Careers in Jazz

by Bill Anschell
Seattle based jazz pianist, composer, producer and humorist

Every year, university programs spit out thousands of highly trained jazz musicians sporting hard-earned diplomas and high hopes.  But when these graduates hit the first formal rite of jazz passage—a desperate trip to the local pawn shop—they learn that the diploma is literally not worth the paper it’s printed on.  Entering school, their dream was simple:  To perform music they love for attentive audiences in jazz clubs, concert halls, and festivals, and to earn a fair wage for their efforts*.  But set loose from the nurturing womb of the campus, they quickly experience the shock of an indifferent and often hostile new reality.

The world doesn’t take kindly to jazz artists, and before long these graduates find their ideals displaced by bitter cynicism.  At best, 1% of them will eventually realize their dreams, and only after years of paying dues.  These are the Chosen Ones, whose success results from a rare combination of often freakish talent, perseverance, good looks, personality, ambition, geography and an ability to skillfully navigate unpredictably changing public tastes.

Why so few Chosen Ones?  Simple economics:  People who want to play jazz actually outnumber those who enjoy or even tolerate it, let alone pay to hear it.  Consequently, in the microscopic jazz economy, there isn’t nearly enough to go around, though competition for the crumbs is relentless and sometimes brutal.  This simple financial reality underlies virtually all of the infighting, backbiting, and doomsaying that define the jazz condition.

But when the jazz bug bites, it’s hard to shake.  Of the remaining 99%, the vast majority continues the battle, even in the face of shattered dreams and personal defeat.  How do they survive?  By compromising their music, their lifestyle, their self-respect, or any combination of the three.

What, then, are the paths to survival?  Whether through free choice or fate, hopeless devotion or clinical insanity, jazz musicians eventually sort themselves out into the following subtypes:


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