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