We Play Because We Must

Jazz musicians are an amazing group of humans. Like any serious professional we put countless hours of work into learning our craft, practice until our bodies are sore, play endless sessions during the day in some piano players living room and hang out til all hours of the night to keep in touch with all the cats on the scene. We become as good at what we do (and often better) as anyone in any field in the entire world. We must be doing great today, now that jazz has become more popular, right? Look at all the jazz magazines, check out the high enrollments in all the jazz education programs throughout the world, look at all the jazz on television and radio ads now. Jazz musicians must be doing great now, right? Well, Im sad to say dear readers that this impression is mostly false. Oh sure there are a handful of musicians out there that own BMWs, but the truth be told most of us are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring for that next important $50 gig. Most of us work incredibly hard and receive little to no recognition and definitely no monetary rewards come our way. Marriages are lost, landlords are angry waiting for their rent, parents are hoping we find a way to get some health insurance. We suffer all this just for the love of that overwhelmingly deep feeling we get when we sit with our instruments and play from our hearts and souls. 

One of the things I want to do in this column is to give “wide open” space to some of the incredibly talented musicians that you rarely get a chance to hear about. Having played with many famous as well as many unknown musicians around the world its clear to me that the line between these two groups is very thin but problematically very high and often impenetrable do to the politics of the corporate jazz world. It seems very unfortunate to me that capitalism has become such a big part of our world. The corporate jazz institutions (large record companies and their radio station cohorts) have definitely become the largest factor as to who gets seen and heard and who remains invisible. It would be great if all talented musicians got a piece of the proverbial money pie and received the recognition they deserved. But the corporate jazz world has the power to pick and choose who “they say is good (usually they dont know very much about jazz often they are just lawyers or businessmen) and get their artists played on the radio, sponsor them at clubs and festivals and get their faces seen in all the magazines. And if their musicians who are often very young dont produce (make them enough money) they drop them faster than you can say, “bird lives”. Of course the small record labels dont stand much of a chance and cant afford to advertise very much or pay their artists any kind of extravagant fee. Its hard to compete with the big boys who also own most of the rights to all the old classic records, which are being reissued by the truckloads. Whats a creative artist to do? Teach? 

Some of our greatest jazz artists are surviving by teaching. But in a way this is like shooting themselves in the foot as they are teaching thousands of young jazz students to become fine competent players who finish school and go out and compete for the same jobs that the teachers are trying to get. Also, the market is flooded with too many CDs (new and reissues) and too many musicians and there just isnt enough space to accommodate them all. If any of us had any sense we would have found another profession by now. But the power of this incredible music prevents us from quitting. We simply play because we must! 

As a writer for All About Jazz I feel it is my duty (and pleasure) to bring to you information about some of the great but not so famous musicians that Ive been fortunate to have played with over the years. In future articles I will write about drummers: Jeff Williams, Mike Clark, John Riley, Tom Rainey, Taro Okamoto, Mike Sarin, Eliot Zigmund and Matt Wilson; bassists: Anthony Cox, Andy McKee, Dean Johnson and Peter Herbert; saxophonists: Adam Kolker, John OGallager, Jed Levy, David Scnitter, Dick Oatts; and many others. I will also continue to write about some of the great famous musicians as well (many famous musicians deserve their fame).