How To Make A Living Playing Jazz

25 May

A young music student fresh from weekly guitar lesson said to his mother, “When I grow up, I want to be a jazz musician.” She replied, “Don’t be silly, you can’t do both!” Is mother always right, or is it possible to grow up and make a living playing jazz? Dan from The Blue Notes investigates!

‘Do not fear mistakes,’ said Miles Davis, ‘there are none.’ Jazz is an innovator’s art, but today’s musicians have to balance creativity with generating an income. So, how do you make a living doing what you love?

Today, most would-be professional jazz musicians will have studied to at least degree level or further in their quest to be well-rounded musicians. We do this because we know that immersion in our chosen subject will improve our abilities, and so that we can join a community of other young jazz musicians who will become our peers when we turn professional.

We may also know that an academic qualification will help us reap the financial rewards of a teaching job after we graduate, a time when we are continuing to develop our skills. A degree offers other opportunities too, through touring shows and cruise ships, working in sessions, as well as occasional work in the minefield that is ‘showbiz.’ Coupled with a regular ‘wedding band’ gig and, if your instrument allows it, solo gigs in hotel lobbies, it seems that there are many opportunities for well-schooled and able musicians to play the music they love. Yet despite this veritable smorgasbord of financial opportunity, I have barely mentioned the tension between jazz as a means of income and artistic fulfilment.

Many of the gigs above might bear little resemblance to the years spent perfecting your art as a jazz musician, and yet without that same period of intense study, you probably wouldn’t get the gig. I have played several tours with ‘The Rat Pack – Live from Las Vegas’ across Europe and in the UK. This is a jazz big-band show, in which I had to play in the Freddie Greene style of four-to-the-bar jazz guitar accompaniment. At no point was I able to solo and show off my abilities at playing chorus after chorus of eloquent melodic statements on post-Kenny Wheeler harmony. Yet without my reading skills and knowledge of jazz guitar, as well as my newly mined book of contacts, I wouldn’t have got the gig. A rock guitarist or indeed a classical guitarist simply couldn’t have done it, in the same way that I couldn’t really play a ‘Steve Vai’ solo or ‘Concerto de Aranjuez.’ Even though I was running on 10% of my ability, I was getting paid far more than if I was playing an intense jazz gig at my local club with my trio.

The same could be said of my years at sea, when more often than not I was playing ‘background’ solo jazz guitar at a decibel level just below that of chatting semi-inebriated octogenarians quaffing caviar and champagne. Once again, this meant running on a very low level of ability, carving out spontaneous arrangements of jazz standards that in previous months I might have been blowing on at high volume in an intense and often surprisingly sweaty low-paid jazz gig. For me to get paid well, I had to turn off my jazz sensibilities and ignore the impulse to create ‘the sound of surprise.’ The catch-22 of this is that without the skills I have developed – a good understanding of jazz harmony and phrasing, and knowledge of the standard repertoire – I wouldn’t have been able to do these gigs.

It seems that the years of training have led me to receive the bulk of my income from gigs requiring knowledge of how to sound like a jazz musician, but with none of the attitude. This is a common problem for highly skilled jazz musicians. A sax-playing friend told me he’d once eaten in a restaurant, and was amazed to hear that the semi-audible background music was a Jamey Aebersold backing track: a leaderless rhythm section walking aimlessly around the changes, with no distracting solo to put the diners off their fillet mignon. The general public – and those booking gigs – often like the sound of mainstream jazz, but don’t necessarily want the details or angularity, intensity and surprise that we musicians thrive upon.

So, as a working jazz musician, you have to make a choice. You can decide to exist outside the mainstream, hoping that your punk ethos is recognised as a valuable anti-contribution to the shackles of orthodoxy, or you can accept that this is simply how things are. If you choose acceptance, you have to recognise that there is a time and a place for you to play in the manner you aspire to, but it might not happen every day. There are plenty of times when you need to keep your head down, take the money and run!

Once you have graduated music school and started on your quest to make a living as a professional musician, these are questions that you will have to ask yourself. Is it enough for you to make a living as a musician, and accept and adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in? Or can you only see the uncompromising spirit of the jazz innovator?

I have friends in both camps, and these views are equally valid. It depends on your outlook as to how valuable you think your contribution is. Can you play at 10% of your ability? Can you tame that rebellious inner jazz musician? Can you switch from one persona to another? Or does your validity as an artist depend on giving 100% at every opportunity for performance? Do you want to compromise, or do you think that the spirit of the music is more vital than that?

While studying at Leeds College of Music, and later at Masters level at the Guildhall, my stock question for visiting artists giving masterclasses was ‘What advice can you give us with regards to making a living as a jazz musician?’ I had many answers, some utterly baffling, and many very useful indeed. The best was from reeds player Alan Barnes who simply said ‘Don’t be a prat.’ While assuming this wasn’t directed specifically at me, I took this to mean that you should learn to recognise quickly what the gig means, and to perform appropriately. If you need to do a background gig, that’s OK. You’ll get paid well, and maybe the money can go towards a new pedal or mouthpiece, or towards funding a day in a recording studio with your jazz project.

I accepted this way of thinking a long time ago, and while this has led to occasional artistic complacency, it also means I don’t have to let the relentless pursuit of artistic validity affect my means of income. The reality of being a jazz musician means you will be unlikely to make 100% of your living from gigs where you get to play exactly how you want. Once you accept this, you’ll grow to appreciate the jazz gigs that you do play, and not resent the fact that you’ve only made £20 for a night of hard work in the process.

You might find all this incredibly depressing of course, but you should remember that the life of a musician is never a straight line. Opportunities will come your way from even the most banal of situations. I recently toured Australia with a Grammy-nominated jazz pianist, who heard me playing background music on a ship, for example. The important thing is to keep developing and learning, and to treat each gig with respect and professionalism, so that when you do have the chance to play in the manner you wish to, you still can.

Written by Sam, a professional solo jazz guitarist based in Yorkshire and member of jazz band Swing, Swing, Swing!

Posted in Help & advice for musicians