Personal rant about the state of Jazz

Should today's young music students be educated differently than they were 20 years ago? It seems like the general music curriculum really hasn't changed that much since I was in music school almost twenty years ago. The music industry has gone though massive upheaval yet colleges are still preparing students for music careers the same way they did in previous decades. A few months ago My buddy Tomas asked me , "Do you feel guilty preparing your students for a life of poverty?". I laughed nervously in response to his question, there was some amount of truth to what he was saying. Tomas has long since taken a white collar job out of the music industry, something I haven't yet done. Maybe I should be teaching my students how to marry a professional wife, how to talk your wife out of kids or how to flip houses; something that would actually allow them to play music. Three or four decades ago there were still a ton of good road gigs and Jazz clubs lined the streets of most major cities. Las Vegas used full live bands and people were excited about going out to hear live music instead of DJs. You could pay your rent in NYC with a single day's work, work four days and you could spent the rest of the month playing loft sessions. Everything is different now. There are fewer venues and consequently fewer gigs, no one is making much money from CD sales anymore, Europeans and Asian seem to appreciate Jazz more than most Americans and live music has lost it's place to DVD movies and microwaved popcorn.

How should we be preparing the next generation of musicians in this new environment? Will they be financially crushed under the weight of student loans with have no gigs to support themselves? Aren't music schools hurting students and working professionals alike by not being sensitive to the job market in the music industry?

I tend to want to recommend to my students that if they want to play Jazz they should stay in school and get a doctorate. That way they will actually be able to get a good teaching gig and still have time to play music. A bachelor's degree in music isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

When I went off to Berklee my idea of the pinnacle success was being picked up by someone like Art Blakey or Cedar Walton before graduation. For me that was making it.

Is it even ethical that music schools continue to spew out more and more Jazz performance graduates even though every year there are fewer and fewer gigs?

It may just be a local trend but when I moved to Portland, Oregon before the crash of 2000 it seemed like it was a 'little New York'. There were eight or nine full time Jazz clubs within walking distance of each other in the downtown area. I had found the hidden Jazz Mecca of the West Coast. When I moved to town Rob Scheps made me promise not to tell all the guys in NYC how good things were out here, he was dead serious. Within seven years that little NYC is now like a little Fresno. Every year we lose more and more established clubs, last month alone we lost two important Jazz venues. It's really made me rethink my future in this town and in this country.

I know I won't be happy if all I do is teach. I need to play good music with good musicians for good audiences or I start to lose my will to live. I start getting cranky like a dry drunk.

Europe is looking more and more appealing to me. This June I'll be back in Spain, Italy and Turkey to play music. Young people actually pack Jazz clubs there, AND THEY EVEN LISTEN?!?! Incredible!!!!

Eastern Europeans are increasingly becoming more sophisticated and avid Jazz listeners- Berlin, Russian, Poland, the Czech Republic, even Estonia is better than most cities here in the U.S., the birthplace of Jazz. I just received an invitation to come play at a new Jazz venue in Moscow. They have a beautiful large new club and are willing to cover airfare, and all expenses on top of payment for the gig. They have a strong PR department and an excellent house grand piano. I can't imagine a club on the West Coast offering so much to the artist. Even the Village Vanguard pays pretty lousy!

I was also contacted by a booker of a major Jazz festival in Portugal last week who is interested in book my group, and we don't even have a major record contract! That just wouldn't happen here.

If things keep up like this I may soon be posting from the Estonia. I'll be teaching my private students internet marketing as well as Jazz saxophone.

I don't usually use this forum to unleash my personal diatribes. I try to keep my content educational or at least entertaining. I just couldn't help myself and I think it needed to be said. My apologies.....


Anonymous said...

Mr. Anonymous here,

Great post! You seem to be have a talent in expressing how many of us out here feel.

To some students, they feel that the end of their problems will be when they start to play great---when in fact, it can be more like the beginning of them!

There are no easy answers, unfortunately.

Will Jazz Ed become like Creative Writing Programs, where future poets & short story writers hide out in schools forever, getting Phds & entering their derivative, over-intellectual works into various little contests, hoping for some kind of sucess, while waiting on their monthly check from Mom & Dad?


Number one thing, great to visit & go over for a month of gigs. Nice scenery, good players, nice clubs, chicks that dig Trane, etc.,
jazz-paradise, right?


They got their own players over there, that are now, pretty-darn good. Those cats are super-nice to the visiting NEW YORK player, (cuz, hey, they might want to hang w/you when they visit NYC)...


If you are there TO STAY, you now become a THREAT to their scene & potentially taking GIGS away from them, so they get chilly, very fast.

Sometimes I think jazz guys are like rats, running from ship-to-sinking-ship:)

ps>> I think the professional women are on to our sh*t, bro, the secret's out, there arent even enough gigs out here anymore, to even pretend you are "the artist" to snag 'em

'tain't easy

Anonymous said...

Isn't Portland about the same size as Fresno? I think it should be Fresno North or Wet Fresno.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Both cities have a ton of tweakers too.

Anonymous said...

Excellent rant, Dave. Also, insightful comment by Mr. Anonymous. Definitely agree, students deserve a "reality check" from their teachers. The reasons for the downhill slide in paying gigs thru the decades aren't hard to find. Changes in technology, demographics, intellectual property, local entertainment and noise abatement laws, consumer demand, etc., all of these things (and more) help to scare off all but the most determined (or naive) music presenters. Live performances should NOT have to be that much of a hassle to produce. I believe one venue, Imbibe, found out recently what happens when you don't pay BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC their extortion... er, uh excuse me... I mean licensing fees. And let's not get started on the alcohol board....

Anonymous said...

Even though I can only guess which of the jazz festivals is the one you mention, I honestly hope you accept the gig in Portugal. It would be great catching you live around here.

And by the way: for what I know about the pro players in the country, I seriously doubt any of them would see an American (or any other foreigner) wishing to move over as a work-"snagger" threat.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Hey Thanks. It's not hard to imagine myself living in Portugal.Not hard at

chicken little said...

Having lived in Europe I can attest to Mr. Anonymous's statement regarding the cold shoulder from Euro musicians. I played with mostly Americans and Euros who wanted to actually swing. Euro player (I know that this is both off topic and a broad brush) don't swing all that hard.
As to the point of this post. Fuckin' a. No work and too many players who all sound the same. Good luck to them. THERE'S NO WORK FOR YOU.

MonksDream said...

David, I like this posting. For those of us who are part time musicians, I sometimes feel like maybe we're copping out and I have to say I admire the chutzpa and bravery that a committed "full" time jazz musician might take.

I think that the scene seems to always go in cycles. The guys who really seem to do reasonably well either have the tenaciousness of a pit bull or have definitely made some trade-offs as you refer to in your posting.

I was talking with a drummer who moved here from NYC about how the dividing lines between the different genres over there seem much more blurry and I sometimes wonder why, with Portland being a hotbed of indy rock, there aren't more hybridizations of music occuring. Not a critique just an observation.

Maybe the guys who get PhD.s and teach have it down?? One of them I know spends most of his time writing Pro Tools manuals. I guess you just keep considering the challenges and attacking them from as many different angles as possible.

Interesting and valid posting. You have a killin' alto sound, so you've got that goin' on, maaaaaaaan!


David Carlos Valdez said...

Thanks Bill. It does seem like there would be more Latin-Jazz, Jazz Fusion, Hip-Bop, and the like here in PDX. There's a slight crossover, but not like other towns. It's interesting that before I moved here I played a lot more gigs that weren't Jazz, including African, R&B, Pop, Latin-Jazz, "Nu-Jazz" (I hate that name) and more. Since I've been here it's been mostly Jazz for me.

To say that Jazz goes in cycles is like saying that the earth isn't getting warmer because we have a few cold days in a row. Over the last three decades Jazz has been taking a nose dive. I'll continue this one in a new post......

Anonymous said...

dave, always appreciate your insightful comments and knowledge about music. am over $20,000 in debt since i began playing music full time about 5 years ago. i live on over 20 credit cards despite living in the bastion of socal where millionaire studio players are in abundance. they don't mind going out to small clubs and restaurants and playing for next to nothing.


MonksDream said...


What I mean by Jazz going in cycles follows. When I was in Portland in the eighties, there were maybe 2 clubs that regularly presented Jazz. The Hobbit and Parchman Farm (pardon my Eastside prejudice.)

Of these, the only full time jazz club was The Hobbit, although, I'm sure that it might have been my low awareness level, but whenever any "name" players came into town, they would play here. I don't think that there was a big enough scene to support a reasonable number of players until the mid nineties.

Now, it's definitely taken a nose dive, but I guess my feeling is that from the larger historical picture, the main clubs that presented Bebop in NYC, S.F., and L.A. seemed like they went belly up as the sixties turned into the seventies, and by all the accounts I here from musicians, the seventies were pretty dry.

There's one line of reasoning that I don't personally believe in that the free players killed the audience in the late sixties and then it was saved by the neo-con players in the eighties. I will not mention any names but I think that we all know who some of the players that I refer to might be.

So, I guess my point is that there will probably be an upwards trend, in terms of the jazz scene. Shit, Bird had trouble getting gigs at certain points (although there are doubtless other reasons for this.)

So I wasn't totally disagreeing with you that there's been a nosedive, in terms of a viable jazz scene in many places. What I'm trying to point out is that there is a good chance that this might change.

Part of the problem in my view is that music education has taken a big hit with school funding. It used to be that half of the population could at least play some piano. Now there are so many media available and, from what I've read, less than 7% of the population play any instruments at all.

While I don't think that people need to play an instrument in order to appreciate good music, I think that it certainly helps. My wife didn't listen to any jazz until I had it regularly spinning on the CD player and it took her a couple of years to adjust her ears from the Americana, Roots and Indy music that she preferred.

I took her to see Tim Berne, who isn't straight ahead by any stretch of the imagination, but at the intermission she was enthusiastic, especially by the rhythmic conception of his pianist Craig Taborn, which I found quite heartening.

Maybe I just have some kind of wishful thinking but I do think there is some cyclicality (pardon my creative vocabulary) in the economics of different genres of the music business.

And I don't think that global warming is cyclical, but if you read the research of Richard Muller, one of my old Physics professors, you'd be quite surprised by his argument that the natural climate of the earth is one of Ice Age and that we're in an uncharacteristically warm period. After we help to destroy the atmosphere, he argues, the earth will simply plunge back into another Ice Age.

Do I believe his research?? It's just a theory. Is it a valid point?? Probably. I hope that my convoluted arguments present my points effectively.

David Carlos Valdez said...

I sure hope you're right Bill...

Me Me said...

David, couple things:

First, marrying a professional woman wasn't an option for me--and there's even more of a double standard if you're a female musician. As a woman, it's still often assumed your husband should make more money than you. My husband is a carpenter and does not make enough to support us singlehandedly (he's a fantastic father and doesn't object to my saying this). People sometimes assume that as a female player this is my hobby and my husband is the one paying the bills, and that ain't the case.

Second, I am in this for the long haul. I have days when I feel like you do. There are moments when I look at other regions in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world and wonder if the living would be easier. I think there is a greater appreciation of musical ability, American jazz and the arts in Europe, from what I have read. In the U.S. the focus has changed slightly. Used to be that money was the main indicator of success. Now it's fame. But neither of those things should be viewed as absolute goals--that's just society's pressure to conform.

There is a wonderful new wave of independent musicians out there that gives me new hope. We are finding new ways to sell our music--and new places to perform. There are so many aspiring pop stars out there, but those of us with training to play instruments, read music and perform live still have an edge up on them. I think the perceived value of live musicians will grow as people realize that making music on the computer is not the same as performing it for the public.

My final point is, I have seen the other side. I worked for 10 years in a cubicle farm. Sure, the money is nice. The slow withering of your soul as you wonder whether owning fancy shoes or a shiny car really is worth not pursuing your musical career? Horrible.

I am now applying many of the skills I learned there to my music career. On a good day, I think things are looking up. This is a business. We have to find ways to run it efficiently and meet market demand. By saying that, however, I am in no way saying that I have "sold out" my vision as an original artist, which is what I do. I'm not in a top 40 band--I'm still striving to create a unique sound and perform as often as possible. There is no question that having jazz as your primary identifiable genre can limit your audience today--but so can "classical" "folk" or anything that is not "top 40" or an identifiable party genre.

You have to give it a twist. What is it that you do as a jazz musician that no one else does? It doesn't have to be something from another genre, but it should be something unique or entertaining.

I hope you feel better, David. There are good days and bad days, but being on stage and blowing a brilliant solo makes it all worth it.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Some good points Alexa.

I usually only get dark about music for a short time before I snap out of it. For instance last week was very rewarding. I had a duo gig with a great pianist at a nice wine bar that paid us well and loved the music. Last Sunday I had a really great time playing a brunch gig of all things. My rhythm section was great and we just played through my very entertaining (for me at least) quartet book.

I have some more interesting gigs in the next couple of weeks, one is a large band with vocalist Nancy King, three horns and an interpretive modern dancer.

A really great gig can get you through months of bad gigs. As you said, there's nothing like the feeling when the band is on, the house is packed and they're there for what you are doing.

In less than two weeks I'll be playing Jazz in Istanbul, things could be a whole lot worse.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thread, jazz and the music profession changing from an art form for interesting souls,who could scrape some kind of living together,into a pyramid teaching scheme in academia...
A lot of musicians invest their money and time into a higher degree,rather than find commitment and try to make a great record,some of them don't grasp a distinction between an artist and an intellectual.
I still hear a lot of new stuff I really like though,but I hardly ever buy it now,part of the industries race to the bottom is everyone giving their stuff away free...I like your site very much!