Monday, March 12, 2007

Apple Core?

I had an interview yesterday with a musician who, while certainly not a household name himself, is an ongoing member of a band led by one of the biggest names in the business. This profile, plus his own exceptional work, has made him a popular choice as a sideman – or so you’d think.

In fact, the pressure of making a living has recently forced him to make a sudden jump into academia and to leave New York City after a decade.

The move is undoubtedly a great one for him, and will certainly be a boon to those young people who will now get a chance to study with him, but it seems like a red flag regarding the health of the traditional breeding pool of innovative, young players in and around Manhattan. Since the early ‘40s, waves of the best musicians in their late teens and 20s have been making the move to the city, looking to hone their skills and learn from the best in the business. The line of young people following this pattern stretches from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Joe Lovano to Renee Rosnes, and of course there are hundreds of other lesser-known players who have followed the lead of these representatives of their respective generations. Regardless of the level of their talent, many who have followed the pattern have become much better for the experience of creating music in the company of others who work at the highest level.

It’s no secret that Manhattan has become prohibitively expensive during the past 20 years; most of the musicians on the scene have long since moved to Brooklyn or the northern reaches of Manhattan itself. Some, like Dave Douglas, have moved upriver to towns in the Hudson Valley.

But there still seemed to be the centrifugal force that kept musicians close enough to make club gigs, recording sessions, after-hours hangs. Now, I’m not so sure.

Obviously, one player taking a job at a university on the other side of the country doesn’t make a trend, but there’s enough evidence to raise alarm. He’s not the first to leave, but he has enough profile that he may well be viewed by others as a bellwether of significant change. What’s more, he reports that business is so bad in New York that many of his peers are also weighing their options. Even a handful of defections at his level would remove a significant number of bandleaders and first-call sidemen under 40.

Part of this is a reflection of what we’re seeing in the recording industry – the breakdown of traditional avenues of commerce for musicians – but are we also viewing a shift in attitude that, 80 years after Louis Armstrong first hit town, it’s not essential to remain at the epicentre of the jazz world?


John Doheny said...

I know a lot of musicians who've made the dive into academia, many of whom don't live in NYC and who therefore don't have to contend with absurd rents (just regular, ridiculously high ones).

There's a lot of reasons to make the move. A lot of people just get sick of the insecurity. It's no fun watching your rent go bye bye because a gig got cancelled, or having to saw through a lot of unglamorous weddings and corporate wallpaper gigs just to keep a roof over your head. It's not all big stages at jazz festivals you know.

But the biggest reason for taking the 'university day job,' the one that I hear from peers around my age over and over again, is health insurance. As a Canadian, you probably never give this a second thought. Being a freelance musician (or freelance anything, for that matter) is not a healthy lifestyle choice in America. I once checked into what a private plan, with comparable coverage to what I had in Canada, would cost me here, and the best I could come up with was a premium of about $800 a month, with all kinds of co-pays and deductables. And if you've got a "pre-existing condition" (which can be something as innocuous as childhood asthma) they won't cover you at any price.

It can get mighty cold out there, playing jazz for a living.

Steven said...

As an owner of a mostly avant jazz label in Brooklyn, NY ( I agree with much of what you're saying. Unfortunately, I think it's not only a question of economics, but also larger cultural trends in New York and America.

I got into jazz in college after starting out as a pretty mainstream music listener before getting to college. I could afford to buy jazz after rock, and hip hop because albums were 6-7 bucks. Used jazz albums used to be 2-3 bucks, imagine that! That's not the case now, as we all know.

In addition on the music industry side, I think it's essential to own a lot of jazz to arrive at a good understanding of its history and what people are doing. People might dabble at 12-15 per disc, but that's not going to grow jazz and its listener base. We all know that record buying gets the gigs going.

As far as larger trends that might affect migration out of NYC you could mention the lack of music education, the atmosphere for live music in New York City after September 11, and the way jazz is marketed as brunch music for yuppies.

I congratulate you on talking about this topic, it's a fascinating and important one. BTW, I would like to mail you some releases for possible review. Could you e-mail me at

Thanks for your blog,

Steven Walcott