It’s All About the Brand

Jazz Mentors 10

Volume 117, No. 8September, 2017

THE BUSINESS OF JAZZ: Learning how to brand yourself is about creating a narrative, says Andre Guess (far left), who was joined by Camille Thurman and Christian McBride at Jazz Mentors 10, moderated by Local 802 jazz rep Todd Weeks. Photo: Walter Karling

The Local 802 JAZZ MENTORS series has hosted some remarkable panelists in the last year and a half, resulting in some equally remarkable discussions on the business of jazz. The program has gained solid footing in the 802 community and beyond. Our most recent panel, Jazz Mentors 10, focused on one of the most important aspects of a modern musician’s career – branding – with expert insight provided by preeminent bassist Christian McBride, career architect Andre Guess, and saxophonist-vocalist Camille Thurman.

It was especially fitting that McBride was on the panel since Recording Vice President Andy Schwartz originally spoke with him to float the idea of Jazz Mentors back in 2016,  after the Jazz Connect conference. Schwartz’s concept was to provide opportunities for jazz musicians, students and the general public to have open, honest discussions about the business of jazz and its many challenges. Everyone is thankful for that fateful conversation.

McBride, 44, is a five-time Grammy winner who first joined Local 802 in 1993. A ubiquitous presence on the jazz scene, McBride is also a gifted public speaker whose insight into what it means to be true to your craft while simultaneously understanding the marketplace was welcome. When asked about branding, McBride referred to himself as a “young lion,” a term associated with the neo-bop movement of the 1980’s when jazz musicians moved away from fusion and free jazz and returned to the more traditional roots of bebop. Artists such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson, and John Faddis as well as McBride were considered members of the elite group known then as the “young lions.” But despite this brand which was provided for him years ago, McBride said, “My priority is to be the best musician I can be to serve the job. That’s actually my brand.”

Brands, as the panelists saw them, are partly a function of the environment in which they are created. Today that means musicians must embrace the fact that digital media, technology and the internet are often crucial in both the creation and delivery of a brand.

As the panel turned to the subject of posting videos of concerts, feelings were mixed. McBride felt there were obvious pros and cons regarding the now widespread practice of audience members recording his shows. He explained, “A good YouTube video can put more bodies in the seats down the line, but audience members shouldn’t think they have the right to film my show simply because they bought a ticket.” Camille Thurman agreed. She said, “It’s cool to have a video that captures the moment, but you came to see the show. You should actually watch the show you paid to see.”

Thurman is a relative newcomer to the jazz scene, although she has already distinguished herself as an international touring artist. Her credits include work with Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Wynton Marsalis. Equally comfortable as a saxophonist or vocalist, Thurman spoke about the emergence of her vocal craft, her need to be acknowledged as a strong instrumentalist first, and how all of that has fit together to create a career trajectory that has taken her to places such as the Kennedy Center and festivals in Europe and Australia. Her vocal chops are significant: she was runner-up in the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.

When asked about the benefits of social media, Thurman shared her wisdom: “The benefits are clear. It’s working for you while you sleep, so use the tools afforded to you. Create a post for Facebook, add a few quick notes and a button for purchasing tickets and maybe a ‘subscribe’ area and voila! But be strategic about how you use it.”

Andre Guess has been working with musical artists for over two decades. He was formerly a vice president and producer at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and he was also the president and CEO at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Guess formed his own management company in 2006 and now manages artists such as Warren Wolf, Aaron Diehl and fellow panelist Christian McBride.

Guess explained that he considers himself to be a unique manager in that his clients “must already have a strategic advantage” before they sign with him. He was direct. “Word of mouth gets you the next gig, so you must be able to play.” How does Guess brand McBride? Simply: “Virtuosity and versatility. That says it all.”

Guess spoke eloquently of creating narratives, not only for one’s audience by for oneself as an artist. He made the distinction by isolating key points in a musician’s art, vision and performance style that appeal to both the performer’s own creative sensibilities and to an audience at large.

But ultimately, Guess says, it’s the audience who truly creates that narrative. Using a perfect analogy, Guess explained: “It’s the parishioners that bring people to the church, not the priest. The artists do their thing and the audience passes on the experience to others. That’s how you grow your fan base.”

On the subject of social media, Guess added, “You need to know what you want from your social media and be sure the experience of your music and site match. The narrative needs to be consistent with the product you are putting out so you are creating a strong online identity.”

Jazz Mentors 11, which will focus on the differences between a manager, booking agent and a publicist, is set for Thursday, Sept. 28 from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. The panelists will include: Steve Wilson, saxophonist; Laura Hartmann, artist manager/educator; and Lakecia Benjamin, saxophonist and bandleader. The event will be held at City College, at 160 Convent Avenue in Manhattan. For more information, send an e-mail to Todd Bryant Weeks.