4 Tips for Handling Criticism as a Jazz Musician

When I was 15 I sang at the Kemah Jazz Festival in Houston TX with my father’s band. James Moody was the headliner that year, and I was very excited to meet him and hear his set. We performed in the late afternoon, and the stage was set up so that the performers looked out over a plaza and the hotel. I remember being very nervous to go on stage (which was pretty normal for me back then) and being even more nervous when I realized that James Moody was sitting directly in front of me on his balcony at the hotel. I sang “Yardbird Suite” and “Out of Nowhere”. I was just starting out back then, but even with that in mind it wasn’t my best performance, and right in the middle of “Out of Nowhere” Moody got up, went inside, and shut the balcony door. I remember feeling crushed, but I rationalized the situation with the (likely) truth that he just wanted to get dressed for his own set, which was in just an hour or two.

After his set I stood in line to get his autograph and ask for a picture, and he asked me if I had been singing that afternoon. I said yes, and he said, “You were flat. You need to hit your pitches.” He wasn’t unkind or anything like that, it was just a very straight forward and totally correct assessment of my performance. I thanked him, told him I would work on it, and promptly ran off to cry in my room. My friends and family in the interest of making me feel better were quick to say he was “mean” or just “wrong”, but I knew he was right. I didn’t cry because he was “mean”, I cried because he was right and I was disappointed in myself for having performed so poorly in front of one of my heroes. But even more than feeling disappointed or sad, I was so thankful that he had taken the time to say something important and valuable to me, instead of just patting me on the head and saying “Great job baby.”

I went home from that trip and typed “Hit Your Pitches” on the computer, printed it out, and hung it on my wall where I would see it everyday.

Learning to accept criticism is a very valuable tool for any person, not to mention a Jazz musician or artist. I was lucky to have encountered so much of it in my early life, and I was lucky that a good deal of it was helpful and correct. Not all criticism is helpful, or even meant to be helpful, but when an elder, boss / bandleader, or even a peer whom you admire and respect offers their opinion, it can be very beneficial to consider it. Here are some things I try to keep in mind in those situations.

1) Set aside your ego and listen. Don’t become immediately defensive / angry / sad. If you want to grow as a person and artist, take this opportunity to control your emotions and listen rationally to what is being said.

2) Acknowledge their words. Sometimes it’s as easy as, “I’ll look into that. Thank you.” Don’t petulantly say, “I don’t care!” and run off. If they’re genuinely offering you advice on how to improve, they are showing they care about you (or at least your work), and ultimately that is a positive thing.

3) Evaluate whether it’s good advice and be honest with yourself. To really judge whether someone’s criticism can be of value, you have to be honest with yourself about your skills and shortcomings. We all have things we are working on, and that is OK. Knowing your weaknesses is an advantage, don’t be afraid to admit them to yourself.

Sometimes this process of evaluation can take weeks of rumination; however, if you decide the criticism is not applicable or unfounded, don’t feel bad about completely dismissing it and moving on.

4) If the criticism IS applicable and you want to get better, don’t be afraid to Ask them how to improve. This is especially important if the person criticizing you is your boss or bandleader. If they don’t like the way you’re doing something and you want the job, ask them how they want you to do it differently.

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James Moody & I at the Kemah Jazz Festival, 2000

How do you handle criticism? Is it something that you wish you received more of, or less? Let me know in the comment section…..

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A New Venue in NYC: Jazz at the Player’s

At a time when it seems venues are closing and our options to perform (and listen!) are dwindling, I’m happy to report a great new monthly concert series in New York City: Jazz at the Player’s Club. I performed there last week (thanks to all of you who came and made it a sold out show!), and I want to tell you all about it.

Champian, Jack Baker (bass), Stephen Fulton (flugelhorn), and George Coleman Jr (drums) on stage at the Players Club.

Champian, Jack Baker (bass), Stephen Fulton (flugelhorn), and George Coleman Jr (drums) on stage at the Players Club. (thanks to Charlie Kaye for the photos!)

The Player’s Club, founded by Edwin Booth (that’s the brother to John Wilkes Booth) in 1888, is located in a Greek Revival Townhouse facing Gramercy Park. You can walk through most of the house (at least the first few floors) and see beautiful paintings of current and former members and also other paraphernalia, including Mark Twain’s pool cue. The performance is held in the “dining room”, which seats over 100 people comfortably, and the stage boasts a new Yamaha grand piano. Despite being a “concert venue” the room is surprisingly intimate, and the performance felt more like a house concert / party than a traditional concert or club performance.

The atmosphere is definitely jovial and laid back, thank goodness, because I inadvertently greeted several guests while standing outside the club eating pizza with my bassist before the show. It was only when I was recognized and approached while mid-bite that I thought perhaps we should have walked around the corner, or at least a few buildings down from the club. :) After the show everyone convened downstairs in the bar to drink, play pool, and eat sandwiches.

Curator and host George Coleman Jr. introduces the band

Curator and host George Coleman Jr. introduces the band

It’s a unique venue that comprises all my favorite elements of a night out: relaxed but elegant environment, drinks, food, and a little history. (If you want to know the history of the club and the brothers Booth, ask Stephen Fulton about it next time you see him. He regaled everyone at the after-party with the most fascinating stories.)

I'm happy about the new venue! (Thanks to Charlie Kaye for these great pics)

I’m happy about the new venue! (Thanks to Charlie Kaye for these great pics)

All Jazz @ The Player’s concerts are open to the public, please visit their website for a list of upcoming shows, The Player’s Club is located at 16 Gramercy Park South in NYC.

 

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

In the midst of this seemingly never-ending, dreary winter, I think we could all use a little romance.

So, today, on Valentine’s Day, I offer you…..Sarah Vaughan…..

Ella Fitzgerald…..

Joe Williams….

And finally the most beautiful / sexy / romantic / lovesome song ever recorded. Coleman Hawkins & Tommy Flanagan…..

Whether you’re single or taken, whether or not you intend to go out tonight or stay in, remember to listen to some beautiful music today and enjoy yourself! (And seriously, if you listen to nothing else today, listen to the Coleman Hawkins! You won’t regret it!)

valentine's day

PS- Are you in the New York / New Jersey area and still looking for something to do for Valentine’s Evening? Join me @ the Italian Bistro in Highland Park NJ from 6:30 to 10 PM. There’s no cover charge, a great bar, and an excellent Prix Fix for $19.95.  Call for info:  (732) 640-1959
441 Raritan Ave, Highland Park, NJ 08904

Posted in Let's Talk Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Is Jazz Only for the Financially Elite?

Over the past few weeks while I have been at home and not on the road, I have been trying to go out and visit clubs I don’t usually frequent, check out music I’m unfamiliar with, and just show my face around town. I’ve been having a great time seeing some great music, but WOW IT IS EXPENSIVE. I knew it was expensive, but I guess it had been a long while since a check came to my table with cover charges and drinks etc, and rang up to around $120 for a couple for one set! Maybe you’re all rolling your eyes and thinking, “Yeah, duh. Sounds about right.”, but wow, $120 just for the music and few drinks, not even dinner, seems like the kind of money I would pay for a special evening out, not just a “It’s Tuesday, let’s go out” kind of evening.

As a musician I like my music to be accessible and functional. I want people to come see my music as often as they like and as often as they can, because it makes them feel good and have a good time. I want people to be at home and think, “Hmm, it’s Thursday night. Where’s Champian playing? Oh, let’s go and hang out!”, but if every time I play it costs around $50 – $60 a person, how often am I going to get to see my fans? What kind of relationship would they really have to my music? What kind of relationship would I have to my  music?

Empty Wallet?

My point is NOT that Jazz clubs are too expensive. I just want to ask, What kind of message are we, as Jazz musicians, sending by isolating our music from the everyday and making it a special-occasion-only or only for people with disposable cash? Is our music still relevant if it’s accessible only to a chosen few? How can young musicians / students see our music if it costs $50 a person to attend? (I should add that Birdland, my home away from home, has a very generous policy allowing musicians to hang at the bar during the week for an extremely reduced price.)

These kinds of questions are the reason that I maintain my “steady” gigs while I’m home in NYC at places like The Garage in the West Village or at Novita in Metuchen NJ. Besides exposing my music to people who can’t attend major Jazz clubs every night of the week and consequently aren’t committed Jazz fans, these gigs also give me a chance to invite other musicians to come and sit in, allow me to try different material, and allow me to keep playing in front of people even while I’m not on the road. I feel these gigs keep me artistically fresh and keep me having fun.

Do you think these expensive prices limit the ability to grow a Jazz audience in NYC? Do they cater  only to tourists? If you’re a musician, how do you feel about this?

Posted in What I think.... | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Through the Looking Glass; unauthorized audience videos on Youtube

A few days ago an audience member posted a video to youtube from my performance at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. I had chosen not to record the performance because I didn’t want to put any pressure on us to perform in a certain way, but of course I would have liked a recording just as a memento. So when I discovered this audience-posted-video, I was thrilled. I was so thrilled that I immediately wanted to share it with all of you (which I did), without thinking about whether or not the other members of the band would be thrilled. In this particular instance I was lucky and they were equally pleased with our memento from the evening, though that has not always been the case.

My very first appearance on youtube was in an audience-posted-video nearly seven years ago, which was taken at Birdland while I was singing with the David Berger Jazz Orchestra. As usual, I was thrilled and excited and immediately sent it around to all the musicians in the band, only to discover most of them were not happy at all! They had not been paid for the video, they were not aware they were being recorded, they were not happy with the quality of the video, etc. I was surprised by their reaction, and even though I could understand where they were coming from, I couldn’t agree with their point of view.

Being Interviewed in Cognac France

Being Interviewed in Cognac France

These videos, which usually seem to be recorded on a phone, are not of the kind of quality where people are going to make any money by selling the video. They are usually taken with the intention of sharing the moment with “friends”, or to replay for themselves. I have heard the argument that these videos are recorded so people don’t have to buy the music from the artist, or that more youtube videos equal fewer people who will pay to purchase a musicians album, but I don’t agree with this at all. In fact, I think people who take audience-videos (or pictures) are more likely to purchase your music, since the very act of taking the video is a demonstration of enjoying the moment and being a fan. Also, I think that many people listen to music on youtube to discover new artists that they can go see live and / or purchase their albums. So in that sense, these videos are exposure and advertising.

I have also heard the argument that live performance is a chance to try new material, new arrangements etc, and the artist should be able to do that without having it recorded and published prior to the artist being fully prepared to release the new material. Personally, I have never felt this way. If I do something on stage then I must be ready, on some level, or I wouldn’t be presenting it to an audience. Maybe it’s not “perfect”, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful. To me, Jazz is about a process more than a finished product, and I don’t mind sharing that with my audience, whether they are there in person or looking at a screen.

We all want to have control over our image, not only as artists, but as people. Every month I read another article about how it’s rude to tag your friends in photos if they don’t look their best, and I think that is common courtesy, but I think in this day and age we have to expect that the minute we step onto a stage, we should be prepared to share that moment with our audience, seen and unseen.

How do you feel about these kinds of videos? Do you post them? Do you hate them? Do you think it’s rude? Tell me in the comment section…..

Also, just to prove that I love them, I have a playlist on youtube dedicated to fan videos, check it out. 

Posted in My Music & Videos, What I think.... | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments