A Professional Jazz Musician’s Work Ethic
Taking on the life of a Jazz musician seems to
present a number of inherent contradictions. First, it’s very difficult to any
longer define exactly what that means. Many strive for this but few actually
achieve it. There was a time when Jazz was the popular music of the era and
swing was King! It was far easier and clearer to define. There is still a
debate going on which is not new as to whether the music should even be called
Jazz. For purposes of this article, we will define Jazz as the historically well-known
form of dance, popular and listening music so well documented in its brief
approximately 120-year-old history. As the great Duke Ellington insisted, there
are two kinds of music…good and bad! Jazz has an element that differentiates it
from other forms of “good” music. It must have an element of swing that is a
kinetic force of rhythmic energy that propels itself forward usually coupled
with a building momentum. It is this element that has always been present in all
forms of the music from Louis Armstrong’s and Jelly Roll Morton’s earliest
recordings through the big band era of the 20’s and 30’s and the small group
efforts that followed. It is precisely this swing that formed the backbone of
much of the popular music of the 40’s and 50’s and eventually morphed into Rock
and Roll via early Rhythm and Blues bands that were offshoots of the Post War
Improvisation would be the second important prerequisite. Jazz Musicians are valued for their flexibility and versatility in being able to adapt their personal styles to the many forms of music that present themselves. Improvising well encompasses a broad number of musical skills including masterful instrumental technique, in-depth knowledge of ear training, orchestration, arranging, composition and a wide ranging repertoire of Jazz Standards, Jazz originals and the ability to quickly learn and absorb any new music presented to them.
Those are the basic parameters of the Jazz musician in my opinion and experience. The roles of innovator, true master, game changer and immediately identifiable player are only achieved by a few and for good reason. We all have an opportunity to achieve these goals but there is an un-replaceable factor of talent that comes into play. The rest is up to the individual and those achievements only come with hard work and much experience.
As Professionals, we are faced with a number of ethical decisions.
(1) Integrity is of the utmost importance. A player needs to stay true to who they are as much as possible. This is not to say that we can’t adapt what we do in the world around us. That is often necessary for survival and ALL Jazz musicians have had to deal with this. The concept extends into the professional sense in that we have to treat our work situations with as much integrity as possible. If that means setting a minimum wage for yourself (this was formerly done by the Musician’s Union but no longer applies in most situations) then that needs to be adhered to even if it means losing work. The lack of ethics in this area has caused a great deterioration in the ability to negotiate a fair wage commensurate with earned ability. Too many people willing to go out and perform for little or nothing or even pay-to-play have not only prevented wages from making any kind of progress but caused them to regress or stay at the same level of 30-40 years ago. The other side of this is artists (or their representatives) raising their prices so far as to make them unaffordable or with little left over for other acts on a particular show or festival.
(2) Always provide a high standard of
service. This can mean many things such as showing up on time, prepared,
dressed well, being well spoken, prepared to play the music at hand and being
as co-operative as possible. At the level of being a bandleader or “Artist”
that is presenting a program to which people are paying to hear, this standard
goes much further. There are no excuses for bad or indifferent performances.
Playing for the audience should not be confused with playing “down” to the
audience. Audiences appreciate the real deal. They can tell whether you’re
faking your sincerity or not. The greatest Jazz artists were usually the
greatest human beings delivering a sincere and high-level performance every
time out leaving their audience with a memorable and uplifting and thought
provoking experience. Enthusiasm
is a positive thing but shouldn’t replace substance. A Jazz musician’s goal
should be to offer music that is rhythmically
compelling, memorable, and sing able. In
this day and age, we are living in a much more visual era where how one looks has
become as or more important than how one sounds or what one plays.
Nevertheless, music is primarily and aural experience but needs to do more than
merely “sound good.” It should be uplifting.
(3) Act in a manner, both in your professional life and private life, to promote you, your group or the organization you work for in a professional and positive way. How you present yourself in any situation is key to being asked back. What do you stand for? What does the music you play stand for? How do you affect others around you and are you prepared for the consequences of your actions? If you say you will do something, will you actually do it or are you always looking for “wiggle” room?
(4) Treat others with respect. In any professional situation, you are called upon to present a high quality service and often work with other professionals. You are not called to be a judge or a star. This means that you’re “game” is always at a high level, you don’t talk about others behind their backs or spout negative statements about people not present because it will soon become clear that you may say the same things about people that are present later on. Acknowledge any suggestions or directions that someone may offer and basically complete what’s required. Just because it’s a Jazz situation doesn’t mean you get to make up your own rules. Working as a team is an important part of the process and often requires subjugating one’s personality. You will get your turn when it’s time to solo. Always remain engaged and keep your eyes and ears open. It’s the same thing film actors and directors talk about: learn to listen closely and then respond.
Take responsibility. This is an extension of (4). Be totally accountable for
your actions and do not ever blame others or the situation for a problem. If
you can’t hear yourself onstage, either ask for help from the sound person or
carry your own personal monitor. If you’re unclear on an arrangement or a chord
sequence, ask the musical director or pianist for clarification. If something
isn’t right, take action to correct it so you can fully function. Sometimes, it
might mean asking a section for a quick run through or to go over a rough
ensemble part until everyone is comfortable.
At this point, it would be worthwhile to truly understand the meaning of the word “professional”. The Wikipedia offers a reasonable definition:
“A professional is a person who is engaged in a certain activity, or occupation, for gain or compensation as means of livelihood; such as a permanent career, not as an amateur or pastime. The traditional professions were doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects and commissioned military officers. Today, the term is applied to nurses, accountants, educators, scientists, technology experts, social workers, artists, librarians (information professionals) and many more.
The term is also used in sports to differentiate amateur players from those who are paid—hence "professional footballer" and "professional golfer". Many companies include the word professional in their store name to imply the quality of their workmanship or service.
In some cultures, the term is used as shorthand to describe a particular social stratum of well-educated, salaried workers who enjoy considerable work autonomy and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work.
Due to the personal and confidential nature of many professional services, and thus the necessity to place a great deal of trust in them, most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct enshrining rigorous ethical and moral obligations.”
Overall, this is a good working definition. Clearly, this definition
embraces more than merely getting paid as professional criteria. It talks about
differentiating the service from an amateur level. It means delivering a high
level of service every time out, one that requires exceptional ability acquired
through training AND much experience. As a professional musician, all the above principles apply as well as being able to
accurately read music, play well in tune, and understanding how to phrase
properly within a section or a solo. As a professional Jazz musician, you must have all the above as well as the rare
ability to play solos and improvise with an identifiable sound and a memorable
content without a safety net. This is a professional obligation and all the
greats had this ability going on night after night on five different continents
for three hundred days a year. Certainly, some performances are more inspired
than others but the level never drops below a certain standard. This is what being
a professional is actually about.
The entertainment factor in Jazz is also important. Just standing there and playing good sounding solos is not enough. Simply announcing the names of tunes and the names of the band members is not enough. Does this mean learning dance steps or wearing colorful costumes is what is required? Certainly not! It means inviting an audience into your world the same way you would invite someone into your home. Make them feel comfortable perhaps through humor or simply talking to them, not at them. Is the music alone enough? Sometimes, but it really has to captivate the audience and that is rare and depends on many environmental conditions as well as the artistry involved. There are ways. Find what works for you on a natural and unforced level.
As a musician, there is an added duty to pass these principles on to future generations as well as solid musical and technical input. Teaching is one of the best forms of learning. In order to teach well, you need to be open to what the student is doing and saying. Often the student comes up with their own unique solution to their own problem. We can learn from that as well as other facts. If we tell the truth, the student will begin to understand that sincerity and honesty are the most important part of playing and, for that matter, living.
Again, getting paid alone is NOT the definition of a professional. The levels of accomplishment have to be set at a much higher bar to be useful to anyone looking to pay for your services. Being a Jazz musician is a way of life. Getting paid to be a Jazz musician is a high calling. The relationships developed are the true basis of the music played. Trusting your musical associates is very important since you are working without a net and one needs to earn that trust. The musicians you play with can both gain from your inspirations and you from theirs. The audiences can sense when this chemistry is present. They want to feel like they are part not apart of the performance. Indifference is not acceptable to the other musicians or the audience. Your sincerity and honesty are crucial to developing this kind of rapport. The greatest players have always been the greatest humanitarians, even though some feigned a sort of arrogance based on their own confidence to deliver. Underneath that kind of exterior, was a great human being with a big heart.
What seems to be missing in many of today’s younger generation is humility. Simply having technical skills has never been enough without the heart to create a spiritual force that will embrace people all over the world. Simply developing an arrogant attitude via flashy performances, a type of dress or assuming that what they do should be lauded will never be enough. The apprenticeship system that was once in place, kept young player’s head’s on straight. They were regularly exposed to individuals who could deliver creatively night after night, whose playing never went below a certain level and often exceeded their own efforts. That was the kind of heat that made a jewel. There simply isn’t enough of an economic basis for this to happen any more. But that is how the Jazz players we all worship became so great. They were “in the trenches” all the time.
Is all lost or is there hope for change and
renewal? I’m certain there is great hope and
perhaps a good chance at the rebirth of an ethical, spiritually based renewal
but it has to take place in our culture. At this time, the “Bell Curve” seems
to be the dominant force in our society.
Its (The Bell Curve) central argument is that human intelligence is substantially influenced by both inherited and environmental factors and is a better predictor of many personal dynamics. The concept also argues that those with high intelligence, the "cognitive elite", are becoming separated from those of average and below-average intelligence, and that this is a dangerous social trend with the United States moving toward a more divided society.
This is indicative of how our educational system has failed to take these factors into account and may be material for another article. But since Jazz has been codified and learned primarily in educational institutions, the ethical and spiritual considerations are basically non-existent. I look forward to the day where there is a broader dissemination of Jazz into our culture as there once was, musicians developed their own ethos and real creativity is honored beyond the mere marketing of so much “manufactured product”. In the meantime, it’s up to individuals to form and perpetuate their own standards of conduct and approach our music and profession with the seriousness it deserves.
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