Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Death of the Jazz Star

When I first moved to New York, there were two main ways in which musicians made a living playing jazz: playing in the band of some famous person, or becoming a jazz star. Sometimes the previous led to the latter.

Wanting jazz stardom, as I saw it, wasn't so much about ego. Musicians weren't putting out the vibe that said, "Hey, look at me. I'm so great. I'm the best." Maybe this was true for some, but for many it was about economic survival, not ego appeasement.

Jazz stardom simply meant making a living through performing, preferably leading your own band. This is different from the Hollywood version of stardom of red carpet events, super-model girlfriends and million dollar pay checks. Being a jazz star just meant that you had regular work, made frequent appearances in jazz publications, and had won the adornment of jazz fans and critics all over the world. In an expensive and competitive city like New York, having made it could mean something as modest as not having to live with roommates. This was very much my definition during earlier years.

And I certainly wanted my shot at jazz stardom, even though I did little to facilitate it. I liked the idea of it, not the networking it took to achieve it. Just thinking about those times conjures up feelings of anxiety, anger and resentment. The amount of kissing up required was a bit much. Begging A&R reps to come to your gigs, the numerous calls made trying to get these guys on the phone; it was horrible. They were the hot chicks at the dance and we were the horny teenagers trying to get their number.

Today's young musicians seem to have less lofty aspirations. Surviving playing the music that one loves seems to satisfy most. In fact, many men and women I know have come to terms with never experiencing the joys of raising a family, owning a home, or having a nest egg to fall back on during their senior years--all for the love of music. Music has essentially become their babies. This certainly was the case for me in my 20s and most of my 30s. I often questioned whether I would ever experience the titles of husband, father, and family guy.  I was certainly prepared to use music as a surrogate for these things. I'm fortunate not having to choose one or the other.

What exactly is a jazz star? Is it he or she who is popular, sells a lot of CDs, or headlines the major festivals? Could be...or not. As I see it there are two kinds: There are those who arrive at jazz stardom through merit, and those who arrive at it through marketing. One is a byproduct of doing great work; they produce something desirable and consequently, a lot of people want it; the other is a byproduct of having out spent their contemporaries. People do want they have to offer, but mainly because they're being told to.  This was very common in the late 80s and most of the 1990s.

The problem with the latter is that it has influenced the previous. People who initially created good and sincere work began mimmicking the strategies of those who achieved it through marketing.

During this period, managers and agents had us duped into believing that we could not have a career without having a marketable story. People had totally lost faith in just doing quality work. It was really sad. And what was considered a good story was constantly changing. At one time it was being from New Orleans; then it was being able to play jazz and classical; then it was being young and black; then it was being from Cuba; then it was having a band with your brother; then it was being the son of a famous jazz musician. And it went on and on. It was everything except producing great music.  So you can see why many who rose to jazz stardom under these pretenses, eventually faded.

The jazz legends and the really creative types who had built a reputation for doing great work, began selling themselves and their audiences short when they began mimicking the marketing strategies of the aforementioned. They came away looking cliche and desperate. Their career trajectory usually looked something like this:
  • First they made a name for themselves playing their own music.
  • Then when bookings became more difficult, they began forming all-star bands.
  • When that stopped working, they put together an electric or funk project.
  • And when all else failed, they started  playing someone else's music.

You could see it coming a mile away. Consequently, many American jazz festivals nowadays are filled with either tribute bands, all-star bands, or a combination of the two. And I'm not here to bash. I can understand people needing to do what needs to be done. Get to the bandstand by any means necessary, I always say. 

Doing whatever it takes to make you and your band bookable does work short term, however, in the long term, it creates no artistic capital. And besides, this way of doing things has become somewhat irrelevant in the bigger picture. The bigger picture is being able to look back and feel good about the body of work you've left behind; a legacy of which you can be proud. A body of work others look at in reverence and go, "This person really stood for something," not, "He was a master of coming up with great promotional angles and gimmicks"

I call this the lipstick-on-a-pig approach. On the surface it looks special, but when you wipe away the red carnauba wax, the only thing left is a pig. This is classic fluff over substance, which if continued, ends in regress, not progress. Again, I applaud anyone who can be viewed as the cream of the crop in today's climate. This is no easy feat.

Today, as I see it, is the time of the artist. A time for musicians who not only have the creativity to think differently, but the courage to bring that vision to fruition. We can't continue passing off clichés with a backbeat as contemporary or progress, nor can we continue riding the wave of someone else's accomplishments. That's too easy. It's like they say, "If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is."

When I first started playing the soprano, I wanted praise just for playing it exclusively. It didn't come that easy. To get noticed, I've had to work hard, and continue to do so. Cliché tactics don't work for me. I wish they did sometimes. Trying to be creative and inventive is hard work and at times draining--more emotionally than musically.

The great thing about living in this artistically fertile and creative period is that everybody gets a chance to play the metaphorical game of jazz. Carving out a career is not reserved for the select few, and those with a marketable story. This is a good thing. New and interesting music is being explored all over the world, and those following the jazz star model of the past, become poster children for the status quo.

We don't have to completely bury the concept of the jazz star. Even with its diminishing relevance, we all should strive for jazz stardom, in some fashion. Not to feed our egos, but for the simple reason of being able to pay the bills playing our own music. And if you can walk a few red carpets and date a few super-models along the way, more power to you.

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