One of the defining questions every artist must face at some point in his life is "In what way will I leave my mark on this world after I'm gone?" It could be phrased in numerous other ways, but the point of the question is what will I do that is original and different from what other artists have done before me.
If you think about it, it's quite a daunting question. There are so many artists in the world, many of them are much more talented and successful than I am. Could I really invent something new that no one has thought of before? Well... maybe not. But that doesn't mean you can't do something special and meaningful nevertheless. Even the slightest change of the smallest nuance can have a great impact on the final result.
What you should try to avoid is following the herd. If I see too many people trying to sound a certain way, I know I better stay away and keep looking for something different. Yet, I feel a lot of musicians are quite content sounding like someone or a group of people (who were innovators) and imitating their sound. Furthermore, they put down anyone and everyone who doesn't fit their niche. Ostracizing them as not swinging, old fashioned, modern, or in general the destroyers of jazz.
As much as I love playing standards, I can't help but thinking it's not enough in our day and age to make an impression on the world. Is there a point in playing to death a standard that was written 70 years ago? And even if there is, can I really call myself an artist, an innovator? Can I really play it any better than Bird or the other guys did without fundamentally changing how I approach it? Perhaps the problem is not so much with the tune itself, but with the presentation. It might be the time to consider that maybe the old "head-solos-head" routine doesn't cut it anymore. There has to be something new somewhere in between to make it be worth while artistically.
On the other hand, I must admit that I find most of the leading jazz figures today unappealing. I have the utmost respect for them, because they are trying to create something new, and you can hear that they have truly mastered their instruments. But, between mastering an instrument and creating an aesthetically beautiful piece of art there's a gap that not many have been able to fill. Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday weren't what you call "classically trained," yet no one can dispute their artistry. I feel more emotions coming from listening to a Bird or Coltrane album than I do listening to a Bird or Coltrane wannabe, or most of today's innovators.
So what does it all mean?
America is the land of tips. If you eat at a restaurant, drink at a bar, take a cab, drop off your laundry or get a hair cut, you are expected to leave a hefty tip. The idea behind the tip in itself is quite a socially pleasing concept. According to Wikipedia:
"A tip (also called a gratuity) is a voluntary extra payment made to certain service sector workers in addition to the advertised price of the transaction. Such payments and their size are a matter of social custom."
The problem starts when business owners use this custom and exploit their employees by not paying them a proper salary for their hard work. Which brings me to the subject I wanted to talk about.
Recently, I keep stumbling upon a phenomena that seems to be spreading rapidly. Same as any employee who performs a task for an employer and expects to get paid afterwards, musicians do too. But, it seems that more and more places would rather not pay the musicians, and leave them in the mercy of the customers.
If you were a customer who just had a nice dinner or a few drinks, and paid a good amount of money (plus a tip to the waiter/bartender), would you be inclined to tip the band too? I'm sure there is no straight answer.
I first experienced this shortly after I moved to New York. I played the early set every week with a group of seven people at a club in Harlem. Not only did they not pay us, and we had to figure out how to divide $13 worth of tips between seven people, but the band that played after us did get paid. After that I came across many other venues that offered the same kind of terms. Some give you food, some give you one drink, some give you a percentage of the bar, and some don't give you nothing.
Along side this trend, there is an ever growing trend of playing in the park, again, for tips. When you play in the park you set your own time, you play what you want to play, no body complains about you being too loud, you see beautiful girls jogging, and most important you get paid better tips. So why would anyone want to play in a club?
On the other hand, with the small amount of venues that feature live jazz music, and the growing number of really good musicians, where would people share their music with an audience? Those venues, paying or not, are giving an artist the most important thing he can ask for - a stage to perform his art. Whether or not there is an audience to listen to it is a different question (worthy of a post of its own). After playing at one of these venues recently, a friend of mine rightly noted that it is a great opportunity to connect and acquire new fans. Unlike restaurant gigs, you can play whatever kind of music you want to, and you have more of the audience's attention.
At the end of the day, we are all (I hope) just trying to create something that expresses us, and you can't put a price tag on that anyway.
It seems that as long as there is an endless supply of good (and starving) musicians, new venues that don't pay their bands will keep popping up. Whether it is a good or bad thing, I'll let you decide. I think what Ron Carter once said sums it up the best: musicians don't know how to say 'no'.
Thanks for reading,