Archive for August, 2009

One Way To Keep Jazz Alive: Professional Courtesy

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

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WE JAZZ MUSICIANS are at war, battling for a share of radio, TV, movie, and Internet exposure to keep our music alive. And the only chance we have to accomplish that is to work together, to help one another.

The term “professional jazz musician” is no longer relevant. Almost nobody today can earn a living playing jazz. Even big name musicians complain about the lack of work. As one described the current situation, “Every year a thousand jazz students graduate from school and compete for one gig.”

A majority of our audience has replaced visits to nightclubs and concert halls with television, videos, and computers. So, to make more people aware of jazz, we musicians need to record ourselves and put the music online, on the radio, and wherever else we can. The more jazz we produce, the better the chance people will find it and like some of it.

Yet some musicians, especially those playing rhythm section instruments, insist on charging their colleagues to participate in recording sessions. Why? Because every horn player or vocalist needs a good piano, guitar, or bass player while rhythm section musicians need only each other.

Some people may dismiss that behavior as merely exploiting supply and demand but it’s really closer to blackmail.

Let’s return to the war analogy: Suppose you were in the army and your orders were to capture a hill from vastly superior enemy forces. Now imagine every soldier in your platoon whose job it is to protect you with bazookas and cannons was to demand you pay him or take the hill alone. Replace “artillery section” with “rhythm section” and I think you will get the point.

If an established record company or a wealthy patron of the arts sponsors a recording session any musician should expect payment. But the players I refer to charge for sessions a fellow musician pays for out of his own pocket. One rhythm section musician I know even charged his own brother-in-law.

No gentleman would behave that way. Most musicians are short of cash and public exposure. The only way to overcome those problems is for us to help one another by performing at a colleague’s recording session for a percentage of any future profit (or simply for free). If only one such session were to result in financial success, the ensuing payments for recording sales or public performances would make it worthwhile.

And don’t let somebody tell you he’s so busy he can’t afford to do your session because he might be giving up hundreds of dollars in gigs. What he really means is that he might miss watching his favorite soap opera or the mailman delivering his unemployment check.

For years doctors have treated each other’s families for free. People in trades help one another in the same way. Many businesses help each other almost everyday and expect nothing in return. The term for that is “professional courtesy”.

But many jazz musicians sneer at the idea of professional courtesy. And that makes them neither courteous nor professional.