Is Jazz Losing Its Foothold In the Big Apple?

New York City is great. It’s full of culture, opportunities, and life. It’s a place that will test your resolve, test your wallet, and test your peace of mind. It’s where Jazz musicians have been coming to hone their craft for most of the 20th century. The history is here, the opportunities for gigs and work are here. When you travel the world and say, “I’m from New York”, you get automatic respect from anyone and everyone in the international Jazz community because it is a badge of authority, of courage even. If you’re a Jazz musician from New York you have authority.

52nd St. NYC, 1940's

52nd St. NYC, 1940’s

Yet, I’m not sure New York is doing Jazz musicians any favors. In a recent article for the Observer, Matthew Kassell notes that many music venues, not only Jazz related, are closing their doors. That will come as no surprise to most working musicians. In my small realm of the NY music scene I saw two of my favorite places to play close within a few months of eachother just last year: Silver Lining and Sofia’s. But even as more clubs close, I see another problem silently creeping up on us.

There’s no space to work on our craft.

Before I moved to New York I was practicing up to 10 hours a day (or I should say, a night, since most of my practice was nocturnal) and when I wasn’t practicing I was rehearsing with my band, or just jamming with fellow musicians. I would have people over all the time to learn tunes and listen to music. Since moving to New York those experiences have diminished severely.

I don’t have a rehearsal space where I can practice, I practice at home; which means I can only practice at certain times of the day when I’m not disturbing my neighbors. I can’t have sessions in my place because of the noise. That means I have to rent a space for rehearsals at around $40 an hour, which means that rehearsals which once could be had just for fun and to play, have to be efficient and controlled since every note is on my dime.

These problems could be said to be mere inconveniences compared to many musicians who can’t practice in their home at all, or who simply can’t practice because they are too busy working a day job to pay their rent.

Working on our craft should be a daily pursuit, a pursuit we can enjoy. New York City’s high cost of living, rapidly closing venues, and lack of actual space to live are making it harder and harder on all of us. I see friends moving to Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago, Austin TX, etc., to pursue their music dreams and still I stay, because against all odds New York City still is the home of Jazz. But for how long?

Let me know what you think and how you handle these issues in the comments. Thanks for reading! 

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17 Responses to Is Jazz Losing Its Foothold In the Big Apple?

  1. Jimmy Vickers says:

    Nashville is here waiting for you, Champian…lots of session work, good music schools at the universities that hire adjunct Jazz teachers, and of course many Jazz musicians who make a good living plying their craft. Jimmy

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  2. Champian, I have absorbed your article now so I can respond based on your blog as opposed to your Facebook post in The Jazz World. The challenges you describe are challenges I have faced since moving to New York in 1979. There were many more places to perform and jam sessions going on everyday all over the city, Brooklyn, Queens and I’m sure somewhere in New Jersey. The best of the best come to New York City for jazz. It is a “Trial by Fire”. Whether you stay in Manhattan or move to the burbs locally or to a smaller scene really depends on what you want for your quality of life. Marriage, kids, paying extraordinarily high rent, living in a tiny space and sharing apartment space – are all factors in our decision of where to hang our hats. I weathered the storm in Manhattan for many years and reaped a pile of unbelievable musical experiences. When I married for hopefully the last time and gave birth to my daughter, that’s when I moved to New Jersey. Life changes and we adapt. 2014 is yet a different time but it feels positive to me. You and Me and all the cats that love your music and read your blog are the ones who have to figure out how and where we’re going to get our practicing done, create jam sessions, set up house concerts, make all our business calls, teach at home or by skype, write blogs and call our mothers. New York City will always be one of the major hubs for jazz, if not The Jazz Center for the planet. The energy, drive to be better, search for deeper improvisation and originality – it’s all here. Is it easy to survive here? HELL NO! It’s the price you pay to play here. I don’t worry about you Champian, wherever you go you’ll rise to the top. Roseanna Vitro

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    • Roseanna, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. You’re right, it all depends on what we want for our quality of life, and of course that includes prioritizing our music. Thanks again!

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  3. jazztraveler says:

    A shame to hear that. From far away, it always looked to me like NY is the place to be and there is always some kind of envy when reading / hearing about all the great concerts, clubs and events taking place in the Big Apple.
    But your comment is consistent with what a good friend of mine told me. He is a professional musician and after finishing Berklee, he wanted to establish himself in NY. Found a roof in Brooklyn, living basically in the livingroom of friends (no privacy whatsoever), but even so could not make the financial side work. Now he is back in Switzerland, not the cheapest place either, and works on his career here.

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    • Thanks for your comment Jazztraveler! It’s difficult in NY to make a living for sure, but even if one does make a living and have a career, it’s hard to maintain the creative growth. Switzerland is definitely not the cheapest place, but it’s very beautiful. Thanks again!

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  4. Morris Nelms says:

    I think the music will survive in some form because it is great art, and all great art finds a way to continue. Raphael and Mozart are still with us, and I see no reason to expect Bird and Duke to go away.
    What will probably change is the setting. This will sound sci-fi, but I’m that kind of geek, so it’s consistent. I don’t see the same ‘hubs’ in our future. We are getting connected differently, and I see that extending itself in lots of ways. Champian’s dad, Stephen, myself, and two other musicians were part of a live show in Iowa in the 90s that had other groups from Japan and Iowa playing simultaneously watching a conductor. It was interesting, to say the least. Will all music go that way? No. But it points out that our traditional ways of enjoying and creating music are very much in a state of flux.
    Making a living as an artist has never been easy.
    Peace,
    Morris

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    • Morris, thanks for your comment. I remember that concert in Iowa! Crazy. I think you’re right, we are in a state of flux and who knows what the future will hold?

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      • Morris Nelms says:

        There were 5 musicians from Iowa on that show, not 4. Stephen Fulton, David Stewart, Cliff McMurray, Mark Nelms, and me. I think that’s right. Apparently Frank Sinatra did one of his duets recordings the same way.

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  5. Aaron says:

    Hey Champian! Great read! I think when you make the choice to play jazz for a living it becomes a dominant reality to get well-enough paying gigs to make it in the metropolitan areas that have such huge costs of living which support the venues that pay musicians. In the pursuit of making a steady income from gigs (and a lot of times teaching), one must focus on being really good at very specific things. Most notably, people become focused on sounding really polished all the time and a lot of times loose their ability to jam or be willing to push oneself into unsolid areas where mistakes (and incredible genius) take place. It’s sad to see so many people focused on gigging or lessons (making it into a reliable job with a paycheck) when the music is allowed to become static and uninteresting/disconnective. When I was faced with the choice to make my money playing music I realized that I wouldn’t have time to write, practice new ideas, or become better than I was at the time by dedicating most of my efforts into getting paid to play cover songs and teaching kids the basics. I opted to work outside of the motivations of being paid and have found great fulfillment in being able to push myself and others to new realms! I get to play what I want and with great musicians often, but find my gigging jazz friends to sound stagnant year after year in the sessions. I’m not saying you don’t get very good through playing these master works of music for the public 6 days a week, but there isn’t the same freedom to try things and sound unpolished when your usual goals involve “mastery” or “perfect replication”. Most of these guys end up sounding like watered down versions of great musicians of the past and some even waste time transcribing huge volumes of works from people who actually sat through the tough part of doing the work to find their voice, style and meaning. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, Transcription is a very important step to becoming great on your instrument. There is however a difference between transcribing for understanding and transcribing to plagerize. I’m very glad John Coltrane didn’t plagerize or Cedar Walton, and where would we be if Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker didn’t want to do their own work to become what they became? I love music and love to be supportive to others in their love of music. When the gig remains the main focus there also comes about a competitive quality and sometimes downright nasty behavior. How many times have you been given a compliment like: “you play real acurately” or “I like how you didn’t sync up with the drummer at all!”. How many times have you sat in and the band leader called Cherokee at 425 BPM just to see who could hang? Once I even had a gigging jazzer tell me he set up a college kid for failure because the kid wanted to play a song after practicing it a bunch. He told everyone else in the band to go up a whole step every time they would go back to the top except the kid and watched him fall on his face in front of one of his first audience experiences all because the leader didn’t want to be upstaged. Shameful! He said it was to teach the kid a lesson about listening. When stagnancy takes hold, people become miserable. Jazz is about improvisation and playing something genuinely new with your fellow musicians who love the craft enough to be supportive of one another; it’s a very human music that resonates with the listener as it harkens to our social creature selves. The pursuit of making it in this shrinking world of paid jazz gigs can force many to hustle the wrong skillset up and miss the point of music all together: It’s a shared and beautiful experience best served selflessly and with the audience in mind as well as the other people with you on stage. I’ve always loved what you do Champian, and look forward to a long beautiful career of genuinely great music. I look forward to a day when I get to hear what you cook up in that big musical brain of yours when you get some time to write and share. Your voice reverberates with your love of music and it’s incredible to behold. Remember to find time to practice and never forget the blessing and love music is to you wherever you call home.

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    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply Aaron. I really like your statement about “hustling the wrong skillset” and “missing the point of music all together.” I do think a lot of people forget the “why” behind the music. Thanks again!

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  6. No. There’s nothing like the New York jazz experience, and despite the news of its demise, it’s been exaggerated.

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  7. Randy Donabedian says:

    Awesome thoughtfully written piece, Champian. As for the who, what, where I’d say if you’re going be an artist, whether a musician like yourself, or a filmmaker like myself this life you have is the life you’ve chosen or been dealt, which ever way you choose to look at it.
    For artists, every era has it’s challenges, and the separator will be, your willingness to do what it takes to overcome them. Adapt, improvise, and overcome.

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