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The Chicken or The Gig?

Written by Eric Byrd.

I am unabashedly old school.  I secretly long for the days of Dr. J with the big afro and the red, white and blue basketball.  I remember when the King of Pop looked more like me than not, MTV actually played music videos by Stevie Ray Vaughan and you could watch regular TV shows with your parents without being embarrassed by the risqué content.  My three kids don’t have cable in their bedrooms, they don’t have cell phones, they don’t have Facebook.  My wife and I actually want to parent our children, not be their best friend, and we have standards.  We celebrate achievement, not the standard.  You don’t get money because you got good grades; good grades are what you’re supposed to get.  You earn money by doing work.

I love old school.  I hated it at the time I was young, but I sure appreciate it now.

When I was first getting started playing professionally, I had this crazy notion that I would only book a gig under my own name when I was ready.  I didn’t want to embarrass myself because my entire CD collection – (compact discs for those that don’t know what I’m referencing) – maintained a certain standard.  I wanted to honor the music I claimed to love, the music I said I respected.  I didn’t want to have to read every single note and chord change of every single song in my repertoire.  I didn’t want to figure out on the spot how to cue my band.  I didn’t want to play a song I liked but I couldn’t play the bridge.  I didn’t want to spend most of my time promoting my gig instead of learning the music I was going to play on my gig in the woodshed.  When you love something, you want to be your best for it.

You serve the one you love; it does not serve you.

So which comes first?  Preparedness or the gig?  What’s right?  I don’t know but I have a feeling.  I think there are many benefits to one being prepared before you make a presentation in contrast to booking a gig and then feeling pressured to “get it all in”.  If you’ve read my previous articles you are probably aware of a common theme with me: I believe there are occasions where jazz musicians can be enemies of the music.  One way we can improve is in our preparedness, our presentation of the music to the audience.

Not much makes me angrier than being on stage, playing the chart I was given and having some vocalist make an apology to the crowd: “We haven’t really rehearsed that last song so I’m sorry if it was a little rough…”.   Musicians can play music notation, chord charts, rhythms and even play in different styles.  We’re all striving to be musicians.  The audience paid to hear musicians.  Even more importantly, the music we claim to love obligates us to be the best we can be.  I would make an argument – a very strong argument – for being prepared.

Once you are prepared, and there’s nothing wrong with soliciting the opinion of a more seasoned cat to assess your preparedness, THEN book a performance.  Why not?  You know the material.  You’ve studied the songs inside and out.  You’ve heard the intro the pianist is playing multiple times in multiple ways.  You know the keys, the tempos and how to articulate what a Bossa Nova sounds like and what a Samba sounds like.  (ask a drummer). 

Even greater, you can come to the bandstand with a greater degree of confidence that will exude to the musicians behind you and the crowd in front of you.  Your band will work hard for you, want to give you their best.  They’ll play their hearts out for you because you’ve earned their respect in the practice room.  It’s an intangible.

The audience will be with you from the downbeat.  They’ll pick up on the experience, not just the music.  They will smile with you, laugh with you and fall in love with you if only for one night.  Your stage banter will draw them closer.  They’ll pick up on the silent communication going on between the musicians.  They won’t be able to describe it and they won’t be able to tell you exactly why they like it.  But they’ll tell all their friends they had an experience, and encounter with you and the music that was more valuable than hearing it on the iPod.

So what comes first, the rehearsal or the gig?  Do you study best right before the test?  Do you have the kind of personality that needs pressure to get things done?  That yields a certain response.  But I would argue a much more lasting, deeper impact would be when preparedness is coupled with opportunity. 


Pianist/vocalist Eric Byrd has been an active member of both jazz and gospel music for over 20 years.  The Eric Byrd Trio was US State Department Jazz Ambassadors and is currently on the Maryland Performing Artist Touring Roster.  He has appeared on over 30 recordings and their latest recording is called 21st Century Swing.  Eric can be reached via www.ericbyrd.com

The Enemy Within

Written by Eric Byrd.

Inspired by a recent FB ‘rant’…

I’ve been playing professionally since high school.  I consider a professional someone that gets paid to do what they do.  On June 6th of this year I turned 45 – indeed, a long way from Willingboro HS in New Jersey.  Blame it on my increasingly progressing gray hair, blame it on my increasingly acceleration into becoming an unapologetic curmudgeon or maybe I’ve just played too many gigs, have too many responsibilities, have too many bills and/or have just enough self-respect to be intolerant to disrespect.  But the barriers that exist for those of us that play this music, this jazz, is more pronounced than ever.  Lack of a jazz audience, a dwindling jazz recording industry, lack of performance spaces and a general misunderstanding of the idiom has made all of us on the ‘inside’ feel like the enemy is on the ‘outside’ of the music.

But sometimes the true enemy of this music comes from within: we can be our worst enemy.

What do I mean?  I will take one aspect that has as big an impact on the music as Miles Davis ever made: the economics of the music, specifically the compensation of jazz musicians from other jazz musician band leaders.  Some so-called jazz bandleaders are so happy to work, so happy to have a gig, so thankful to eat crumbs from the table of disrespect that we will take any and every gig that comes our way.  We have no economic standards.  We have to attain self-respect as it relates to compensation.  Currently it appears we’ll play for free.


In the spirit of anonymity I will give an example.  I was recently asked to play a gig from 8pm – 1030pm for $175.  Not bad…certainly not great, but not bad.  But these are the parameters the bandleader accepted on behalf of the gig and needed me to accept:  I had to bring my keyboard rig and be set up by 6pm.  The gig was also an hour drive one-way for me and we were not allowed to get anything to eat or drink for the entire event.  Consequentially an 8-1030pm gig actually turned into a 5pm – midnight gig, turning the gig into a $25 an hour event.  (How much is federal minimum wage again?)

A different bandleader offered a gig to me I was available to play.  Even though I’ve played the gig before for x compensation, the bandleader told me the manager made a mistake with the money and we were now expected to play the same gig I’ve played before for less money because “he forgot to budget the right amount – he did his math wrong”.  The bandleader kept the gig with the same number of musicians, playing the same amount of time, effectively communicating to the manager he is perfectly able to get a quality product for less money.

Why do we do this?!?  More importantly why do we do this to each other??  It’s one thing to expect be disrespected by people on the business side of things; it’s a completely different thing to have musicians – cats, per se – willing to disrespect themselves and you too.  It is almost as if we’ve spent so much time in the woodshed we have no concept of how to do business.

When I was in college I played in a quartet with a wonderful saxophonist named Howard Burns.  Howard showed me tunes, recordings, scales and patterns.  He also showed me – modeled for me – how to create a contract, how to negotiate, what to ask for, how to get paid.  Howard used to tell me all the time “go ask a plumber how much they get paid an hour.  Now go ask your parents how much they’ve invested in years of private lessons, buying your piano, paying for your college music degrees (yes, plural), and then see if $100 for 4 hours is worth your time and energy.”  Howard makes a valid point:

If we in the music don’t educate by deeds and words to those outside the music, there is simply no incentive to change the compensation model.  I mean, I play for the love of the music, but I can love the music I play in my house where at least I know the piano is in tune.

Musicians have to get the business side of their craft together or they will pay a huge penalty.  In the future I will try to address these and more issues.  But for now, consider this: there is something called “perceived value” in marketing.  If we value what we do, how we do it, where we do it and why we do it, we simply cannot give it away. 

We cannot be our own worst enemy.

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