IF YOU WERE to scour the world, you would find a handful of terrific jazz musicians whose names and recordings are unknown to all but their families and colleagues. They live and perform in relative obscurity. Festival directors and club owners reject them. Record companies ignore them. Even aficionados are unaware of them. The reason for that is simple: The people who create reputations chose to overlook them.
I’ll tell you something about jazz: By the time I was two years old I had fallen in love with it. Only classical music could compete but I find jazz a more creative means of expression.
I live for playing jazz, yet it is completely frustrating to be a musician. Being a professional is analogous to being married to a beautiful alcoholic: She puts you through 360 days a year of absolute hell but you stay with her for the remaining five days of bliss.
My background may be comparable to those of some other musicians: Live television shows, concerts, telethons, the occasional festival, and the list goes on. But those were as a featured sideman. When I asked our agent to help me launch a band of my own he told me he could do nothing; neither talent, artistry, technique, nor experience count.
How about the frequent standing ovations? No. They are immaterial.
The only marketable quality is fame.
Then how do you acquire fame?
In music, somebody else has to create it for you, usually a record company, by spending a lot of money on advertising and promotion. If you are a jazz musician, that opportunity is unavailable today.
For years I did everything I could to promote myself but time passed and, just as many others, I remained anonymous.
One day in 1988 the Los Angeles radio station we know today as KJAZ asked me to head a couple of concerts featuring the Concord Jazz All Stars (Scott Hamilton, Dave McKenna, Bill Berry, Jake Hanna and others.). The concerts were the most successful in the station’s history and I played very well. Nobody ever called me to perform again.
At that point I was 40 and needed to earn some money so I had to give up music to start a publishing company. I put my clarinet in the closet for twelve years. The case collected dust as I earned a good living publishing magazines.
It was painful even to think about music in those days. My musician pals stopped calling because I no longer played (or hired them) and they had little to say when I called them. I could barely listen to music, except maybe a little classical now and then, because it was too disturbing. At least once a week I would dream about playing but, when I woke up, the dreams would fade and the pressures of survival in business silenced the music inside me until late at night.
In 2000, when I met my wife, she wanted to watch Ken Burns’ PBS series about jazz. As it went along I would tell her, “Listen to this guy’s solo. It’s a classic.” Or, “I worked with that guy. And that one. That guy, too.” She asked how I knew so much and I told her I used to play professionally. She insisted I go back to it. I resisted for a few months and tried to explain she wouldn’t like it. She won and, little by little, I began to extend my practice time until I was cranking out my standard three hours a day, seven days a week.
Then, in 2003, I called my former guitar player, Larry Koonse; the bass player from the 1988 Concord concert, Dave Stone; and a great drummer named Ray Brinker. We recorded an album, Blue Scarlett. The reviews were excellent. The sales were dismal.
The title track and three other tunes on that CD are originals. Half of everything I have recorded is original, including all nineteen tunes on my latest album, Wistful. A generation ago some of those tunes might have become standards. A few people like or even love them and buy an album. But only a handful. After the recording session the music fades into obscurity, along with every other melodic tune these days.
But, in the movie, a voice said, “If you build it, they will come.” Sorry; that was a fairytale.
Southern California has few jazz clubs where I want to perform. There is no point; nobody launches a “career” at a jazz club. The pay is terrible. The acoustics are dreadful. The audiences rudely jabber through the performances. And it is almost impossible to present original tunes at such places because that would require rehearsal for a “club date”, something all but anathema to most Los Angeles area jazz musicians.
The phone rings six or ten times a year, never anyone or anything new. I fall back on the “featured soloist” status with Swing and Dixie bands that play for dancers who neither listen nor care and for older people who typically pay little attention to the quality of what they hear because they are busy recalling the better days of their youth.
An international clique of accomplished jazz players exists. I work with many at gigs in Southern California and elsewhere. Many have come up afterwards to ask, “Where the heck did you come from? What’s your name?” Yet I remain “unknown” so never receive an invitation to festivals.
And if I did? I might be disappointed.
A lifetime of seeing the quality and creativity of “traditional” jazz players decline has made me realize I’d rather lead my own group and do something more unique than run through Jumpin’ at the Woodside for the 1,309,997th time with throw-together groups that, on their best day, are unable to play it or other popular jazz tunes as well as the original band did in an average performance.
I presume you realize this blog is only one part of my website: www.westlakerecords.com. A big feature of the site is its free “radio” shows, each with about twenty minutes of original, contemporary, live recordings. Many thousands of people worldwide listen to the shows each month. But the phone never rings and the albums never sell.
What does all of the above tell you?
People like the music but refuse to pay for it; they would rather listen to an inferior free performance than buy a much better album. It tells you no events exist for relatively unknown jazz players, even brilliant ones. It tells you the only important things in “music” today are how you look, how cool you are, and how famous somebody else has made you by spending millions of corporate dollars. It tells you the business of creating music, as opposed to “glitzy sonic entertainment”, is dead. It tells you jazz is now unpopular, incestuous, cliquish, and a commercial disaster.
One thing I learned a long time ago: It ain’t how good you are; it’s what you do. A lousy porn producer earns more than a brilliant artist. An incompetent and dangerous doctor earns infinitely more than a genius ukulele player. Years ago my oldest friend compared being a great jazz clarinetist with being a great archer: Commercial or popular success is impossible today because each discipline is obsolete.
To enjoy success in the arts only two things matter: Exploiting contemporary taste and finding an investor to make you famous.
What a world.