The Life and Times of a Young Jazz Musician

Jazz is America’s music. Unfortunately, in most cases America has lost sight of that due to the extensions of jazz that have now taken over mainstream music due to “mass appeal.” The average person the age of twenty-one or under can more than likely only name Kenny G (nothing against the guy) when asked about a jazz music. On a good day, names such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong will be brought up.

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The fact is, it’s hard out here for a jazz musician, harder than even classical musicians. Though classical music could possibly be considered less popular, the genre is far more rewarding financially. In the nation’s capital, the average gig at a jazz club pays about fifty dollars. Unfortunately the situation is even worse in New York, which is where most jazz musicians go to play and establish a reputation for themselves. Even musicians with deals are starving, falling victim to record labels who neglect to market what isn’t so easily received by the mass appeal.

Sounds tough right? Well it is. Nonetheless, the jazz artists aren’t the ones who have it the worst. The fact is, it is harder for the current aspiring jazz musician to establish themselves in the genre than ever before for any other generation.

As a jazz student myself, I know firsthand the struggles of being in such a position. Current students/young jazz musicians have to deal with two main types of external opposition: that of time and that of their teachers (who in true “there’s no school like the old school” fashion, are stuck in their ways as a majority concerning how jazz should actually sound). Altogether, these struggles make it very discouraging towards anyone with a desire to be a jazz musician. These two different struggles in fact coincide directly, needing each other to survive.

The reality is that times change. Jazz no longer is the mainstream music of America, causing our youth’s exposure to jazz to diminish. Since jazz is no longer the mainstream music, upcoming jazz musicians in majority cases don’t even become exposed to jazz until they reach high school. It is no longer the time where jazz musicians start out at extremely young ages. Such a blessing only occurs now when one is raised in a family of jazz musicians or jazz lovers.

I was blessed enough to have a father who loves jazz , and as soon as I piqued a serious interest in the trumpet when I was fourteen, he began buying me Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard records. However, my first real experience in playing jazz wasn’t until I was almost sixteen, which is extremely late compared to the musicians of the past. Due to this late start, the average aspiring jazz musician is forced to work extra hard to have an idea of where we want to go, let alone gaining the skills to do so.

On top of that, jazz music, though not any more valid than any other music or art form, is a very difficult discipline to learn. We live in a day where the mainstream music is so much easier to create and requires less skill due to technology. Instead of hiring a band to back you up, all you have to do is make an electronic instrumental. Also, consider rap music. Rap is centered on electronic instrumentals and lyrics. A lyricist, though has to work on his or her craft and master it, initially starts out with a natural talent to write. A jazz musician, on the contrary, starts out with no natural talent more often than not.

While on the subject of technology, let me remind you that when jazz was the mainstream music, students of the discipline did not have all the technology of today. Instead of playing video games, watching cable, or spending three hours on Facebook, people would practice and perfect their craft, which in this case is jazz.

While many of the older jazz musicians focus more on the past than present, the youth grow up barely hearing jazz to begin with. They only know jazz music as the music their grandparents (and if they’re lucky their parents) listen to, having absolutely no idea that jazz doesn’t absolutely have to sound that way due to how the old heads expect jazz to sound. If the rare case occurs wherein one does know that jazz doesn’t have to sound now like it did in the past, s/he is skeptical about the results of such actions. Though learning the foundation is vital, it is just as vital to learn how to reach into yourself to find your own voice, all while incorporating the past, something that is not mentioned much in the classroom if not at all.

Just as opposition from the old heads and the time we’re in coincide, external opposition influences internal opposition for the young jazz musician. The struggle against peers and teachers can develop into an insecurity concerning one’s identity as an artist. This identity crisis is quite common and is worsened by record companies.

Presently, most labels will not properly promote or properly pay a jazz artist unless his/her album sounds identical to the music that the greats played jazz twenty years ago and back. Such a situation puts a jazz artist in a situation where s/he is faced with two decisions with their own consequences: play jazz the way it is EXPECTED to be played and neglect personal artistic identity or be true to one’s own identity as a musician and risk starving. While one is financially stable but dissatisfying, the other is satisfying but a serious gamble. This is a dilemma that faces all current jazz musicians.

Ok, enough with the bad news. So now that the cons of our situation are aired out, what’s next? What in God’s name is the move from here?! That answer, my friends and fellow musicians, is to realize the pros in the situation. After all, when life throws you lemons, make a grape/lemon kool-aid mix (what ya’ll know about that lol).

Yes we’re a jazz-deprived generation, but we’re also soldiers/pioneers/the last of a dying breed whose main goal is to go out there MULTIPLY. Our peers don’t think jazz is for them? Old heads think jazz has to be “straight ahead”? Well prove them all otherwise through making your music YOUR way. After all, what else can we do but be true to ourselves? The Beboppers did the same thing when THEIR old heads were discrediting their music. Yea we’re a few years behind, but that will make it THAT much sweeter when history is made all while breaking that crutch for ourselves as well as future generations in the process.

The homie Christian Scott said he’s just trying to open the door for the next generation. Well guess what guys? The door’s cracked and is getting wider, and it’s our job to walk through. Who’s with me?

Your fellow soldier,
Jared Bailey