Jazz Artists Provide Insights on Building a Career

Volume C, No. 2February, 2000

Natasha Jackson

A piano, bass and drums jazz trio welcomed musicians as they trickled in one by one, forming small clusters in corners, shaking hands, and pointing across the room to old friends and fellow musicians. Guests fixed plates of food as they prepared to hear a panel discuss “Building a Jazz Career in New York,” the topic of the Jazz Advisory Committee’s last open house of the year.

The panel was hard to resist, and it was obvious by the attendance. The participants in the room spanned age and experience, and included jazz greats such as Slide Hampton as well as high school and college students.

The objective of the Dec. 6 program was to provide a forum in which musicians could share their experiences establishing a jazz career in New York, which many people consider the jazz capital of the world. The discussion also provided an opportunity for musicians to gain some of the hard-earned wisdom of jazz artists including Milt Hinton, who was accompanied by his wife Mona Hinton, Joe Wilder, Patience Higgins, Arun Luthra, Doris Parker (widow of Charlie Parker) and moderator Carline Ray.

Ray opened the program by introducing Parker, who gave a brief personal account of what jazz has meant to New York City and the lively days of jazz on 52nd Street. She stressed the importance of remembering the great contributions made by musicians such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Monk, Duke Ellington, and many more. She encouraged musicians and jazz listeners to join an effort to keep the jazz legacy alive by refurbishing the “Prez Awards” – plaques engraved with names of jazz greats which were laid by the city in 1978. Parker has founded an organization to pursue this goal.

Panel members first gave a brief account of their own experience upon arriving in New York and trying to establish a career in the “Mecca” of jazz music. “In New York every day is a challenging experience,” said Patience Higgins, “and every day you encounter something different.”

Arun Luthra admitted that his early expectations of New York were not met. “I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician and I had heard stories of musicians coming to New York. I thought it would be easy – I figured, you’ll go to 52nd Street or wherever the hangout may be, meet musicians, and some famous guy will like you and ask you to join his band.” Although this wasn’t the case, Luthra said that he has been able to achieve his goals in a different manner than he’d expected.

As the panelists told their stories with poignancy and honesty, the room sat listening, many laughing knowingly as the speakers’ anecdotes touched on their own experiences, and others admiring the strength these musicians had displayed during the struggle to establish their careers. The conversation became much more personal as the night progressed and the guest speakers and audience began to interact.

Speaking from the audience Jimmy Owens, who chairs the Jazz Advisory Committee, stressed to the younger members of the audience the importance of practicing and mastering their craft and being prepared, in order to establish themselves as good musicians.

Higgins also offered his advice, and revealed the secret of getting called back to a gig: “Be on time, and do what the bandleader tells you. If he says wear white socks, you better be wearing white socks, or he will get someone else who will.”

Hinton and Wilder described how the union operated in their early days as musicians. They recalled the days of being asked for their union cards on the bandstand, and how it was nearly impossible to work without proof of union membership. Their stories made it clear that the union was a much more powerful force in the jazz field in the past, and that it had used its power in ways that weren’t always positive.

Panelists also discussed building a pension and money management as crucial considerations for musicians, and urged that, as players begin to make money, they plan for the future.

After the panel members described their early experiences in New York as jazz musicians, members of the audience had the opportunity to ask questions.

Although the Dec. 6 event was very successful, with more than 75 musicians in attendance, the Open House is still a work in progress which the Jazz Advisory Committee will continue to cultivate. Benny Powell, trombonist and Jazz Advisory Committee member, said he would like to see the committee continue working to fine-tune future open houses to ensure their success and relevance to jazz musicians.

“When we started holding the open house, we just wanted get bodies there,” said bass player Bob Cranshaw, a member of the committee who also serves as Local 802 Jazz Rep. “I was surprised at the turnout at this open house; it was the best yet. I didn’t expect to see so many young people. This has encouraged us to focus on them more.”

Before the Jazz Advisory Committee was established and the new leadership of Local 802 stepped up efforts to meet the needs of jazz artists, jazz musicians were a disconnected faction of Local 802, with all the obligations of membership but little or no power and often few benefits to show for it. The Jazz Advisory Committee is made up of 25 jazz musicians who have volunteered to serve as advisors to Local 802, and have taken an active role in addressing the plight of jazz musicians in New York City. The committee’s focus, said Cranshaw, has been to utilize the opportunities provided by a new and progressive 802 leadership to help musicians benefit more from the services that the AFM provides. “With the new union we are trying to inform musicians, not railroad them,” he said.

The Jazz Advisory Committee welcomes suggestions for open house discussion topics. Please contact Natasha Jackson with suggestions at (212) 245-4802, ext. 185. The next open house will be held on April 7.