Jazz in the 21st Century

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I mention how hard it is for professional musicians to earn a decent living. An inversely proportional relationship exists between artistic integrity and socio-economic solvency for the vast majority of us, so it comes as no surprise that many historical examples of musicians whose reputations were founded on artistic freedom and originality also include stories of tragic and, often, shortened lives. The exceptions to this rule usually start their careers from a place of relative financial freedom where decisions about where and when to play music are based solely on aesthetic considerations rather than on earning a living. But musicians not engaged in a life of remittance patronage from passive income have to enhance their creative careers by playing in commercial institutions (orchestras, wedding/corporate event groups, theater bands, et al.) or taking music-related jobs (i.e., teaching music, music preparation, music administration). Some lead “double lives” in non-musical careers and play music as an avocation but run into a wall of frustration when trying to find time to practice and study their craft as well as book performances. This leaves a large number of musicians who lead relatively Spartan existences so that they can satisfy their artistic impulses.

Organizations have sprung up to help maintain a modicum of stability for professional musicians in ever-more-difficult times. One of the largest is the American Federation of Musicians, a trade union founded in 1896 that regulates wages and schedules for its membership and signatories. Not as strong as it once was (because of advances in computer technology as well as the recent trend for union-busting), it still supports its rank-and-file and tries to assist the larger music community as well. Sadly, it’s been a long uphill battle for the Federation. Several signatory institutions, notably the Seattle Symphony, have ceded from it in order to negotiate independently. Many musicians can’t afford to pay the dues and many of the Federation’s local chapters hold “amnesty drives,” allowing lapsed members to regain their “good standing” without paying back-dues and penalties. Members fortunate enough to work steadily in certain situations (Broadway shows, for example) for a long enough period of time become eligible for retirement benefits and medical insurance. But these employment opportunities are rare and most musicians have to find other ways to plan for the future. Probably the best known of these organizations is the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), founded in 1957 in order to recognize uncredited musicians in the movie and music recording industries. They present the annual Grammy Awards to musicians who have distinguished themselves in the previous year. One of this organization’s finest achievements (at least in my mind) is their MusiCares program, founded in 1989 to help musicians in need of financial and medical assistance.

Enter The Jazz Foundation of America, founded by Herb Storfer, Ann Ruckert, Cy Blank, Phoebe Jacobs and Dr. Billy Taylor (also in 1989) “dedicated to preserving the history and future of jazz, in all its shapes and forms, to the public.” Three of its members—bassists Vishnu Woods and Jamil Nasser and trumpeter Jimmy Owens—realized that most jazz musicians were in the category described at the end of this article’s first paragraph and had little or no savings, no pension or retirement plan, no medical insurance, and no resources to rely on in a crisis situation or end-of-life issues. Through their initial efforts, the Foundation shifted its emphasis to correcting this travesty and in 1991, the JFA held their first fundraiser at New York City’s Town Hall that included a silent auction of works by jazz-inspired artists Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell Robert Rauschenberg and Stuart Davis (Davis’s son, trumpeter Earl Davis, played a key role in this). The money raised seeded the Jazz Musician’s Emergency Relief Fund. This began a series of collaborations with MusiCares, Local #802 (the New York City chapter of the American Federation of Musicians) and the Actor’s Fund that has been assisting jazz musicians in need of housing and assisted living facilities as well as help for emergencies such as surgical procedures and disaster relief.

Last night (Thursday, September 15) a fund raiser for the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund—a splinter organization of JFA that raises money for New Jersey’s Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, a facility that has provided pro-bono medical care for thousands of jazz musicians— was held at (Le) Poisson Rouge. It was a rather long affair and not as well organized as most of the fundraising events associated with the other mentioned organizations, but the performers were all top-notch and their donated performances were heartfelt. From the opening performance by bassist and Dizzy Gillespie alumni John Lee (the event’s honoree) of “A Night in Tunisia” (his group included pianist Roy Assaf, trumpeters Ernie Hammes and Bruce Harris, guitarist Yotam Silberstein, and an excellent 18-year old drummer, Evan Sherman) to the closing performance of the freely improvised “Mahahi Thing” (by guitarist/saxophonist Elliott Sharp and vocalist extraordinaire Tracie Morris) one knew that a deep concern for the welfare of one’s fellow humans was at the fore. And when “William H. Cosby,” whose antics were as masterfully improvised as any of the musicians’ efforts, relinquished the emcee duties to his co-host, NY1 News anchor Cheryl Wills (the show was in its fifth hour at this point), the slack in the comedic output was taken up in the spoken word performances of Jane Grenier B. (accompanied by bassist Albey Balgochian and trombonist Denis Beuret) and Anne Waldan (with electronics by Ambrose Bye and Daniel Carter on alto saxophone). Cosby feigned disenchantment with the free improvisation of a fantastic group led by guitarist Dom Minasi (with tenor saxophonist Ras Moshe, drummer Jay Rosen and Balgochian on bass), but the climax of the evening was the following free-jazz performance led by saxophonist/poet Elliot Levin (with trumpeter Roy Campbell, trombonist Beuret, bassist Balgochian, drummer Weasel Walter). Bassist Kim Clarke’s group (with tenor/soprano saxophonist Roger Byam, vibraphonist Bryan Carrott and drummer Kenny Martin) pulled off an excellent demonstration of the blues conducted by Cosby as well as an untitled funk piece followed by “If I Were a Bell.” Kim had the honor of conducting/composing the grand finale that featured all of the performers who hadn’t gone home. Many musicians wound up playing in several groups (bassists Francois Grillot and Balgochian as well as drummer Rosen, trombonist Beuret and trumpeter Hammes) as much of the personnel rosters were improvised as well. There were many other performers involved and I would love to mention them all, but my time for writing is coming to a close. The entire roster with a plotted program (that was not adhered to) is available here.

On a final related note, the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fundis in need of help. JFA’s executive director, Wendy Oxenhorn, stated that the State of New Jersey no longer has funds to provide for its continued operations, so it must look elsewhere for funding. I hope that you might spread the word about this program and help out in any other more direct way that you can.

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2 thoughts on “Jazz in the 21st Century

  1. Lisa Alvarado

    Ratzo — Again, cogent critique and plain speech about art, art-making and the fact we still double-speak about our love of art/music and the bare bones existence most artists face. I also appreciated the use of quotes with “good standing,” et al. It reminds me of the idea of “outside” artist, and for me, begs the question of who decides “good” standing,” and where are the desired places to “stand.”

    Reply

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