The Clubowner said, "Well, we'll do a thing at the door and I'll split with you the receipts, depending on how many people come in." I worked that night, and I came home to my wife. She said, "How much money did you make?" I think I made a dollar. Maybe two dollars. I said to her, "Well, baby, when I go back tomorrow night, it should be better." My wife said, "There'll be no tomorrow night." --Ken McIntyre
JAZZ FIRST flourished in wide-open towns--New Orleans, Kansas City-- where whorehouses and gambling dens needed "hot music" to keep the customers fired-up and spending. So it's not surprising that jazz musicians have always been obsessed with "paying dues," the tradition of enduring hardships and degrading work conditions in order to polish and purify their art. Much has been written about the handful of jazzmen who "came up through the tradition" to achieve international celebrity and artistic and financial success: Louis Armstong and Duke Ellington occupy a warm corner in our popular mythology. But jazz, financially speaking, is a marginal music, and America's margins can be narrow indeed. Ken McIntyre's frustrating experience--he grew tired of getting ripped off, he quit--is far more representative of the jazz life as it is known by most of the men and women who try to eke a living out of this most uncompromising art form.
Jazz Lives, by Michael Ullman '67, documents the survival techniques of 23 very different individuals who have chosen to inhabit this world which offers neither the money that rock performers earn nor the status that classical musicians enjoy. The format is a familiar one--as series of profiles and interviews. What sets Ullman's book apart from dozens of other jazz books is his perceptive choice of subjects. Sam Rivers, Doc Cheatham, and Ran Blake have been professional musicians for decades, but as far as most people are concerned, they may as well have performed in secret. Most of the portraits in Ullman's gallery come from the fringes of jazz but, artistically at least, jazz thrives at its fringes; Jazz Lives unearths a variety of articulate spirits who are willing to speak frankly and realistically about the life and the business of jazz.
Few jazzmen are able to get by consistently on their musical earnings. During lean years, Sam Rivers set lyrics to music for a mail-order house; Anthony Braxton used to hustle chess in Washington Square. A few fortunate musicians have found niches in education-- Ran Blake and Ken McIntyre head departments at the New England Conservatory and at SUNY Old Westbury. Alternative education centers offer a tenuous existence to some, like Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio in Woodstock and River's Soho performance loft, both of which depend on a precarious assortment of grants and private donations for support. Life on the road is still possible, but it takes a lot of luck and effort to overcome a nation's inertial indifference. Dexter Gordon, probably the finest tenor saxophonist to emerge during the Forties, fled to Europe when the American scene began to dry up during the Sixties. Gordon's occasional stateside sorties were inconclusive until he made his highly publicized "homecoming" tour in 1976.
ONE PART of the jazz life about which nearly all of Ullman's subjects agree is the wickedness of club owners, concert promoters, and the record companies. Rivers is outspoken about this:
It's very foul out there in the music business--it's politics and as dirty as politicians can be. But it's not the musicians. It's the people around the music. They create a competitiveness that is not really necessary. The worst people are presidents of recording companies. Agents are terrible...
Ullman balances this torrent of abuse by including the perspectives of four maverick representatives of the music business. Management agent Maxine Gregg, who orchestrated Gordon's wildly successful "homecoming," claims that many jazz musicians could succeed like Gordon if they were willing to do some long-range career planning, but she concedes that a vicious cycle must be broken first:
You can't advise someone not to take a record deal for bad money and bad royalty rates, or a gig for a little money, if they can't pay their phone bill or buy food. People will take advantage of people who are hungry...If you're a junkie and you need the money, you'll do a record for $200. But a record is forever.
Ullman, who teaches English at Tufts and writes jazz criticism for The New Republic, has padded his book with stock appreciations of the recent dead-- Joe Venuti, Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. These great artists certainly merit our attention, but Ullman's second-hand tributes east little light on the jazz life. The real meat of Jazz Lives lies in the words of its less celebrated subjects. Many readers will find most of the names unfamiliar, but none of them are second-rate, and they speak with authority and often with charm. Only remember that every musician in this book has made it, one way or another, in a world where talent is only part of success. The American jazz life demands that many more, equally talented, go on paying dues and hoping for a break what will never come.
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