The life of a NYC Jazz musician

Andreas Steffen from Germany asked me to write about what the life of a New York Jazz musician was like. Most people have some glorified idea of what the NYC musician does to make a living. Adreas' idea went like this: sleep until noon, practice, studio job, gig, jam session, repeat from start. That's pretty much what I expected when I got there with five hundred dollars in my pocket. The economic realities of living in NYC have changed drastically in the last thirty years. Long time resident musicians have told me that back in the 70s you could pay your rent by working one or two gigs a month. Many musicians had large lofts where they jammed till the wee hours of the morning. New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world and gigs still pay roughly what they did in the 70s. There are still tons of fifty-dollar gigs all over town. Of course now you could be playing fifty-dollar gigs every night of the week and still be starving. A one bedroom apartment is now $1400 and up in Manhattan.

There were many different ways that Jazz musicians scraped by in NYC. Here are some of the ways that I saw when I was living there.

  • The Trust-fund baby- How do all those Avant-Garde downtown hipsters make ends meet by playing at the Knitting Factory? You'd be surprised how many have trust funds.
  • The Club Date Band Whore- Club dates are gigs that pay $150-300 where you have to play every shitty popular song from almost eight decades of pop music. Better learn Chatanooga-choo-choo and the horn backgrounds to Boogie-oogie-oogie.
  • The Weed dealer- The prices are high in NYC and so are the musicians!
  • The Boston commuter- No kidding, cats commute all the way to Beantown just to teach at a rat infested music school.
  • The Atlantic City suspender & straw hat wearer- Atlantic City is an abomination and so are the gigs there.
  • The Black-tie Cater Waiter- Most of the actors and actresses in town work for caterers but quite a few musicians do too. This is actually how I made ends meet. The advantages to this type of job are of course the gourmet food and the fact that you can pick your own hours each week.
  • The Successful Jazz musician- These are the guys who have record deals and are actually making their money playing Jazz. What folks don't realize is that they are hardly ever in New York at all. They must do road gigs most of the year to meet their NYC expenses.
  • Husband of a doctor/stock broker/lawyer etc.- This category is probably no surprise to anyone.
  • Catskills Cats- These guys are gone for months at a time playing Jewish resorts in the Catskills. These gigs are a cross between a Bar Mitzvah and a 40's dance band.
  • The Broadway show musician- Can you play every woodwind ever invented? I didn't think so.

I never met any musicians that made their living doing studio work. The truth is there isn't a ton of studio work anymore and the work there is has been locked up by a few cats. I would suggest that anyone moving to NYC to play music save at least ten thousand dollars before moving. Also consider living in Jersey City, it's closer and cheaper than many parts of Brooklyn
or Queens. I do miss living in the Jazz capital of the world at times, but I just remind myself what the weather and the general quality of life is like there. I usually get over it pretty fast.

Concerning sessions in NYC-
There are many jam sessions at clubs in NYC. When I first got there I attended many of these. I played sessions at clubs like Blue Note, Birdland, Cleopatra's Needle, Smalls, and St.Nick's pub. Some of these sessions were fun, most were a waste of time and money. You can meet some great players there if you're lucky. At worst, you can end up waiting for hours to play two tunes with a random, and often bad, rhythm section. Usually you're not even warmed up. These two tunes can cost you upwards of thirty dollars after you pay for transportation and buy your (two drink minimum) five dollar beers. If you don't know many already established players you may not have any other choices to get on the scene. I found out, after many five dollars beers, that it is much better to go to a few sessions and find a few players you like and set up sessions at people's houses. You end up getting to play more than two or three tunes and making a better impression because you're playing with a good rhythm section.

Let me add a few positive thoughts about living in NYC-
I think every Jazz player should have the experience of living in New York. It definitely changes the way you think about music. So many players get to the city thinking they're going to take over. As soon as they're there for a few weeks they usually want to 're-evaluate their sound' or just change some things about their playing. There is so much great music there every night of the week. NYC has basically drained all the brightest Jazz talent from the rest of the entire world. The city itself can be overwhelming but it can also feel like a small town. I found the people there, musicians included, to be some of the most open and friendliest
of anywhere I've ever been. This is the exact opposite of the stereotypical NYC resident. They will definitely let you know when they're not happy with you, but they are also extremely helpful. There is work there and you can make a living if you're willing to work hard at it. Don't wait until you feel that you're burning enough to move there. If you want to get better fast it's the best place you can be. Your concept will come together so much faster by being there.
It's not the dangerous and scary city that it once was either. I walked all over Manhattan at every hour of the day and night and never once had any problems there. I think it's because the thugs can't afford to live there any more! The music industry doesn't take musicians very seriously if they don't live in New York City. If all the New York musicians just went home to where they came from there would be tons of great players in just about every city again.


Anonymous said...

i stumbled into your spot last night.
good stuff. it reminded me of my berklee days in mid 90's...the constant search, unquenchable curiosity, analyzing, listening, practicing....
i guess a few years of teaching and sarcastically avoiding b.s. gigs in L.A. jaded me a bit...especially for the last year after my wedding and the subsequent "sabbathical" from music, i feel so out of touch rather than refreshed.
as i am getting back to my practicing routine, i can't help but ask myself the age-old question again...Why bother?

David Carlos Valdez said...

L.A. seems to do that to players. GET OUT! One of my best friends just moved there and has been telling just how bad the scene is there. Sound pretty brutal to me.

Anonymous said...

I’ve checked in on your site a few times now and happened to read the “Life in NYC” article...pretty spot-on! I’ve been living in NYC for almost 5 years now since graduating from Berklee and I am making my entire living from playing and teaching, but it took time. I especially agreed w/ what you said about the jam sessions – what a waste! If there’s one thing that NYC has helped me see, it’s what I don’t want to do and where I don’t want to end up later in life. It’s also been the greatest experience ever, if not the toughest.