Living as a Musician

Making a living as a musician of any breed is not a simple path to embark upon.  Not only do we have the task of making enough money to afford room and board, but we also have a long musical legacy to respect and find our place in.  For this blog entry, I thought I would take the reader through various tenures the ‘jazz’ musician may have found themselves in throughout the history of the genre.  (Jazz-o-philes beware!  This is meant to be a brief overview!)

When thinking about jazz, even for myself, the first things that come to mind are those golden age legends such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong, as well as the famous dance band set-up made so popular in the 1920s.  As a player in one of these dance bands, you earned your living by playing the same (or at least very similar) sets of music at various dance halls, night clubs, and yes, even the infamous speakeasies of the time (as a side note, Al Capone supposedly played banjo in the Alcatraz inmate band).  Here, the musician’s role was to provide music for the audience to jump and jove to, and for many bands, the only personality that mattered was that of the conductor, who can be thought of like a mascot (think of Cab Calloway and Artie Shaw).

The jazz musician’s role did a complete 180 in the 1940s.  Thanks to legends like saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Bud Powell, and guitarist Charlie Christian (who also was a electric guitar pioneer!), a new style of jazz known as bebop came to life.  As a bebop player, audiences came to venues such as Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem to listen to you play, rather than to dance, which was extremely liberating from a creative perspective.  Rather than playing similar sets of music at dance halls across the country, bebop musicians were respected for the personality they were able to put into every note, as well as for playing virtuosic lines never before thought possible.  The increased importance of the ego of the player did alienate some audiences, and making a living as a bebop musician was undoubtedly more difficult than being in a touring dance band.

The prospects for a jazz musician became exponentially more vast in the late 50s to the early 60s.  Cats such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock (who recently played at the White House for International Jazz Day), and John Coltrane used their creative capacities to expand the boundaries of music, pioneering new concepts, techniques, and song-forms.  The jazz musician now was a mix between performer and artist, and had to be able to play in multiple styles to both make a living and achieve their own personal creative goals.

Herbie and Miles were also originators of jazz-rock fusion (usually shortened to simply ‘fusion’), which meant that the jazz musician now had access to electronic processing, synthesizers, and rock-oriented grooves which they could incorporate into their performances and recordings.  Miles’ fusion period remains controversial to this day (some love it, some…well…), but the genre remains alive, and much music is still released in this style.

Today, jazz musicians find themselves being influenced and drawing inspiration from more sources than ever before.  These include film music, Western art music, Indian and other Eastern classical musics, R&B, soul, post-impressionism, cubism, science fiction, literature, dragons, the fourth dimension, and probably even this tea pot sitting in front of me.  Please don’t misunderstand this list as a mockery of modern jazz music - our influences can seriously reach into esoteric realms.

I should note that none of these styles of music ever really went away.  Bebop did not kill Cab Calloway, and Coltrane didn’t push bebop to the shadows.  Jazz fusion was being performed while dance bands were still playing — although the number of touring dance bands was, admittedly, quite low.  Even today, with the massive plurality of genres the jazz musician can draw from, all genres of jazz are still being performed on one stage or another. 

Although living as a musician is undoubtedly difficult — and I will do anything in my power to dispose of the sometimes-alluring ‘starving artist’ trope — the fact that we are able to play such a vast repertoire of music while continuing to grow personally and creatively throughout our musical careers makes for a beautiful, if sometimes challenging, life.

P.S.  There is a great Lindyhop swing dance that still happens every Saturday night at Dovercourt house in Toronto — top-notch swing music is provided for the dancing enjoyment of all, and I definitely recommend checking it out!

- Brenden Varty