Careers in Jazz
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The Classes at Play, and at War
The jazz class system is both hierarchical and pliable. This enables an artist not only to interact with artists from other classes, but also to move from one class to others below it as his career inevitably declines.
Jazz Class Hierarchy
Sample interactions among classes
When musicians from two or more classes interact professionally, the results are both predictable and entertaining.
Example One: A bandleader, knowing an Epiphyte has fallen on hard times, invites him to play a wedding gig, along with the leader’s usual assemblage of Gig Whores. What happens?
The Epiphyte shows up for the tux gig wearing black jeans, black tennis shoes, white tee-shirt, dark navy blazer, and bow tie. He begins the gig playing in a correctly subdued, unswinging style. During each break, he eats frantically off the buffet, then stuffs more food—cocktail shrimp, brie cheese, spanakopita, and swedish meatballs—into his pockets. He also drinks furiously from the open bar. Each subsequent set, his playing becomes louder and more adventurous, and before long he’s embarking on long, angular, ear-bending solos, even as he’s swearing at the drummer for not digging in hard enough. The rest of the Gig Whores, caught between wanting to please the leader and emulate the Epiphyte, choose the latter and begin to similarly stretch. The bride’s mother complains, the Epiphyte storms off the bandstand, and the leader silently vows to replace his entire band.
Example Two: A record label, impressed by a Gig Whore’s resourcefulness, invites him to join its staff. Now, instead of wearing a clown nose and playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” for toddlers’ birthday parties, he can have a dignified day job oppressing his fellow jazz artists. What is his response?
“How much does it pay?”
Jazz career trajectories conform directly to the law of gravitational forces: Any and all movement is downward. One Gig Whore might marry a woman who financially supports but personally belittles him; another, when times get lean, might be forced to take a low-level day job for survival. An Epiphyte, finding his available oxygen supply running low, might compromise his musical ideals by becoming a Gig Whore, or stand on principle and join the Survivalists. A Silver Spoon, tired of playing inaccessible music for audiences of four to eight people, might instead enter the industry, founding a new record label that documents, for eternity, the same inaccessible music.
A label A&R man hears a standout young soloist at a New York club one night and quickly signs him to a deal. The thusly anointed Chosen One puts out several critically acclaimed releases and tours internationally for a number of years before falling out of favor with changing public tastes. Moving back to his hometown, staying rent-free at his parents’ house, he becomes an Epiphyte, playing with the best local musicians, but—with gigs far from plentiful in a relatively small city—barely making enough money to cover his living expenses. Memories of his glory days make it hard for him to accept this austere lifestyle, and he gradually lowers the bar, earning more money and retaining less dignity as he becomes a Gig Whore. The demeaning gigs eventually drive him to drink, and he becomes notoriously unreliable. Before long, his calendar starts to empty, and he’s forced to look for non-playing work. He holds a series of meaningless part-time day jobs while gradually building a roster of untalented private students. One day, having hit rock-bottom, he is seemingly rescued when his old label calls, looking for a new A&R man, hoping to cash in on his name recognition. He relocates to New York where, his first week on the job, he hears a standout young soloist at a club.
Full Circle #2
An impressionable young jazz pianist is booked by an agent for a solo gig in a hotel lobby. He quickly discovers that the clientele hate it when he plays Coltrane tunes, but love it when he sings Sinatra songs, no matter how badly. Soon, he parlays his vocal success into a steady gig with a bassist and drummer, and before long begins to get lucrative work playing corporate receptions. He hires more band members, and expands the repertoire to include pop favorites. He stops playing piano, preferring instead to front the band on vocals, adding dance steps, shaking his ever-widening butt. One night while singing “Mustang Sally” at a wedding reception, he coaxes the drunken crowd to yell “Ride, Sally, Ride,” and discovers the euphoria of audience participation. From there, his life as an entertainer becomes an unquenchable thirst for affirmation. When he occasionally encounters a quiet audience, attentive to the music, it frightens him, sweat flowing from his brow as he tries ever harder to get them dancing and singing. His eventual midlife crisis points him toward the more lucrative, less stressful life of an agent, and the day he books his first job he will have successfully matured from whore to pimp, sending an innocent young pianist into the very lobby where he got his own start.
The variations are endless.
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