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A Thought Experiment: Jazz Philanthropy & the Gig

This morning, NPR’s A Blog Supreme featured a story about a wealthy music lover who has donated $2.5 million to Drake University’s jazz program, to be used for a professorship and a new facility. Confronted by that number, I started to wonder if there might be ways to spend that money which would actually benefit the music and musicians more–like subsidizing 12,500 gigs at $200, for example.

It was with those numbers ringing in my head that I saw the even more staggering news that SFJAZZ has secured a $20 million donation for a permanent center in the City. (Think about it! $20 million! I wonder whether every single jazz album sale in the past 10 years even made that much money.)

First of all, genuine congratulations to SFJAZZ on the jazz center–that really is incredible, especially in this economy, in this country, in this culture. But again, as a thought experiment here–that money would pay for ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND $200 gigs. Just imagine for a second what kind of a rejuvenation any jazz scene could get from even a smidgen of that.

Why am I harping on the $200 gig?

Because having a gig–at a club, a bar, a cafe, restaurant or whatever–has been the backbone of jazz music for a century. Having a place to play–work through your stuff, learn the ropes and try out new things, interact with other musicians and the audience–is how musicians have honed their craft and the music has grown, evolved, and flourished since the days of Buddy Bolden.

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s also the primary place where audiences have gotten to know jazz–been exposed to it, responded to it, thought about it, and for some percentage, become long-term listeners, without having to pony up a lot of dough or put on a suit. And in the Bay Area, the number of places to do that–especially if you’re not a big name–gets smaller every year.

Although the number of healthy jazz venues has steadily decreased since the 70s, the past few years have seen an especially ugly series of closures, with Jazz at Pearl’s, the Octavia Lounge, and Anna’s Jazz Island disappearing in short order. While Yoshi’s and SFJAZZ continue to be successful, it is largely through single shows or short runs of non-local acts. (At a cost of significantly more than a one-drink minimum, too.) Side note: I think that’s great! I enjoy going to those shows, too. But it’s very different than having a vital scene of regular working bands.

(And for some perspective on that $200–I’m talking about for the whole band. Doesn’t seem like much, but I can count the number of jazz gigs I’ve had that paid that much on my two brass-stained hands. For example: when the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, San Francisco’s long-running Monday night big band, was laid off from its last regular gig, I’m pretty sure it was earning less than $200 per night. For a 19-piece band.)

Now, I’m under no illusions that the “good old days” of jazz could or should come back–tastes change, and just because people liked a certain kind of music in the past doesn’t mean their kids or grandkids will like it, or the music that evolved from it, today (and to clarify, I’m not just talking about straightahead jazz–it’s scary out there for pretty much anything not involving turntables).

But just imagine for a second what kind of an amazing scene could come about if next time, our hypothetical rich jazz patron decided to skip the giant hall, and invest in some GIGS.

BUT SERIOUSLY — OK, that was fun, but let’s face it–this idea is, putting it charitably (get it?), impractical. Who decides which bands and venues would get supported? What about the places (and there are many) which wouldn’t want jazz even if it was free? What about the huge backlash from audiences whose patience with jazz runs out after only 50,000 gigs? These are real concerns. I’m just saying that maybe the next wave of jazz philanthropy might consider whether some intelligently-infused cash might look at ways to get the music back into the nightlife that was its 100-year workshop.

UPDATE: The president of Drake University (!) responds over at A Blog Supreme.

Part two here

22 thoughts on “A Thought Experiment: Jazz Philanthropy & the Gig”

  1. Never going to happen, unfortunately: that’s because universities and corporate nonprofits like SFJAZZ have taken so much institutional control of jazz-as-art, which is the main financial model for jazz’s existence now.
    That means that these large nonprofit institutions bear the responsibility of supporting their local jazz scene themselves. I am not sure quite exactly how that would work, but SFJAZZ, Drake and all of the other places with financial resources for jazz should be considering the local musical community a part of their field of interest. That SFJAZZ, for example, books so few local musicians for their concerts and only has a small footprint in the bay area education community is highly problematic.

  2. “That means that these large nonprofit institutions bear the responsibility of supporting their local jazz scene themselves.” Or don’t bear it, as the case may be. Again, I have no problem with institutions looking out for institutions, or even with paying $60 to watch Keith Jarrett yell at me once a year. But when I saw that artist’s rendering of the new building, I couldn’t help but imagine it as a big glass box where they can keep the city’s jazz, safely away from the bars and clubs where it might interfere with somebody’s enjoyment of DJs.

  3. Hey Ian, commented back at you on NPR.org.

    I like this train of thought. I wonder: what could we do so that more people would actually pay attention to the everyday club scene and realize its value? Perhaps in time, that would convince the super-wealthy to give in the way you suggest.

  4. [from the comment thread at NPR] Hi Patrick, agreed on the non-zero sum issue–low-budget local jazz in clubs and high-budget stars in halls are theoretically apples and oranges, so of course you can’t just “borrow” some of an institutional endowment to subsidize a weekly appearance by Joe Shmoe Quintet at the corner pub. I’m sure people would mention small artists’ co-op groups as a way to make your own scene without needing to rely on the Thurston Howells of the world, which is great, of course–my main idea though, was that as long as there are huge sums of philanthropical dollars going in jazz’s general direction (as mentioned in these stories), wouldn’t it be nice if some of it could find a way toward the less-known venues and artists? (If we were talking about third-world villages, for example, the parallel would be the difference between building a shiny nice new school or hospital vs. giving out microloans to allow individuals to start a small business or whatever.)

    The downside in selling this to donors is that they wouldn’t get a beautiful building to show for their generosity–maybe we could look into “The Joe Shmoe Quintet at the corner pub, brought to you by Chevron with Techron.”

  5. Actually… and I know I’m breaking a huge jazz-culture rule here, corporate sponsorship, or any sponsorship is not a bad idea. This is 2010, not 1950 (and really, even in the 50s jazz was an “esoteric” scene. Appealing to young hipsters and bohemians), and maybe some corporate connections would “legitimize” jazz. Just like the SF Symphony gets money from big corporate donors. “The Marcus Shelby Orchestra on KRON4 is brought to you by a generous grant from Chevron. Local music, local company. Keeping it local since 1965.”

  6. Although I personally think jazz loses something by being “legitimized”–let’s face it, the idea of jazz has been co-opted by advertisers (or the entire smooth jazz genre) for years–I would happily slap a Nike logo on my horn if it meant a regular gig. But if corporate-sponsored jazz festivals are any indicator, it’s more likely to be “Chevron presents The Jazzy Jazz Jazzfest, featuring Peter Cetera and Los Lobos.”

  7. Hey Ian-

    Interesting conversation and I like your thoughts about the situation. Just to play devil’s advocate for a minute though…

    I think a lot Jazz musicians of our generation like to think that they’re both above promoting themselves and the audience, because it’s “all about the music”. Sometimes I wish we would stop pointing the finger at a million different reasons why Jazz isn’t popular and look at ourselves and how we deal with the music business.

    While it’s definitely harder than ever to book a gig or make any money on a gig, most cats have about as much charisma on stage as a telephone pole. And I’m not saying to make contrived faces of feeling or anything like that…But, audiences want to feel a connection to the performer and feel like they’re in on it. We Jazz musicians are great at making audiences feel like the music over their head. Making them feel connected to what we do is the first step, IMHO.

    Second, most Jazz musicians just want a gig where they can just show and play and not have to do any work to promote or do publicity. Promoting your music is somehow not ok when you’re “all about the music”.

    I think until we can get both our business and our sense of responsibility with audiences together, it’s just gonna get worse.

  8. Hey Wil, we still have to play together sometime. I agree with all that–I think you’re right that many if not most jazz musicians have gotten in the habit of neglecting the promotion/presentation side, preferring to concentrate on easier things like shedding Giant Steps in all 12 keys. (I’m not being sarcastic–for most musicians I know it really is easier to play G. Steps than talk to an audience.) I am also guilty of the telephone pole syndrome you mentioned (I’ve resorted to telling the audience that “despite what it looks like, I really am having a good time.”). So agreed, we need to work on that side of it.

    But the main reason I wrote this was that this money is already slated for jazz–just not the kind that lurks in clubs. I’m not really saying every gig-deprived mofo deserves to be given gigs just for the hell of it, but if there’s going to be dough going to help support the future of jazz, it would be nice if some of it went to low-budget clubs and local bands, and not just big-ticket venues.

  9. Hi Ian–Very provocative. I play a lot of those $100 / player gigs, all up and down the SF peninsula. The academization of jazz is very much “a sword with two edges,” as Anthony Quinn’s character said in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

    Here’s some input from bassist Buster Williams (Jazz Crusaders, Herbie Hancock, many more.) He observed that many classic small-ensemble jazz recordings were done at the end of a long three-night-a-week gig at one of the viable jazz clubs of the late ’50’s – early 60’s. By that point, he says, the players’ chops were in good shape, the particular repertoire was strong, they were listening to each other well in real time, the arrangements were second nature, and their solos on the material were comfortable and confident.

    Now, Buster observes, he will sometimes get approached at a gig with his ensemble. The producer will talk about a theme for the album, arrangements, etc. Then they’ll ask, “So who do you want to play on the album?” Buster’s answer: “That group you heard! Those guys you liked well enough to want to record them.” That’s when the producer says, “No we need another recognizable name or two to help sell the record.”

    Ensemble playing is suffering from the gig-scuffle that plagues excellent musicians. Let’s say for argument that I don’t include myself as excellent–only good enough to stay onstage with excellent musicians. Their tales will tear your heart out. They have a skill set on par with an architect, or a physical therapist, or a computer systems analyst. But, they have a very difficult time putting groceries on the table just by playing. And so, the pernicious spiral of academization continues–the pressure to teach more and play less, the exhaustion that says “I can’t bear to be turned down by one more owner of a nice restaurant.”

    A great thought-experiment, to say “What if we paid musicians? For example: funneling gig money through cooperating venues, who would have pre-paid musicians in their space, just by signing up to forgo a single table, and let the whole restaurant hear live music by seriously good players.

    Good goin’, Ian!

  10. Hi Harold, thanks for joining in. Buster’s point about band chemistry coming from steady gigs is exactly what I’m talking about–not that there aren’t groups with great chemistry now, but how much better could they be if they played together 3 nights a week? (I would be happy with 3 times a month–my current band only developed its chemistry because I decided to lose money on two gigs per month for a few years.)

    People bemoan the lost days of Monk playing 6 nights a week for 6 months at the Five Spot, but with these kind of big donations flying around, the money is definitely there to make that sort of thing happen again if we really wanted it.

  11. Interesting thoughts from all. The dilemma is that the marketplace of funding for jazz is set up to reward dead or at least sufficiently canonized schools of performance. Big donors and sponsors want positive public recognition of their philanthropy and its easier to get that from funding a museum or a school or an established ensemble than from funding individuals.

    Ian’s thesis is that playing in clubs or small venues is an essential educational venture. So maybe what’s needed are educational grants or scholarships. But there are already a bunch of jazz programs in schools all over the country.

    What’s missing is bridge funding between school and “recognized artist” status. One could set up a market where investors invest in an individual player or group or genre, with the expectation that eventually some of them become recognized and financially successful. Of course there is tremendous risk that most of us will not get to that point so there needs to be some kind of alternative investment that protects the investor in case we flame out. A derivative of sorts. A jazz default swap if you will :-).

    I’m only partly kidding. It might be easier to get a million people to invest $1 each than to find one investor who is willing to invest $1million.

  12. Hi Ian,
    I was brought here from an post by Retronius on NextBop. First of all, I love your writing. I’ve always enjoyed your writing… musically too. You really hit the nail on the head here. It’s an almost Utopian scenario: gigs for everyone! In Reykjavik, the owner of one of the most happening clubs ran himself into debt and eventually gave up, while a few blocks away a new concert hall is being completed. It’s ironic and sad. I think that people or organizations looking to support culture should look to small clubs that have a history of booking live music. I would love to see that trend take on. That’s where donors can really make an impact in the community. The clubs also need to start seeing themselves as legitimate cultural institutions. I mean, what would NY be without the Vanguard? That place should be preserved. (Not that they’re in trouble, but you know what I mean.)

  13. Hello everybody, I just happened to stumble upon this tonight. I am a student at Drake University and one of the students who will be benefiting from this “transaction”…if that is the correct word for it. Mr. Turner (Fred’s) intentions are not on *gaining* anything from this public philanthropy. His wife attended Drake and was part of the fine arts department. His wish is to give back to the school who, in a way, gave him the love of his life. I have spoken with Fred a few times now, and he has visited Drake and he is always purely about the music and the positive experience he can give the students of the Jazz program at Drake. I do agree that the Jazz/Music scene in Des Moines could be helped with such a contribution, but the truth is, Fred is just helping the jazz students at Drake (if you have seen our building you would understand) and doing what he believes is what his wife would truly enjoy and appreciate.

    -Kyle

  14. Forgot one thing. This building is not purely for Drake students. It is also a jazz club, I believe the name is “Patty’s Place”, and it will open not only to Drake Jazz I and II, but also to groups,local or not, amateur as well as professional. Just thought that would possibly change your thinking slightly, as it is for the benefit of not only Drake, but for the entirety of the Des Moines area music scene.
    -Kyle

  15. Hi Kyle, thanks for your follow-up(s) about Drake’s new building. Just to be clear, I have no problem with Drake (or SFJAZZ) using its philanthropic funds however it sees fit; my questions were more about the general role of large buildings & well-known artists vs. small clubs & non-famous groups. It’s reassuring to hear that your new building will include a club and give opportunities for students and other locals to play gigs and hopefully help sustain a local audience, which has to be an integral part of jazz education if the music is to remain a living art form. (It’s also good to learn about the donor & his personal relationship with the program.)

  16. We’d all love to be gigging in small atmospheric clubs, playing for a clued-in audience, and we all know those days are over – the social context for the music has changed, it’s a classical music now, for better and for worse: patronage affects the music that gets heard, who gets to play it, and where it’ll be heard. Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola is gorgeous, and I’ll never play there, that’s just the way it is. So we do our little best, according to our talents and capacities, to create the music we want to create and somehow get it before receptive listeners, because we want to, because we have to. I try not to overthink it. I figure my main job is to be productive. It’s certainly the main source of satisfaction, and without the results of that productivity, there ain’t much to talk about! At least if the music is there, something good might come of it. Hope this makes sense as my little jazz weltanschung.

  17. Thanks for your thoughts, Tony. Musicians will indeed keep on keepin’ on, I just hope there are places for them to do it.

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