Tag Archives: tip jar

. . . AND A DOLLAR SHORT?

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. 

“FEED THE KITTY,” CONTINUED

In an earlier post, FEED THE KITTY, I proposed that rather than lament the grim phenomena that surround the music we love, listeners could be active in their support.

A musician friend sent the photograph below, which will serve as the objective correlative (to bring T.S. Eliot into the conversation) — the living representation and reminder of what we might be doing to keep the art form lively and healthy.  I think there should be far more twenty-dollar bills than ones, but JAZZ LIVES readers will get the idea.

It’s an old Southern custom!

THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE!

“You gotta pay the band,” according to Abbey Lincoln.  

This isn’t a post about putting more than a dollar bill in the tip jar: that’s for another time.  

This post is about responding with open hearts to the marvels the musicians create for us.   

Because of JAZZ LIVES, I have been having the time of my life recording live jazz performances and sharing them in cyberspace for free.  I am so happy that people who can’t get to a New York club or Chautauqua or Whitley Bay can now enjoy what the musicians do so brilliantly.  And my readers tell me regularly how these videos enrich their lives.    

Without intending to take advantage of a soul, I have made it possible for people to see hours and hours of live music for free.  But the last two words of that sentence have come to seem an unfairness.   

Have no fear: I do not plan to stop videorecording jazz performances.  To do so would break my heart.

People have told me, “You are acting as an unpaid publicist.  These musicians are getting great publicity and exposure!”  Maybe that is true, but I think that even politely asking musicians to work for nothing isn’t right. 

When some New York City listeners tell me, “I don’t have to go to ____ club because I can watch the performances on your blog,” that’s not right, either.   

So, THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  You know the song.

want to make JAZZ LIVES a medium for generosity and appreciation so that people all over the world can send the musicians tangible recompense for their creativity.  

A few musicians I’ve spoken with have dissuaded me from the iTunes model (putting a set price one must pay to view each video). 

I like the idea of a PayPal DONATE button.  People could donate what they choose as the spirit moves them.  I know that my readers would be generous!   

Let us give back to those who give us so much joy.  It’s only fair!

UPDATE: HERE’S THE LINK!  CLICK ON IT, WON’T YOU?

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

HAPPY NEW EAR! (Jan. 2, 2011)

One of the regular features of JAZZ LIVES is my reporting on what delights occurred at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) on the preceding Sunday night.  Saying that I have a good time would be an understatement.   

But even I — expecting the finest kind of jazz synergy on a regular basis — was astonished by what happened on January 2, 2011.

The EarRegulars and their friends created extraordinary music last Sunday night as 2011 took hold.  I had the privilege of watching individual creative impulses coalesce into something larger, something casually magnificent — all only a few feet from my camera.      

If this seems overstatement, a kind of “witness to history” pronouncement appropriate only to breaking news, the music will explain my feelings.  I’m delighted to present some of the evening’s many highlights. 

The EarRegulars, for the first set, were a quartet of friends: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Nicki Parrott, bass; John Allred, trombone; Matt Munisteri, guitar. 

They began with OH, BABY! — a song beloved of Jazz Age Chicagoans and of Eddie Condon and friends.  Because of the season, this performance was full of sly references to wintry / holiday tunes, causing Matt to say it should have been called OH, BROTHER!  But now that I am safe from FROSTY THE SNOWMAN for another eleven months, I didn’t mind.  See if you can catch all the in-and-out jokes.  And see if you can keep from laughing at the musical frolics:

Another good old good one, AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL, reminiscent of Bix as well, could easily have been the title for this posting.  Enjoy the conversational games played so well by these four brilliant improvisers:

To cool things off a bit, Jon-Erik asked John to choose one with a trombone lead, and John suggested the timeless “rhythm ballad” THESE FOOLISH THINGS, a performance full of quiet feeling:

Early on in the evening, there were intimations of a jam session to come.  I had spotted trombonist Emily Asher sitting at one table, then saxophonist Lisa Parrott, then trumpeter Bria Skonberg.  To my right appeared (like a belated holiday gift) the cornetist Dan Tobias, who was invited to join the festivities for a romping FROM MONDAY ON:

When the first set had ended, even more musicians came in, among them the ever-faithful Dan Block, clarinet at the ready.  I chatted with another clarinet wizard, Pete Martinez, about the Albert system, Johnny Windhurst, Eddie Condon in the 1950s, Skeets Tolbert and his Gentlemen of Swing, and TISHOMINGO BLUES.  Where else but at The Ear Inn?

Later, Howard Alden came in — first to listen — and I eventually noticed the broad back of someone I didn’t recognize, but when he began to play wire brushes on the paper-covered table, I knew that he knew: it was Chuck Redd!

(In the break, the actor James Gandolfini had come in, had a drink or two, and decided not to stay — a grave mistake.  When Jeremy Irons had visited The Ear Inn some years back, he had the good sense to stick around for The EarRegulars!)

The second set was masterfully orchestrated by Maestro Kellso, who invited these friends up one at a time.  It swelled into a thirteen-piece ensemble for AFTER YOU’VE GONE (which — if you’re keeping score — began with the last eight bars — more accurately, the last sixteen played double-time, says Jon-Erik).  And please note how each jam-session performance levitates itself on a flying carpet of Kellso-driven riffs, some from Basie, some from Louis, all in the grand tradition:

Then, a more moderate approach to WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM, an unlikely prospect for both players and audience.  In F, please:

Seeing the three trombones, Jon-Erik suggested TIGER RAG — an ecstatic romp presented here in two parts, because I couldn’t bear to lose even the final thirty-five seconds:

The last little bit (good to the last drop!):

Writing about this experience two days later, I don’t think that this music — simultaneously ecstatic and expert — needs much explication.  But more was going on at The Ear Inn than musicians stopping by to play a chorus or two. 

It was the creation of an inspired, mutually supportive community, nothing less. 

Jon-Erik, Matt, Victor Villar-Hauser (behind the bar but so much more than a mere pourer of libations), and the owners of The Ear Inn have all worked without calling attention to themselves to make 326 Spring Street on Sunday nights a remarkable place. 

It’s that rare spot where jazz musicians know they will be allowed and encouraged to play their own music with their peers.  Those of us who value such an unusual occurrence come to the Ear as if on a pilgrimage  — and the musicians feel the same way.  (In the audience but not playing were Chuck Wilson, Barbara Dreiwitz, and many others.)

And there’s more. 

In our time, where texting offers itself as equal to experience, the creation of such a community is both beautiful and special.  The sense of separateness that underlies much of our daily life disappears while the music is playing. 

Here we are!” say the musicians.  “Come with us!”  The smiles of the players and the observers light the dark room.  And a singular cohesiveness blossoms, a solace we seek all through our waking hours without knowing it.

As the new year begins, may we all embody our work as beautifully as these musicians do.  May we  all wear our accomplishments with such easy grace.   

And while writing these words, I felt for a moment, “I have witnessed something that will never come again,” but who knows?  There’s always next Sunday at The Ear Inn, which is hopeful and uplifting. 

Eight o’clock (really seven-thirty or earlier if you like sitting). 

You come, too. 

Bring your appreciative self and something for the tip jar.  The EarRegulars will supply the joy.

FINEST FIG JAM

fig jam

Some history might be needed here.  “A fig,” “a Moldy Fig,” even “a Mouldy Figge,” is now-archaic language invented during the Forties, when jazz found itself divided into warring factions called Dixieland and Bebop.  This divisiveness may have splintered the music and its audiences irrevocably.  Much of the noisy conflict was fomented by journalists and publicists seeking to attract audiences through controversy.  At this distance, we know that GROOVIN’ HIGH is only WHISPERING with a new blouse, but people allowed themselves to ignore this.  I find the poet Philip Larkin very endearing in his art and his vinegary energies, but his jazz prose embodies this point of view, where the world had reached an artistic peak in 1932 with the Rhythmakers recordings and had gone steadily downhill.  I agree with the first part of this formulation but not the second. 

I began my devotional listening as a Fig, so it took a long gradual period of contemplative immersion before I could understand that, say, John Coltrane wasn’t The Enemy out to destroy the music I loved.  In truth, I was never an extremist but I had strong, narrow likes and dislikes.  I remember having a brief conversation with another student in a middle-school Music Appreciation class who was deeply immersed in the New Thing — this was forty-plus years ago and the new thing was Archie Shepp, and the conversation went like this:

“Alan,” which might not be his name, but is a good guess: “I hear you like jazz.”

Me (brightening at having found a fellow subversive): “Oh, yes, I do!”

“Alan”: “Do you listen to Archie Shepp?”

Me (horrified that he hadn’t mentioned Louis, and coming up with a wise-acre New Yorker rejoinder): “Archie Shepp?! I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it!”

“Alan”: “Well, the hell with you!”

So goes critical discourse at its finest! 

I would like to boast that I’ve seen the light and the scales have dropped from my eyes, but if you told me I had to choose only one jazz recording to spend eternity with, it still might be AFTER YOU’VE GONE by the Blue Note Jazzmen, even though I can understand and appreciate music that would have perplexed and repelled me in my youth.  And the music was always there, I just didn’t get it. 

This self-scrutiny is provoked by a phone conversation I had yesterday with Bob Rusch (or RDR), editor and chief spiritual guide of the quarterly journal devoted to Creative Improvised Music, CADENCE.  Full disclosure requires me to say that I write reviews for CADENCE, and I continue to admire the journal’s honesty.  And working with Bob has always been a pleasurable lesson in Emersonian candor: when I have felt an inexplicable need to tactfully cloak the truth in polite words, he has always asked, “Why?” 

If you’ve never read CADENCE, you have been missing something special and rare.  See for yourself (www.cadencebuilding.com).

In the course of our conversation — we speak infrequently, but over the past five years it has always been both bracing and affectionate — Bob said gently that he thought I was “getting more figgish,” and I agreed.  But it made me think, and perhaps my experience will ring true with my readers. 

There used to be “the jazz record industry,” and I am not talking about sixty-five years ago, the Commodore Music Shop, and listening booths.  Ten years ago, perhaps, there were many more active companies producing compact discs.  (If you want to have a sobering experience, casually inspect the spines of any fifty CDs in your library and note how many of those labels no longer exist.)  This, of course, has to do with the economy, an aging audience, and more. 

It has had an double-edged result.  On one hand, no more new issues from Chiaroscuro, no more Pablo, fewer ways for musicians to be encouraged by a label.  But because labels no longer exist, many energetic musicians have gone into business for themselves and produce their own discs.  

This can be a boon: musicians can record what they want, have it sound the way they want, without the interference of recording engineers or the heads of record companies . . . and splendid personal statements emerge.  But this asks musicians to be both courageous and affluent (or at least credit-worthy): a self-produced CD might require a $10,000 investment that the artist might get back over ten years of selling the discs one at a time on the gig.  We should all live and be well! 

(Musician joke: “My latest CD is a million-seller.  I’ve got a million in my cellar.”)

Many players I know have made a virtue of necessity, but I think many of them look back nostalgically to the dear dead days when they got a call to go to a studio at noon to make a date, they played their hearts out, they got paid, and eight months later they knew that the disc they had appeared on was being sold all over the world.  Yes, their control over the music was compromised, their pay was a percentage of the profit, but someone else was handling all the annoying business.  

What this means for someone like myself, reviewing CDs, is that a good deal of what I am asked to listen to is by artists new to me (a good thing) who are offering their own music (potentially a good thing).  And occasionally it leads me to sit up in my chair and say, “By God, (s)he’s got it!”  Melissa Collard was new to me when I first heard her OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, and she is one of those singers whose work I most treasure.  Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Danny Tobias, Lyle Ritz, Andy Brown, Petra van Nuis, and more.  

But much of what I hear is both competent yet entirely forgettable.  I know that Lips Page said, “The material is immaterial,” but hand me a CD full of original compositions by a player and I wonder, “Gee, you’ve already decided that there’s nothing new for you to say on the blues or on I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR?”  Funny, that hasn’t occurred to Sonny Rollins.

And it is sad to receive a CD by a singer or musician, male or female, where great effort has gone into burnishing the exterior at the expense of other things.  When the artist credits his or her hair stylist and wardrobe person first, I think, “Oh no.  Repertoire, not manicure.  No one listens to the cover.” 

So my “figgishness” or “figitude” (both my own coinings) is a way to get back to what music means to me — a spiritual / intellectual / experience that makes me want to grin foolishly and shout exultantly.  I would indeed rather hear a wonderful performance of an original composition by musicians I don’t know than a tired rendition of OUR BUNGALOW OF DREAMS, but I need to hear jazz that makes me remember why I began to listen to the music in the first place: joy, inventiveness, clear delight in being alive in the face of death.  If your listening is purely an intellectual exercise and you find that gratifying, fine, but mine is tied up with the emotions.  Is the music beautiful?  Does it make me feel some strong emotion, preferably happiness?  Can I admire the players?            

So I close this post with a new example of FINEST FIG JAM — pure, organic, and locally sourced.  It’s another YouTube clip from the lucky and generous SFRaeAnn of the Eldorado Serenaders, whose front line is Don Neely on reeds, Robert Young on reeds, trumpet, and vocal, Dave Frey, plectrum banjo, Jim Young, tenor banjo, Steven Rose, sousaphone, Stan Greenberg, percussion.  This performance of BALTIMORE (one of those delightful songs-about-a-new-dance-craze) honors Bix and Wingy and Red, and I think this band is terribly, admirably brave to be shouting it out in a bookstore.  “Fit audience, though few,” said Milton, but he never had to worry about the tip jar.  It was recorded on October 25, 2009 at North Light Books in Cotati, California.  

OPTIMISTIC RHYTHM

I was having a conversation with a jazz fancier about our mutual interest, and that person said, “I like your blog, but you ignore some things you should be writing about.”

“You should be writing about the low pay for jazz musicians, who rely on the tip jar.  Where did all the jazz clubs go?  What happens when the compact disc is obsolete?  And what about the musicians who play a version of the music that isn’t all that authentic?”

All true.  And in conversations with the musicians themselves, they tell me that the reality is often worse than I imagine, emotionally, economically, and artistically.

But one of them said to me a few days ago, “If we go down into that negativity, we’ll never come back up.  Better to remember why we are doing this in the first place — the joy of playing the music.”

Joy won’t pay the electric bill — but if you don’t have it, you are sitting in the dark.  And it’s a kind of darkness that can’t be illuminated by a light switch on the wall.