Sometime around the mid 2000’s I was experiencing a career hangover and considered ‘early retirement’ from major league jazz playing; I was going to quit playing what I considered competitive jazz gigs because I wasn’t getting enough of them, I was tired of making 50 phone calls to 1 person to get 1 gig, I wasn’t making any money, I had no manager and (I didn’t realize) I had no plan.
In 2001 the Eric Byrd Trio, consisting of myself, the great bassist Bhagwan Khalsa and the profound drummer Alphonso Young, Jr. received the prestigious Jazz Ambassadorship. We got paid to tour South America for 6 weeks and were treated like the Beatles. Literally. I remember everything about that tour and I don’t remember carrying my luggage once. We signed autographs, played for thousands, gigged private parties for foreign dignitaries and were playing better than ever. When we came home our international stock skyrocketed: we then played the Montreux Jazz Festival, a jazz festival in Dubai and the country of Estonia all within the next few years. It was great.
So how did I get to retirement age? I got sick and tired of the rat race. My family was growing and I wanted to roll around in the floor with my babies. Instead I had to pack up all my equipment and go play a gig for 4 hours for $80. While the music was happening, everything else was certainly not. I was thinking our international experiences would translate into higher paying and higher profile domestic gigs but it had not. I remember once we played for 1,500 in Bolivia one weekend and the next weekend we were playing in some dark corner of a restaurant for no money – and we were playing the same songs in both locations. It didn’t seem worth it and I was getting really down.
Sandy Oxx is the executive director of the Carroll County Arts Center in Westminster, MD. She is also a great friend and neighbor. She was one of the few domestic venues that seemed to value the Trio, our music and me. She was convinced we could sell out her 263-seat theater and we did! More than once! But those gigs were few and far between and I found myself sitting across from Sandy, telling her it was time to quit. Ali had thrown his last punch. No more dunks from Jordan and I didn’t even have baseball as a back up plan.
Sandy and I had lunch and it changed my life. She told me something I never forgot and now I will share it with all of you. It is simple, almost too simple. It was so obvious yet I had not heard it in any place prior. So eloquent, yet I felt dumb for not knowing it myself. And with all that pretense, I will share it with you here:
I poured my heart out pathetically to Sandy about how we were overworked, underpaid, not respected, no gigs, no plan and no future. Sandy listened intently and smiled that little twinkle in her eye. She simply said, “Eric be a Lexus. You are treating yourself like you are a crappy, used car. If you think you are worth more, don’t settle.”
The last article I wrote was called “The Enemy Within”. That critique talked about how if we don’t demand more you won’t get more and there was my mistake. I was taking EVERY gig, ANY gig for ANY amount of money. I placed more of a priority on working than having a career. I hadn’t decided on who or what I wanted to be!
Now let me be clear: I’m not saying there is anything wrong with whatever jazz career path you choose – it’s up to you! There is value to playing the clubs until 3am and there is value in playing a concert that’s over at 10pm. You decide what you want to do. I am blessed to have a job, a family to support and talents that exist outside of jazz which enable me to make a living. So I took Sandy at her word: I wanted to be Lexus.
What does that mean? Have you ever been to a high-end auto sales shop? Have you ever gotten your suit tailor made? Have you ever gone shopping for something expensive? Sandy explained to me that when you go to a Lexus dealership their mission is simple: they believe their product is worth the price, they expect you to pay that price, they won’t lower the price and they don’t even want everyone to buy their car! They believe their product is so special, so valuable, so unique, you will pay top dollar for it even though you can get a hundred other cars for $30,000 less.
Right then and there I left that lunch realizing I wanted to be Lexus. When I get a call for a gig that’s below my financial threshold I politely refuse. I stopped taking anything that came my way. I make sure that potential contractors know that if they want high quality jazz from a high quality jazz trio, it’s going to cost them. My contract stipulates I have to get paid within 30 mins of the gig, we get food and drink, we get free parking and guess what? We ALWAYS get what we ask for. My Trio became Lexus because I demanded a certain level of respect from potential contractors.
Decide who you are in and outside of the music and make career decisions based on that mission. Demand a gig wage worthy of your talent. Be discriminating on your gig selections and by all means, stop letting contractors/club owners define your financial future. You wield power so use it! Thank God I didn’t retire and I’m still working. My Trio is still very active and blessed. We’ve been together 15 years and I suspect we’ll stay together for another 15 at least. It feels good to look at pictures and recordings and see the same guys on the journey with me.
It feels even better to know they’ve been properly compensated for their immense talents.
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
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.
How much does it cost to play Jazz Music at the highest levels?
Most people will never know - most will never ever care, both inside and outside the culture - the cost of playing this music.
Most of you reading this will never know what it's like to practice your heart out all week, all to get to the weekend gig and be ignored by people.
Most of you will never know the pain/rage/hurt of finally - FINALLY - playing a solo you are proud of because the concepts you've been working on are coming together....only to have a drunk or restaurant manager whisper in your ear "can you play softer?" or "can you play something we all know?" or "can you play something by _______?" CODE FOR = whatever you're currently playing, no one cares about it so do something else.
Most of you will never know the tension of playing a concert (usually outside of the country) and having hundreds, even thousands standing on their feet to cheer your music and buy your CD's - only to come "home" and play the same songs with the same energy and have people not even know you're at the piano.
Most of you won't know what it's like to hear Miles play a ballad and be moved to tears, or hear Branford's Quartet swing so hard you almost can't take it, or have Sassy or 'Trane or Mehldau or Brecker or Mulgrew or Cyrus or Gene Harris affect you emotionally so deeply, you can't wait to play it/tell it to someone - only to stop yourself because you remember said person won't feel it like you and their first response will most certainly be 'who the heck is Monk?'
Why do I say all this? You may wonder 'this does not seem worth it'. It's probably not. So why do I do it? Why do we do it? Certainly it's the love for the music as you can't run from who and what you are. If my heart was committed to bluegrass or thrash, I guess I would be playing that. But ever since KIND OF BLUE I've been hooked. (look it up, if you don't know. geesh...). But I was reminded of an extra musical, a non-musical reason for my love for this genre this past week: it's the relationships of others in the struggle that keep you going.
I had a difficult week this past week. But I received great council from 3 people I respect greatly: Chris Grasso, Vince Evans and Bhagwan. I needed some sage advice and I got it from 3 people who have dedicated their lives in the music. And they took the time to share their wisdom with me. These conversations have kept me going as I was pretty down about something, but they've picked me up!
And it finally dawns on me - that's why we play. That's why we deal with drunks and ignorance. That's why care so deeply. Because when we finally make a connection with someone 'who knows' it's the most special thing in the world. You wouldn't trade it for anything. It's the relationships that matter. It's the people that you care about that care about you that count. It matters to me.
So thanks Vince and Chris. And thanks B. Thanks to you, I slept pretty good last night :)