You know your instrument. But do you know the business?
Volume 116, No. 6June, 2016
How do jazz musicians go about securing a viable career? Our new Jazz Mentors program has been attracting enthusiastic crowds to hear top artists tackle this question. As Allegro was going to press, Ron Carter, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes and Maria Schneider had just headlined a fantastic panel discussion and Q&A, with over 70 established and emerging musicians in attendance. Our April session included Rufus Reid, Rachel Z., Matt Wilson and Su Terry, who all spoke about the business of making music. Presented by the Council for Living Music together with Local 802, the evening was memorable not only for the insightful commentary of the panelists, but for the frank discussion of what it means to make a career in jazz in a modern and ever-changing marketplace.
Local 802’s Senior Jazz Representative Todd Weeks asked the four panelists pointed questions about their personal careers and why they moved to New York. Bassist/composer Rufus Reid, whose storied history includes associations with scores of legendary figures (including Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Eddie Harris and Art Farmer) moved here from Chicago, but, as he put it, “Only when I was ready. I had a good career in Chicago and really didn’t have to leave, but I came here to be part of the special energy unique to the New York music scene.”
Drummer Matt Wilson (Matt Wilson Quartet, Arts and Crafts, Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Lee Konitz, Jane Ira Bloom) said he was encouraged by his teacher to come to New York. Wilson explained, “New York is where there is the greatest concentration of talent. For a jazz musician, it’s the place to be.”
Grammy winning pianist Rachel Z. (Wayne Shorter, Omar Hakim) was the native New Yorker in the group. After graduating from the New England Conservatory, she returned to the Big Apple. She immediately surrounded herself with talented musicians who would gather in her tiny living room nightly. “Jamming with these folks got me gigs. I played with a large rig consisting of several keyboards. But that didn’t matter. I would haul my full rig even to $50 gigs. It wasn’t easy but it paid off. That was my sound and that’s what made me unique.”
Su Terry has spent many years recording and performing as a saxophonist with figures such as Carmen McCrae, Melba Liston, Clark Terry and Al Jarreau. She recounted her early days in New York. “I was lucky. My colleagues from the Hartt School of Music got me my first gigs on Broadway and in clubs. I learned early on always to have your horn with you. You never know when the opportunity comes up to sit in, and doing that can get you hired for gigs.”
All of the panelists spoke about listening and performing as much as possible. Rufus Reid was adamant about staying versatile and flexible as a musician. He spoke eloquently about his formative experiences as a sideman and how he learned early on not to turn down work no matter what the genre or date might call for. In the early stages of his career, he would play a wedding on the north side even if he didn’t know the tunes and then go jam in a club on the south side until 3 a.m. He stressed, “It’s about networking. It’s the human connection that underpins everything. That’s essential.”
The conversation soon turned to specific issues of representation, touring and promotion – the nuts and bolts of the business. A musician in the audience asked the all-important question: What should an artist do first – make a demo recording, shoot a video, take as many gigs as possible, put together a publicity package, or hire a manager? Rachel Z responded, “You should look at your resources. A publicist is important, and you need to divert resources to that. Get the product ready: make sure you have some fresh and relevant publicity materials to go with it. Then book your tour and have your press and your product ready to go.”
Rufus Reid said, “I still believe that it’s important to have a physical CD that an audience member can buy then and there. Get them while they’re hot! But be sure to keep ownership of your product. I was once told, ‘Write your own book and own your own book. If it collects dust, it’s your own dust.’ Control your property.”
Wilson talked about his own endeavors and the idea of taking risks. For him, it is important that a musician has something to say and the chops to back it up with. He spoke encouragingly, “Keep doing interesting projects and engage your audience. It’s still about live music. Being a successful artist is about relationships that build trust and community and that will lead to a legacy.”
Terry chimed in, “Follow what excites you and hone in on what you love. This is important from a marketing standpoint. Find your niche and build on that. That’s what is going to make you stand out, and from there will come the articles and reviews…and ultimately the fans.”
The conversation turned to publicity. The panelists all agreed that a publicist is worth every penny. Terry stressed over and over again that you need a team. No one can do everything by themselves. As many musicians have experienced, the business side can be a full-time job.
Most leaders have to worry about all of the details of a gig – booking it, hiring the musicians, setting up the rehearsals, making sure there are charts, doing the arranging and copying themselves, hoping everyone gets to the gig on time and oh, yes, playing a great show. Even though the job of publicizing the gig is equally important, it often ends up taking a back seat to the many other responsibilities involved with getting the show together. Rachel Z put it eloquently: “Find people who believe in you, who love what you do. And then empower them to assist you, and reward them for a job well done. You can’t do it alone.”
The mission of our Jazz Mentors program is to educate, enrich and facilitate an awareness of the business of music with a special focus on jazz performance, touring and recording. Because jazz musicians often lack access to good information when it comes to managing their careers and ensuring that they are well protected in their contracts, Jazz Mentors seeks to connect younger players with established, seasoned professionals to fill the information gap, create lasting relationships, and improve the lives and livelihoods of up-and-coming jazz artists. The next Jazz Mentors event is scheduled for Monday, June 27 at 5 p.m. For more information, stay tuned to our website or call (212) 245-4802.