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?

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23 Responses to Is Jazz Only for the Financially Elite?

  1. Gerard says:

    I love it when people come together and share opinions.
    Great website, continue the good work!


  2. Jeff Evans says:

    I just discovered this, so forgive my belated response. I live in NJ and work in Manhattan and see as much jazz as my schedule and pocketbook allow. First let me express my appreciation for being fortunate enough to live where there is so much jazz to be seen and heard. So much of the country has little or none on a regular basis.
    I probably count among the financial elite, so for me it’s not so much a question of paying the cover charge or paying the rent as it may be for others. That said, as a jazz fan who at age 60, sometimes feels like I’m among the youngest in the room at some of the Midtown clubs (or 92Y on the Upper East Side, but that’s another story), I think about how younger fans with less disposable income can hope to see some of the best talent jazz has to offer. On the otherhand, I sometimes feel like I’m the oldest in the room at the West Village places for the early, no cover, sets. (I’ve seen you, Champian, a few times at the Garage.) Just as at the “big name” clubs uptown, these venues present some of the best talent jazz has to offer. Mostly, though, I find myself in a room with lots of empty seats wondering: Where are the fans? At no cover (despite $8 beers) cost isn’t the real issue.
    There are many opportunities especially in the warmer weather to see and hear live jazz free in outdoor settings. St. Peter’s Church hosts weekly free lunchtime jazz concerts from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival is a longstanding Harlem/East Village tradition in late August. NYC offers concerts in Central Park and others throughout the Boroughs in the Summer as well. Jazzmobile gets around too. The free outdoor events seem to draw reasonable audiences to enormous crowds. How many then attend a club date or concert at JALC? I dunno.
    There are house concerts in NYC. Use Google to search “perez jazz house concert” for one.
    I’ll leave with just one more question. The majority of jazz clubs book their headline acts in the 8:30 – 9:00 PM time frame. As someone with a job and a commute, I find that (weeknights especially) this gets me home too late to function the next day. I have been known to take a day off following such a late night, but why can’t clubs book headliners more in line with Broadway shows, with a 7:30 or 8:00 PM curtain?


  3. mike says:

    I live in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, LA. We get a lot of music down here and it’s usually a mix of two price brackets. We get a number of artists(jazz specifically) that play in non-jazz clubs. They play for a smaller ticket price to a larger crowd. I have no idea if it evens out for them but they keep doing it. Examples would be the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Charlie Hunter, and the Bad Plus.
    Another type are some of the older performers playing for 3-4x as much per set to an older and occasionally smaller crowd. This would be the fantastic Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, and the unbelievable Joe Lovano and Us5.
    Then there are local artists that play a number of gigs for a variety of prices, Terrence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton and the artists that are in town for residencies at the Monk School(Rosenwinkle being the last I remember).
    All of these put on great shows, but they younger and more numerous crowds were seeing the more affordable artists at the non-conventional venues. My two cents.


  4. Morris Nelms says:

    When I lived in OK, I met some folks who had lived in NY during the earlier days of jazz. I asked two of them about seeing Duke Ellington, and I got two responses. One fellow said Duke was always playing somewhere in the city, so he took the “he’ll always be around” path until Duke wasn’t, which he clearly regretted. The other was blunt. He said the venues where Duke played were well beyond his budget. He heard plenty of jazz, but people who were less famous at that time. I knew their names, but they were up and coming when he lived in NY.
    I have a fan who has never come to see me at Perry’s, because she’s convinced she can’t afford it.


  5. JC Hopkins says:

    I think that if a jazz musician can make a living by performing to the elite, then at least he/she is putting food on her table and paying most likely a very high rent. The question is for what artistic purpose? Jazz and every other art form, bases its merit and integrity- to be constantly innovating and in order to do that there not only needs to be a community for it, but a sub culture, made up of different sets of people, critics and audience, with different sets of criteria. Now, the jazz in New York does not fit that bill possibly because jazz and other art forms, (co-opted by the corporate ubiquity) has no place to go, has already reached an artistic apex which can’t be transcended. I mean who can write better than the composers of the songbook, which are the basis of jazz (with the blues), the changes and structure that is are the harmonic foundation for everything from swing to bebop to the songs that the singers sing. Sadly noone tops these guys and gals—From Berlin to Duke, and the soloists and innovators from Satch to Bird to Coltrane to Ornette, nowhere else to go. We can go and hear a jazz musician and be entertained, even moved but we won’t have had that transcendent moment where those cats used to take us. Maybe because there is not that melting ground–52nd Street- the East and West Village, Harlem that thrived and pulsated with jazz and was accessible to anyone and where the artists comingled and talked and argued and got high and arrested and challenged by the competition of innovation. For the artists who can afford to live in NYC, because they mostly play the corporate expensive jazz clubs, I think are lucky and are benefit from the the work of these genius’. Unfortunately there is no place in the city to incubate this challenge and no audience or group of critics in the literati to comment on it even if it were a thing. So I say be grateful for the gig.


    • Hi JC, thanks for the comment. I already replied on FB a little -> I see your point and understand. I might agree that we don’t have those “transcendent” artists right now on the scene, but I don’t necessarily feel that we will NEVER have them again. And I am not criticizing artists who only play those expensive clubs, of course they should take the gig, but do they feel it serves their art well? Are they building new fans? Are they performing enough to artistically grow? I guess you would say: No. But perhaps you think in this economic environment that is impossible…? I don’t feel that it IS impossible. I think the artist could strike a balance between high-end expensive gigs and playing for “the people” in venues where they can experiment more and perhaps foster a community like you speak of in reference to 52nd St or the East Village. I know you play a lot gigs where you encounter many different types of people and I know that you also have a strong following and community around your music and your band.


    • Paul Abella says:

      JC, I have no idea who you are, but I can say that when I read this, I threw up in my mouth a little. Yes, those artists you mentioned were all great. Phenomenal. Transcendent. I listen to those guys every day, and love them. But to tell me that jazz has reached an apex with nowhere else to go is hogwash. The songbook is great, but is this to say that no one else has created great tunes since? That’s crap. Trane, Satch, Bird and Ornette were all next level players, but no one else has been able to create at an astonishing level since then? Bull. There are still great players making music that moves people – and would probably move more people if it weren’t for attitudes like this that make jazz an also ran in the modern world.

      As for the original question posited: there needs to be more top quality jazz being played in low cost environments. This is one place where guys like Medeski, Martin and Wood got it all the way right – bring jazz to the people (in their case, both in the groove and the choice of venues) and the people will come. And will dance their asses off while they’re at it. Put jazz in $50/seat nightclubs and posh theaters, and substantially fewer people will come out, and they’ll be less social about sharing the experience. That makes for some nice coin for the performers in question, but it does little to sustain in art form in desperate need for sustenance.


      • Paul, thank you for your comments. I agree with you – expensive acts in “post” theaters isn’t helping sustain the artform because it isn’t attracting new people to the music.

        That being said, let’s keep a civil tone in our discussions here.

        Thanks again.


    • Matthew Baker says:

      While I thoroughly appreciate paying deference to the great innovators of the form, I must honestly say that I consider the attitude of “There’s nowhere else to go” to be the death of good art. Most importantly, it reflects a lack of vision. Decide that there’s nowhere to go and you shall most certainly go nowhere. All good art, both in music and other fields, has been created by those who refused to accept such restrictions. And, in the case of jazz in particular, the form would never have been invented at all if those original innovators hd believed that any attempt at innovation was hopeless. To use an analogy: Imagine how many people predicted there could never be a better playwright than Sophocles. For a long time, this was true. It took nearly 2,000 after the ancient Greek master’s death to see the birth of William Shakespeare. But, if Shakespeare had believed there was nowhere else to go because Sophocles could not be improved upon, think of how much poorer our culture would be today. So, especially as we celebrate a musical form that was built on improvisation, innovation, and experimentation, I urge you to banish any notion of an “artistic apex” existing at all from your mind. Artist and fans alike will be much happier for this.

      As for Champian’s original concern, it seems to me that you’re doing exactly the right thing. You take the high-end gig when it’s there and you balance this with the more populist venues. Balance is always good. As Billy Mitchell at the Apollo Theater says, “Don’t forget where you came from.” And you definitely seem to have a good handle on that.


  6. Champian, Thank you for this sensitive post. I would never have brought this up, but you deserve feedback on a point you bravely make. So, in the spirit of “since you asked” I’ll share my thoughts. Let me precede them with admiration for your energy as you tour, which I know you need to do to get the credibility your talent and hard work deserve. I am very aware that the music industry is money driven, and that artists survive in that milieu.
    I heard you live once, at the Garage. I was delighted that when I bought a couple of CD’s from you, which you kindly signed for me, you actually chatted me up. I play them often because The Garage is at the upper end of my budget. I bought dinner so that I could stay and listen. I am saving up so I can take my wife next time because she is enjoying the CD’s.


  7. mariannephan says:

    As a violinist who has played all sorts of gigs with jazz and also sat in a symphony chair for years, the “outrageous” prices for tickets are nothing compared to what people pay to go see sports or pop concerts. A symphony concert can cost anywhere from $15-80 and same goes for jazz, but going to see live music in an intimate setting (like jazz) or just non-pop music in general is usually a practice of older folks, and consequently, our audience base is generally well-off, cultured, arts supporters, etc.But I don’t think the price of going to jazz concerts is the primary factor in isolating people without deep pockets , I think the bigger problem is community outreach/education programs in regards to jazz/ anything that isn’t “trendy pop”. People need to know that it is there first and also a wonderful way to spend an evening in order to actually attend in the first place.


    • Can I ask why you think it is only a practice of older folks? And Yes, ticket prices are comparable with seeing a sports or pop concert, but how often are people doing that? Once a month? Once a year? I’m not sure that is fostering a true “fan”, if you only aim to see them once or twice a year.


      • mariannephan says:

        I think the audience base for jazz and classical is older partly because they are the only ones who can afford it, but mostly because the majority of younger people simply don’t know about jazz concerts, and in my opinion, it’s not because they have been isolated by ticket prices, but frankly because they are uninterested or have misconceptions about a concert void of bizarre light shows and/or frenzied screaming. And I didn’t mean to say that ticket prices to our events are comparable to sporting events or pop concerts, there is a huge difference. A game or concert ticket can costs hundreds of dollars, which makes $50 seem like a deal! In fact, most symphonies offer very generously discounted student tickets. As a musician, I don’t want to play only for “high society,” but I also need to be able to make a living. I think the middle ground is balancing charity/community events concerts, which everyone can attend and afford while also playing the other “money-making” venue. But my point is that in order to stop falling into the pit of a small nice, we must promote our music as art that is wonderful and completely relate-able to today/everybody, rather than stuffy black-tie events that most people feel they aren’t “sophisticated” enough to attend.


      • I see, and yes I agree. That is partly what I’m addressing here, when I ask what kind of statement are Jazz musicians making when they only play the expensive “stuffy” rooms? There are venues in NYC where young people feel more comfortable. I have met many people at these kinds of venues who have had a good time and enjoyed the music, who then were willing to come see me at Lincoln Center or some other more-pricey venue. I think playing these kinds of more relaxed, friendly venues is a way of promoting that is actually more effective than posters or advertising. Thanks so much for your comments, I really appreciate what you’re saying.


  8. truthspew says:

    Providence, RI has a lot of live music going on of all different genres too but they tend more toward progressive and other genres.


  9. Jimmy Vickers says:

    Indeed, going out is incredibly expensive. I understand it from the owners perspective. They are trying to make a profit. I think it is part of the reason that there are fewer and fewer venues and more house concerts, etc. That is why there need to be more not for profit venues.


    • Thanks for commenting Jimmy! I understand it from an owners perspective too, and I want them to make a profit. I just wonder about musicians who only play those kinds of gigs – if they feel it is difficult to foster a fan base, etc. And I think you make a good point about house concerts and not for profit venues. We don’t have any of those here in NYC, but I would love to learn more about them.


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