The Jazz Cartels
The Jazz Cartels
Many folks have asked me why I'm not more famous, and I can only smile at that, because really, how could I possibly become famous being a jazz musician?
How many folks at your local supermarket would know who McCoy Tyner is? Think the cable guy knows who Red Garland was?
And then there's the subjective element: I've met lots of folks who've never heard of Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, or Louise Nevelson (all visual artists, and all well-known in their field).
And there's the literary field. CNN polls tell us that 60 percent of Americans have never read a book. Not one. I'm not sure I believe that (or CNN, on any of a myriad of issues) but, even if it's true, how many of the remaining 40 percent have read (or heard of) Tolstoy, or Santayana, or Vonnegut, or good old Henry Miller? Not to mention Kafka and the greatest existential novelist of all time, Fyodor Dostoevsky!?
And there's the quote by David Bowie:
"Who in their right mind would want to be famous?"
It is on this note of non-combative humility, based in reality and not on some pie-in-the-sky notion of angry and unrecognized genius, that I'd like to address a growing problem in the jazz world.
It's not a finger-pointing session. It's not about good versus evil. But it IS about fairness versus bias, inclusion rather than exclusion, and forward thinking versus reactionary views.
Recently, we've been noticing a trend toward the "dog and pony show" mentality when it comes to Jazz Festivals and the hiring practices of jazz venues. Before we can address the reasons behind this shift (from "real" jazz to smooth jazz, and from "real" talent to "the next big thing") I'll have to do a whirlwind wrapup of how things work in this part of the music business. I'll have to tell a few "secrets".
So be it.
Firstly, people outside of the industry need to know that jazz musicians are grossly underpaid. It has been a tradition, and a very unhealthy one at that. It has its roots in institutionalized racism, and survives to this day as a brutal reality. It's no longer in vogue to be a racist. But it IS okay to be greedy. It might even be fashionable (06/07) to be downright corrupt. Business is war, we hear. Let there be no doubt as to who's winning the war.
Get out your calculator! Mrs G has a famous nightclub in NYC. She brings in great talent. The house seats 70, tops. She can charge $30 a head at the door for a known "act". On a good night, the door will be $2100.
The bar drinks and the "food" notwithstanding, Ms G has overhead. She has rent, and she has liquor to buy. She has help to pay. She pays the doorman, the bartender, the waiters and waitresses, and other help. She has bills bills bills, just like you and I.
She'll give the gross door receipts to the band if she's having a good week.
(Believe me, she won't, but this is just for giggles anyway.)
So if a jazz musician plays for 3 nights, and packs the place every night, that'll be $6300 coming in, gross, at the door.
Now say this musician has a quintet. Even if this musician is a really altruistic sort, and splits the money 5 ways equally, it'll amount to $1260 for 3 nights work for each of the members.
That's $420 per night.
But can we assume that the musicians get 100 percent of the door charge?
Remember, there are a lot of "IF'S" between here and Poughkeepsie, from the musician's assumed altruism to Ms G's very real operating costs to what she had for breakfast that morning. And are we really sure that Ms G isn't just a tad greedy?
Here's what we know in the real world:
We know for a FACT that Ms G does NOT give the musicians the gross receipts of the door, but would rather give them a "guarantee" and a small percentage of anything they make over and above her operating costs. With a 70-seat capacity, the musicians will NEVER get that percentage, because to attain that, one would have to knock out a wall.
The truth is that the average nightly pay, even for the star of the show, is considerably less. More than a bit less.
I won't talk about NYC club wages out of respect for the great musicians that play there.
But a good club date in any major city pays $75 per night.
$100 for 4 hours of playing is considered a good wage.
(Let's not figure in the gas or the the money spent getting to and from the "gig". Nor should we forget that many musicians drink. Some drink a lot (one wonders why). That money goes right back into the club coffers.
What? You didn't think the drinks were on the house, I hope!
Carry that calculator with you. from now on.
So the world of jazz, while appearing glamorous from the outside, is a pretty precarious way to make a living. As if it weren't bad enough, we must remember that great talent attracts all sorts of seedy individuals. You'll find them anywhere there's money to be made.
Ayn Rand (NOT a heroine of mine) dubbed them the panhandlers of the soul. They're the folks that become agents, promoters, presenters, record producers, and the like.
Most of them are men, and there are a few women agents as well. Many of them are ineffective. Some are downright incompetent. Most of them are not in it for the love of the Music.
They are from all walks of life, and they seem to share one common thread: they all wanted to be musicians at some point in their lives. This is practically universal.
They have been investment bankers, child psychologists, wanted felons, retired business tycoons, and dentists. They get bored in their regular "day jobs" and see the jazz life as being a cool alternative. Start up a recording company, use their accumulated business acumen and money skills to plug in to the marketing and licensing side of the business (the side that most musicians never see) and hang out with the cats while the cats unthinkingly make money for them.
And they ORGANIZE.
They attend meetings in different cities, and spend days at various watering-holes and restaurants, discussing how to get the most out the musicians for their dollar. Certain musicians are easy marks.
Others are "trouble", and they are black-listed.
These organizations have acronyms for names. WJPN. IAJE. IJA. IJF. They have web sites (you can't get in; they are all password-protected).
They're not all bad people.
As a matter of fact, a lot of them are downright good and decent folks.
But, like Enron and Goldman Sachs proved, power corrupts, and it must get pretty tempting when you're dealing with grant organizations and foundations and corporations that are shelling out mega-dollars to sponsor jazz events.
The first thing to remember is: don't anger the sponsors by hiring musicians that aren't "team players"... hire only proven entities, and even then, make sure those entities look right.
No political incorrectness allowed.
And don't allow the music to be TOO powerful.
Make sure all participating females are under 30 or at least look under 30, and don't have any unusual qualities or "lifestyles" that might upset a church-going, largely conservative audience.
You have to remember those sponsors.
Why are jazz events so boring?
Now you know part of the answer.
I've dubbed these organizations "The Jazz Cartels" because they literally control the flow of jazz in practically every geographical area on this earth. There's a West Coast Alliance, and it works in collaboration with an East Coast Alliance. And now there's an International Alliance, and an Educational Alliance, and an Alliance to coordinate all of the alliances.
There's a syndicate in Japan, and one in the UK and even one in Australia.
In Canada, the Alliance exerts full and total dominance. Don't cross these guys. You will never work again in this spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy.
As Mel Brooks said, "It's GOOD to be King", and I've seen the smug "King" look on the faces of the major perps. They virtually exude an aroma of power and certitude. They control the Kingdom.
They are "THE GATEKEEPERS", and they exist in every field, from visual art to literary art to spot-welding. They are as predictable as barnacles on a barge, and as ubiquitous as lice on a mangy dog.
They are with us to stay.
Recently, I wanted to play at the Steinway Recital Hall in my area. Staffed by women, they ALL knew of my work and wanted me. It was going to be a wonderful evening of beautiful, soul-lifting Music. We were all elated and excited beyond measure. The business arrangements took care of themselves.
Two days later, a jazz dignitary had nixed the idea. How could he hold sway over the STEINWAY Hall???
I found out later that he had somehow insinuated himself into the machinery of the West Coast Steinway Outlets, and had built a power-base with several other men on the West Coast, all of them administrators, politicians and bureaucrats. They now control all Jazz Festivals, jazz clubs, and musical theatres on the West Coast!
A profound awakening for me, I assure you.
I'll play somewhere else. But the women on staff were so disappointed.
So was I, to be candid.
But I wasn't surprised!
The Truth Shall Set You Free
But first it'll depress the hell out of you.
A letter of mine appeared recently on a message board at the International Jazz Federation's web site:
Here it is, just in case someone deletes it or moves it to the "morgue":
Until an organization is forged with the sole utilitarian purpose of presenting this American Improvised Music as its main agenda (and not the "boys night out" that characterizes so many administrative alliances), it will be one more exercise in futility. It's valueless to organize what was never meant to be organized, to define what was never meant to be defined, and to assume control over that which can't and won't be controlled. If you can achieve, in your mission statement, one single positive thing (besides having administrative meetings in exotic locales while doing excellent impersonations of our Congressional Delegates) it might be to CREATE EMPLOYMENT for jazz musicians of the highest caliber, and not just for the (above-mentioned) most famous or slickest or meanest or most attractive or newest ones.
Jazz was to me what it was for Philly Joe Jones: THE MUSIC OF FREEDOM. With its exclusionary and narrow vision (excluding everyone and everything from women and gays to synthesizers and computer software to genuine innovation), it'll get just about as far as every other "jazz federation". To the corner liquor store. And when the musicians realize that they're simply being used as a "really cool way to make a living" by the jazz administrators, THEN we might see some radical change. This Music belongs to the PEOPLE, and to the CREATORS of it.
Musicians, rent your own halls, find your own venues. Get this Music out of the hands of the Jazz Cartels. See what it's like to take responsibility for your own draw, see what it's like to make ten thousand dollars a night. Carry a calculator. Count the people in the hall, then multiply it by the cover charge. You could be getting that, all of it, as you should. This isn't rocket science. It's the property of YOU, the artist. Not of the carpetbaggers, the administrative and executive officers, the CEO's in charge of your life and your talent; the record execs, the promoters, the handlers, the gatekeepers. Comments, anyone? -Jessica Williams
You'll find my solution here, and I live by this:
Also, piano great Hal Galper has some very well-written articles about the music business in all of its gory glory:
And you might check out a few of the links below: