In the mid-1890s and early 19th century, few of New Orleans' earliest jazz musicians could afford to play their instruments full-time. So the artists practiced after work, played weekends and tried to answer the eternal musical question: How well can you play? For a few, the music they loved was transformed from a hobby into a profession when cornet player Buddy Bolden started New Orleans' first jazz bands, and by doing so transformed American musical history. (Scroll down to continue)
Stanley Crouch — writer, social critic, MacArthur Award winner (and regular on The Root) — has thought a lot about those early years. When asked to consider how contemporary jazz musicians survive a whipsawing economy, he set aside work on the first volume of a biography of stellar alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Then he said that only selfless commitment may lead to steady employment. But finding the time, and proper remuneration, to play professionally wasn't easy in Bolden's day or now, says Crouch, "because a life in music is not for punks."
It's even harder in jazz today as CD/album sales have plummeted. In 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America said that jazz sales were 3 percent of all recording sales. By 2008 they were 1.1 percent. In 2000 Soundscan reported that 18,416 jazz albums were sold; nine years later, fewer than 12,000 jazz-genre albums were purchased.
But gray and bald heads dominate jazz audiences. In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts reported that jazz's fan base had a median age of 29. By 2008 it had aged up to 46, while the percentage of fans under 24 kept falling.
Jazz festivals and free concerts still attract crowds. New York has the CareFusion Jazz Festival and Vision Festival. Each spring the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival serves up an eclectic brew, and in the fall the San Francisco Jazz Festival and the Chicago Jazz Festival play to tens of thousands.
But with jazz clubs closing or on life support, and competition for gigs stiff, how do jazz musicians earn a living? Individual popularity, particular venues, contract-negotiation skills and the type of instrument played all make a difference. Even leading a band is no guarantee of top pay, since a hot sideman could be the crowd magnet — and get more money.
It's hard to pin down what jazz musicians make because they and their managers won't divulge numbers. Since 2002 Parade magazine's "What People Earn" issue has listed only one jazz musician — and she earned $20,000 annually.
To learn more about jazz musicians' fortunes, The Root interviewed three artists at different stages in their careers, ranging in age from 25 to 67. None gave an annual income, but all spoke openly about the hoops they've had to jump through in order to earn a living wage.
The 1993 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition winner says that musicians face many obstacles, including smaller advances, fewer places to play and record labels imploding. Terrasson, who now lives in New York, says he makes 95 percent of his income from touring and 5 percent from selling his CDs at the venues.
When he was in his 20s, Terrasson had what was once the traditional jazz apprenticeship. He toured with an established star: singer Betty Carter. But times have changed. Now there are fewer permanent bands with members who tour together for an extended time. Instead, performances are more likely to entail quick gatherings of musicians that form for a short time to play a venue and then split up again.
And then there's the Internet; Terrasson says that he has mixed feelings about its considerable impact on music. Fifteen years ago, he says, his CDs were available at the now defunct Tower Records; he made roughly $1.50 per sale of each disc. Now the world shops on iTunes, and he gets 12 cents per CD. Of course, thanks to the freewheeling Web, where there's always a workaround, sometimes Terrasson doesn't get paid anything for his music — like the time in 2007, when he released Mirror, a solo piano recording. Within 24 hours, he says, people were downloading it for free from a Russian site that could not be shut down remotely.
Still, he knows that these days, a Web presence is essential for the modern-day musician. He has his own Web site, which he says needs upgrading, and he is looking into using social media. But for now, Terrasson says, his main fans already know him and are loyal.
Many young or struggling performers earn money by "taking a cut of the door," or of a club's proceeds. That's great if 200 people show up instead of two. Established players with a four- to six-night run in a New York City club may make $1,000 or more per person each night. In America's hinterlands, that quartet may take in $700 total per night, with travel and accommodations deducted. Meanwhile, jazz heavyweights like Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall and Keith Jarrett pull in tens of thousands per gig. But there is a common factor, no matter where a musician fits in the pecking order: Everything's negotiable.
On the road, a contract usually covers a musician's accommodations and a meal, but travel, life and health expenses are the artist's responsibility. For a band leader, tour expenses include travel and accommodations, a publicist, agents' cuts, a road manager, a personal manager and the salary of the other musicians.
A music insider, who wished to remain anonymous, says most jazz musicians don't make a lot of money consistently during their careers. Consequently, they teach, compose, give lessons, do commercial work and perform whenever possible to supplement their income. She adds that since there are many more musicians than gigs, pay stays low, "but people put up with it for the love of the music."
The Berklee College of Music in Boston is cognizant of this; it wants its graduates to be successful at their craft — and their finances. That's why John Kellogg, in the school's music business/management department, teaches students about accounting and tour management. He says, "In this economy, they need this information to survive."
Kenny Barron, 67, argues that despite the tough economy, young musicians have some advantages that he didn't. Today's artists must play many styles of jazz well, they use the Web to reach audiences, and know that a new requirement of being a musician is learning the business of music. Barron, who was selected as a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, lauds this flexibility. But the pianist, composer and professor of music, who turned pro at 14 and played with Dizzy Gillespie for five years, wishes such long-term touring opportunities still existed for younger artists. "We'd be on the road for three to four months at a time; today it is difficult to book a two-week tour. There used to be clubs up and down the coasts and in the middle. Now finding [club] work outside of New York kind of sucks," he says.
—Watch the Kenny Barron Trio.
If anyone is in jazz's sweet spot, it may be 25-year-old Ben Williams. Last year he won the contrabass category at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz international competition and earned his master's in music from the Juilliard School. Currently he is finishing up his first CD and is a member of both Jacky Terrasson's trio and vibraphonist Stefon Harris's band, Blackout. He is also an example of how his generation uses social networking. Williams' MySpace and Facebook pages keep him in touch with fellow musicians, showcase his videos and update fans about tours and his life in general.
Unlike Terrasson or Barron, the younger man sees great value in playing with multiple bands during a year. It is all he knows, and for him it provides experience equivalent to working with an older artist for months or years at a time. Williams doesn't use the word, but he is also actively building a brand, by blending his online and real personas as not only a boon to business but also as part of his life.
As a singleton, Williams says he doesn't need much. He says, "There is always work for a bass player. Payment is gig by gig, and when a band leader asks you to tour, he gives you a figure and you accept it or not. As a sideman, I don't have a lot of room to negotiate."
Frank McCoy is a regular contributor to The Root. He covers business and technology.