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THE JAZZ SCENE? What jazz scene? You mean that small group of musicians who play for each other and their friends and almost nobody else?
If you live in a very big city and really search, you might find as many as a couple of dozen places where somebody performs some kind of improvisational music for an hour or more per week. Sometimes it’s real jazz. On the other hand, how about a city the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma? How many jazz clubs do you suppose you’d find?
Of course discovering or creating a venue is only part of the problem. Getting paid is another. Most musicians today would consider themselves lucky to earn about sixty dollars for playing three hours of jazz in a bar or restaurant. Earning a hundred dollars is rare. More than a hundred? You’re joking, right?
Well, suppose you find a place to play and actually can convince a decent rhythm section to perform with you for such an insulting pittance. What are you going to do for an audience? Every jazz musician with enough of a name to attract people off the street already is dead. Club owners take no responsibility for bringing in patrons; they think that’s the musicians’ job.
Sure it is. If a musician could sell, he’d already be making infinitely more money as a salesmen. Yet he must send flyers, faxes, e-mails, and tweets to every relative, friend, and friend of a friend he knows to avoid playing to an empty house. At that, the group probably will play for about seven people. After one such turnout the club owner probably will never hire the group again. (On the other hand I have seen local jazz “celebrities” play for seven or eight people and the club owner seemed to think nothing of it. But that’s because they were part of the right clique and we all know how important that is in jazz.)
Back in my wild and misspent youth I badgered the owner of a well known and highly regarded jazz club to book my quintet for a night. That was when Howard Alden was my guitarist. Of course few people knew of Howard back then, or of any other star in my group. And nobody knew my name either. But my parents had a lot of friends who liked jazz, liked me, and liked the musicians in my group.
After six months the jerk who owned the club finally succumbed to my harangues and graciously allowed us a Monday, late at night. Could he have done anything more to ensure our failure?
Well, my parents’ friends packed the joint and spent money there. A lot. When we finished the last set the greedy club owner ran up to ask if he could book us for another night the following month. (We had earned the standard union rate of thirty-five dollars each.)
I thought for a second or two and answered, “No.”
Why? Because it seemed presumptuous to send invitations to the same people month after month; I long ago had learned to avoid overstaying my welcome. Besides, I was in the middle of a series of performances on the Tonight Show and was playing concerts at beautiful auditoriums around the west and was about to perform in New York at Carnegie Hall, all for hundreds of dollars per night.
None of that had mattered to the club owner. But it somehow seemed relevant to me.
Bars and restaurants completely lost their appeal after that night. I never again wanted to rely on friends and relatives for an audience. I never again wanted to beg anyone for a chance to perform. And I never again wanted anybody to evaluate my musical talent on the basis of how many big spenders I could attract.
No wonder I now work as a sideman.