How to Make a Million Dollars Playing Jazz

Pass Go, Collect $200, Go for Broke.

Start with two million…

I know, ancient, right?  But there is a reason the conventional wisdom is just that.

A while back, a friend told me he had been talking about me with his private students.  I assumed it was just another instance of someone offering me up as a cautionary tale, but no.  He was referring to me as somebody who had ‘made it’–in this case, playing jazz for a living as opposed to playing  Top 40 hits, or country, or anything else professional jazz musicians do instead of what they would rather be doing.

It is true.  I’m very fortunate to play jazz on the bulk of my gigs.  And the fact that most of them are played in front of children makes me take it even more seriously, because in a lot of cases, this is their first exposure.  We want it to be an authentic one.

No dumbing down, no LCD stuff.  Sure, we use humor and props, but that’s just to keep them involved.  As far as the music itself goes, we pull no punches.  We have thrown Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Billy Strayhorn, and Thelonious Monk at them.  Doesn’t faze them a bit.  In fact, they ate up Monk with a spoon.  Kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for.

The best thing about playing for kids is their lack of sophistication.  Not because we want to pull the wool over their eyes, but because they don’t know how to be demanding.  Adult clients, on the other hand, know nothing else.

Weddings are a particular challenge, because there is such a large age range.  So we get hired on the basis of being a swing band, playing classy arrangements of Ellington, Basie, et al.  Then the crowd starts to get liquored up and a little loosy-goosey, and young people in clumps start asking for “Elvira” and “Mustang Sally”.  Fine, we can hang with that.  Then come the requests for George Strait, Kenny G, and Lady GagMe.  Sorry, we’re not going there.  Then the grandfather of the bride wanders over and wonders why we stopped playing Glenn Miller.  I look down the bandstand for the smallest musician I can pitch into the crowd, to slow them down enough to facilitate our hasty departure.

You know the expression, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?  That is never more true than in the case of being hired by a client who knows what they want, until they get it.  Then they change their mind.  So we give them something else close to it.  No, that’s not it either.  Go back to the first one, but add tapioca.  Hmm…maybe some vanilla extract…You know what?  Do you guys have an accordionist?

We do, it turns out, but he left his accordion at home when you said you wanted bebop.  Now you’re stuck with two horns and three rhythm.  It’s a little late to be asking for “Lady of Spain”.

But kids don’t want “Lady of Spain”, or Lady of Whatever Else.  They’ll take what you got, because anything is better than going back to Geography.  So we give them Louis Armstrong, Antonio Carlos Jobim, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, et cetera…

I wonder sometimes if anything sticks with them, and I finally decided it doesn’t matter.  Because years from now, they will run across this stuff out in the world, and it will register.  It’s the same principle at play when I hum a jingle that I heard a dozen times on TV when I was six years old, and never since.  Music is like that; it gets in the nooks and crannies of your brain and just lodges there.  It seems forgotten, then some random association calls it up and you’re humming it all over again.  And if the initial exposure to it was a positive one, then you’re much more receptive “when it comes around again on the geetar.”

And years later, when you are an adult, and you have hired us to play for you, remember:  Trust us.  We are the professionals.





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