Written much more in sorrow and bewilderment than in self-righteous anger:

I continue to be puzzled by the lack of generosity of jazz fans in live music venues.  Many people who are having a good time and yelling WOOHOO! at the end of a set of inspired music by live musicians slip away when the tip jar is passed or — with visible discomfort — put a dollar bill in it.  And the bill is sometimes put there under guilt-inducing scrutiny: a person (spectator, friend, or musician) moves the jar from patron to patron, waiting patiently, making eye contact.

A friend has been in charge of passing the tip jar at some gigs, and she has told me, “When I stand in front of someone with the jar, the person will take a dollar bill, crumple it up, and put his / her closed hand into the jar so that the bill cannot be seen.  When I count the money at the end of the gig, the crumpled dollar bills far outweigh any other ones.”

At some gigs, the tip jar sits in front of the band or on top of the piano, it may remain almost empty all night.  If it can be ignored or skirted, it is.

Of course there are a thousand reasons and rationalizations for this lack of largesse.

“It’s a terrible economy” is perhaps the first.  I couldn’t deny that.

“The musicians are getting paid by the club / bar / management, aren’t they?” comes in second.  One hopes so, but at what rates?

A more elaborate construction is “Tipping is a disgrace.  The musicians shouldn’t have to beg, and my way of protesting their salaries is to refuse to demean them with a gratuity.”

That last one I like a great deal, for it manages to sound noble while the speaker’s wallet is safe, untouched.

I am sure that JAZZ LIVES readers who have waited tables or served food and drink in other ways have stories of frugality (to be exceedingly polite).  For many people, “tourists” of one kind or another, the lack of generosity may result from an unfamiliarity with the customs of the country, a pervasive unawareness.  But if you come from far away to (let us say) New York or San Francisco and you have a guidebook, it does mention the subject.  Even if the commentary is most often about waitpeople in restaurants and people who carry suitcases elsewhere, a wise tourist who wishes to be gracious can understand the significance of a jar and what might be offered to creative musicians as a tangible thank-you.

Now, I know that both younger and older generations have been enabled — perhaps encouraged — to put distance between them and the music by records, radio, videos on YouTube, downloads, and more.  But when a jazz fan visits an establishment where there is one person or a dozen playing instruments or singing, it is harder to ignore their tangible reality of the artists at work.  They are PEOPLE.  They have instruments; they sing or speak into microphones.  They make eye contact.  They are much larger than earbuds, more substantial than any digital download.

To me, the person unwilling to give the musicians something as an expression of gratitude is saying wordlessly but powerfully, “You musicians are not people I have to acknowledge.  You are background music, hired to play while I eat and drink.  Philosophically, you are the barely-visible soundtrack to my pleasure.  When I go home, you might continue to exist, but not in my reality.”

Few working musicians are prospering playing improvised jazz, I think.  Many of my heroes and heroines are singing and playing their hearts out for fifty dollars an evening.  Plus tips.  Or sometimes the improvisers “play for the door,” which is not a way to go home feeling well-compensated.

I am haunted by the cheerful words one musician told me midway through a three-hour performance in a bar where the patrons were regularly consuming drinks.  “Michael, I love this gig!  It pays sixty-five dollars and a salad!”  (This was not an ironic or satiric utterance: he stated this happily.)

How many of my readers would be willing to work for three hours for this salary — and that’s before taxes?  And the musician, I assure you, was world-famous.  He was not stacking boxes in a supermarket; he was not pumping gasoline.

I would like to propose a new moral / aesthetic guideline.  Of course I have no power to enforce it, except to suggest that it is both fair and kind.

Those who download music from iTunes, for instance, pay close to a dollar a song.  And in that case only some of that money goes directly to the artist.  Wouldn’t a dollar a song be a fair starting point for compensating musicians playing live in front of you?  True, you cannot necessarily stuff them into your earbuds — Newtonian physics is against it — but they are creating something right in front of you.  Or, a more tangible model.  A seventy-five minute CD costs fifteen to twenty dollars.  Listen to an hour-plus of music; pay the band something equivalent.

I hear the objections.  “People will stay away from clubs and bars if they are expected to pay such high prices for the music.  And the owners want to see their places filled with patrons buying food and drinks to justify the expenditure of hiring jazz musicians.”  

I know that the “cover charge” drives some casual — and some serious — listeners away.  But I wonder whether musicians are happy when they are forced to push a tip jar into people’s line of sight and wait for the dollar to be dropped in.  Is this inspiring or demeaning?

What might we say to the patron who has had a few glasses of win and a meal — let us say a thirty-dollar tab or less — who then puts a dollar in the tip jar under duress.  Is it too much to say, “Put the cost of one glass of wine in the tip jar; fair to you; fair to them”?

I do my best to be generous now, but I was guilty of this in 1972.  I saw Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s and sat the whole night nursing a $2.50 bottle of Miller beer, which didn’t taste all that good at 9 PM and was foul after midnight.  In my defense, I was a college student with a part-time job who was earning $1.85 / hour.  But I feel bad about it now, and wish I had been able to be more generous.  I wish I could apologize to Roy and the band.  I was wrong.

I am sure that some listeners and perhaps a few musicians will object to the fuss they perceive me as making here.  “It goes with the territory, and my heroes who played in the (insert golden decade here) didn’t make a great living, so why should I complain?”  The logic bothers me.  Because Johnny Dodds had a drive a taxi to be somewhere in the neighborhood of solvent, should modern musicians.

Is the artist unworthy of a living wage?

I think ultimately that listeners have some moral obligation to be generous to the musicians they say they admire.  

If they choose to lament that their favorite players are having a hard time, have they contributed tangibly to the ease and comfort of the artist?  

And, on a larger scale, those who lament the lack of places to play, artists being forced to take day jobs to survive — in fact, the very DEATH OF JAZZ — to give it the appropriate journalistic emphasis.  Are the people who look away when the tip jar comes or drop a dollar in it killing off jazz and jazz musicians by their delicate frugalities?

The Beloved, very wise, said to me, “Didn’t you write a post about this already?” She is right.  It’s one of her finest qualities.  I expect some disagreement to be expressed by both fans and musicians.  But I find the manifestations of a lack of gratitude dismaying.  And since gratitude is one of the primary engines beneath human kindness, I do not feel upset about writing this polite protest against its absence.  Words from Thoreau’s CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, slightly edited, seem apt here:

I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.

When the individual plays a trombone, a guitar, or sings, should we cease to be neighborly?

Ponder this, dear listeners.  Bills come in denominations larger than ONE.

May your happiness increase. 

9 responses to “. . . AND A DOLLAR SHORT?

  1. louisefarrell

    YES!!! Good for you, Michael. I see this happen over and over. I do believe there is a silent undercurrent at work whereby the listeners tell themselves that the musicians just love what they do (they do) and it would somehow tarnish the puriety of the experience for everone to “throw” filthy lucre into the mix.
    I’m sure that is exaggerated and that some people simply want something for nothing. But no matter, musicians deserve to be paid by the establishment and if there is a tip jar, by the listeners themselves. Otherwise there will soon be no live music.

  2. You said it, Michael!

  3. ‘Is the artist unworthy of a living wage?’

    If I had a dollar for every time I’ve struggled with this question, I wouldn’t need a wage.

  4. This is really interesting to read Michael – a tip jar for musicians is not something I’ve ever come across in the UK. We do have the same problem with earning a living wage I guess – and those who persevere do it because they love it so much.
    The only musicians I know of in the UK who do earn a salary are full time orchestral musicians…and ironically a lot of the ones I’ve met don’t seem to be very happy in their work!

  5. The solution to this is abundant public support for the arts.

    The chance of this occurring under the prevailing economic system: zero

    Draw your own conclusions.

  6. Dear MS- In an antique shop not long ago I saw a piece of tramp-art (that’s what I’d call it) of a cat made out of wood- flat- not sculpted- definitely preWW2. It was hollow and had a small drawer in the back. The cat’s eyes lit up with 2 small red bulbs. It was purposefully a mangy looking cat- The painted letters on the front said… “Feed The Kitty!” Kitty’s mouth was open and that’s where you dropped the dough. This Kitty did all the work! The point here is there are many ways to present your request for tip money. Just passing the Tip Jar is kind of like passing the basket/plate in church. However, if you have someone passing the “jazz TJ” they could be engaging and make a pleasant statement to the person whose nose is under the jar… “Would you like to express your appreciation for this awesome band/music tonight… a five (or say 20, you can always come down) dollar offering… for your table… would be very nice…if not sweet!” — It’s kind of like fishing- how are you going to bait the hook (or with what)… and catch the fish. We used a whisky glass at Brew’s and O’Connor’s in the 70’s- never had to pass it around. If someone enjoyed the music, or had a request for a pretty song, they found a way to get the money to the band/bandstand. Most of the time 10’s and 20’s, once in awhile a 100. Don’t be fooled- there’s plenty of green out there. Find a way to get to it if you’re going to depend on a TJ. Graciousness (and or) kindness never embarrassed anyone.

  7. It is a genuine paradox that some people who produce intangible assets (artists) are paid extremely poorly, while others (hedge fund managers) are paid enough annually to support twenty five thousand artists for a year.

    I guess it comes down to whether you are enriching someone’s life, or their bank accounts. The absurdity becomes self-evident when put that way.

  8. Elliott Hurwitt

    I would never leave less than a $20 per set, not per evening. It’s going to the musicians, after all, and the bar isn’t an expensive place to grab a beer or two and a hamburger. There are free things out there to listen to for people even less wealthy than I am–I know, I go to them–but the tip jar tradition is a venerable part of the jazz bar tradition in New York, and stiffing the musicians is unconscionable.

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