, but they need some help.
OK, so I'm an opinionated SOB. I'm sure many will disagree with what I've said, either in whole or in part. But hopefully I've managed to at least give you something to think about. Please, let's start a discussion. I expect this to be an ongoing project with many revisions, so please let me know what you think.
If I were to sum up, I would say the following:
- Worry more about having fun than how "cool" you are. Have fun and include the audience.
- Play what the audience wants to hear — they are the customer.
- Let's be professionals, and look the part.
- Don't accept substandard wages for gig that should be paying.
- Don't think that you are better than the audience and don't take yourself too seriously.
- Don't demean our art by wearing "jazz costumes."
- Let's not always use the same hackneyed arrangement (i.e. no arrangement.)
- Let's invigorate our music with some fresh tunes.
OK, I'll admit that I'm not perfect and I sometimes not meet these lofty standards. I have accepted less than I should for a gig here or there. I have played gigs where I robotically and uninspiredely droned through the "Real Book." And yes, (sigh) I have done gigs where I've been forced to wear a hat. (chokes back guilty sobs) I've even had to wear a zoot suit. (sobs uncontrollably) But these are my ideals, the goals for which I strive. I think that they would help jazz grow stronger and garner more respect, from the fans and ourselves.Regards,