Posted by & filed under Music.

Throughout this series I will explore what successful jazz artists (or artists typically tethered to the label) such as Esperanza Spalding, Trombone Shorty, Rebirth Brass Band, Medeski Martin and Wood, John Scofield, Snarky Puppy, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, and others have in common as far as their success is concerned, and whether this can be reproduced in some manner…

As a younger musician I had a rather dark view on music and its place in our culture, and felt rather cynically that it was all but impossible for jazz musicians to enjoy any kind of significant financial success. My feelings have since changed, in large part because of my growing awareness of the success of various musicians including the aforementioned (and there are a number of others), but also because I now see no particular reason why success needs to have a particular cap placed on it. Granted, as a jazz musician myself and having spent countless hours hanging with all sorts of jazz musicians, it is an obvious given that success as a jazz musician is extremely difficult, I don’t think that anybody would dispute this, but I’m starting to believe that success is just a matter of figuring out the right approach.

Who am I and Why Should You Read My Blog Posts?

I’m nobody in particular. I cannot “walk the walk”, nor would I claim to be able to. However, I also think that there is no point in waiting around for somebody at the top of the jazz elite totem pole to share some sort of vision that will lead us all to some sort of promise land where there are far fewer starving musicians. We are all trying to solve the same sort of problems, I’m merely trying to stimulate some conversation. I’m hoping you will feel inclined to share your comments!

Should The Successes of the Aforementioned Musicians Be Reproduced?

Probably not, if by “reproduced” we mean “copied verbatim”. Most musicians seem to share a disinterest in some sort of manufactured, insincere facade designed to manipulate their image and the public’s perception of them. However, there are many ways an image and a career can be developed, and I find that it can be inspiring examining the different ways musicians have succeeded, interesting to look at what these musicians have in common, and what kind of demographics have latched on to their careers. Maybe the word “reproduce” should be replaced with “learn from”, but I happen to think that some manner of reproduction (possibly after having gone down a completely different path) is a possible outcome from this process.

Okay, So Why Do I Think That This Success Can Be Reproduced?

After all, those musicians I’ve listed are some pretty heavy names! What do they have that us mere mortals lack? Here are some possible answers and counter arguments:

  • Virtuosity/chops/musical knowledge/talent. I would imagine this would be the most common response to this question, but my argument would be that firstly, the general public doesn’t really care all that much about virtuosity (although some appreciate it when they hear it for the short time it holds their interest), but even more importantly than that, I would argue that in the case of Trombone Shorty’s music, just for example, he would still be successful with half the amount of chops that he has. Why? Because his music is ridiculously fun, he sells it ridiculously well, people seem to have fun at his shows, and frankly, many of it is not super brainy or a vehicle for his virtuosity anyway.
  • A willingness/interest for the musician to “sell themselves out”, or dumb their music down for their audiences. I used to think that this was a large part of financial success, but Esperenza Spalding’s music is pretty sophisticated, and look at the middle section of Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon… Those changes are pretty hip, yet while that part of the song may not be as popular as the main groove (that some high school bass player is playing as you are reading this), I’ve never heard of or seen people turn the song off when that section comes up – it seems to play just fine! Return to Forever seems to have a relatively big following too, and their music is clearly pretty complex. Sure, you are going to lose a sizable audience if your chord changes are only designed to impress the secret jazz cult society, obviously there needs to exist some sort of balance, but perhaps a musician doesn’t have to dumb their music down to titillating teenage pop fans levels to have a decent audience and make a semi-decent living?
  • These artists have/had appreciative audiences or came from some sort of environment that somehow appreciated them more and provided unique opportunities. Sure they have appreciative audiences, but these audiences are also pretty diverse, as is the musical range among the artists I have listed. Why couldn’t you cultivate your own appreciative audience? I would argue that the vast majority of music these days is fusion of some sort, as is our entire culture (food is good example of what I mean here). If you can get people past their preconceptions of what your music might be about before hearing it, why couldn’t you find some fusion of different kinds of music that taps into some sort of artery?

I obviously don’t buy any of these arguments for the reasons stated. In my subsequent blog posts I will share some of my thoughts on what might work as far as a foundation for musical success, starting with looking at the dreaded musical labels and their impact on public perception.

If any of these thoughts have stimulated any ideas of your own, please share them by commenting on any of these posts… I will be very interested in hearing from those who have somehow stumbled across these articles!

  • Jordon

    Very interesting! Looking forward to the upcoming articles!