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…