TO WORK OR NOT TO WORK, THAT IS SOME QUESTION:
RURAL VERSUS URBAN
by Rick Culver
I left Los Angeles in 1994, partly because every studio musician I talked to said work was drying up. Of course, the drive-by shootings and impassable freeways were influential as well. (In 2006, the drive-by shootings have stopped, but the freeways have stopped even more.) Movie studios were on a determined path to ship their music product to Seattle, Utah, Vancouver, England, even Europe, any place cheaper than L.A. Los Angeles’ musical infrastructure was fast becoming incapable of supporting the huge number of gifted professional musicians who lived there.
As usual, in a powerful union town, the studios fought against paying anything but a slave wage, whether or not the Musicians Union tried to accommodate them. Even worse, many union members were knowingly working non-union jobs. (I never understood why top studio musicians worked non-union jobs when they had absolutely no financial reason to do so.) In the end, for most of them, it always came down to need or greed versus principle. It probably wouldn’t be fair to compare the number of union musicians who stood for principle and fair play to those whose economic situation forced them to do otherwise. On planet Earth, food always comes before democracy, principle and fair play.
However, having then spent four seasons in Branson, MO, working for the Lawrence Welk Group, I discovered that working in a non-union town was quite different than working in a union town: No one got paid a fair wage. If the corporate suits didn’t want to pay for play, they didn’t, because in Branson, the suits didn’t have to leave town to find cheap labor. They just called around in the immediate area, no matter that the quality of performance and musicianship went exponentially downhill. (In many cases, the suits were also in-competent and bent on destroying what could have been a fairly satisfactory work situation regardless of non-union status. In that case, you had to either put up with it or move on.)
So we did, to a small town in Michigan. My wife and I were raised in this town, so it seemed a likely place to return. I had worked music jobs off and on since the 80s out of this town, when I would come home to visit. As I already knew some of the leaders and contractors, it was relatively easy to be assimilated into what there was of a working music structure.
Unfortunately, although living full time in this rural area, there was still only enough work for one or two jobs a month, and it might be so with any combination group: from small to the occasional big band, from wedding to convention. Aside from the “paying” jobs, any “jazz” performance would probably be swing, traditional or Dixieland and would pay about half the casual rate. Non-union casuals paid about a third less than union scale, and half that of a union band backing a star. “Modern jazz” jobs were few and far between unless you were part of a very selective group, which I was not.
Note that I said a couple of jobs a month. Do not confuse this with a working, living wage. Almost all musicians in my area have day jobs. Some are music teachers in the local school systems. Some of the best can be found teaching at the National Music Camp near Interlochen, but most have day jobs in the local infrastructure: hospitals, construction, psychiatry. They are principals, managers, real estate brokers, etc. This area cannot support a full-time professional musician who just wants to play for a living.
If I wanted substantial and meaningful work in jazz, I’d have to drive up to 250 miles to southern Michigan or to another state and work as a guest artist or clinician, coaching high school or college bands, or work as a faculty member of a jazz camp. Even composing or arranging, which you would think could be done anywhere, is limited either by the synthetic reproduction of your computer program, or the availability of a local band competent enough to rehearse your piece.
Thus, we finally come to a major problem: quality of life versus quality of work. To have both would be rare where I now live, although, so far, I have managed to come close. Actually, I can’t complain. In retrospect, even though I’ve never made much money, I’ve always felt completely successful. Naturally it would have been fun to be rich AND successful, but since destiny didn’t take me down that path, I’m very happy I can say I have prevailed in the music business.
Ok, I’m here to stay now, and I’m starting to work. Oops! On my first job, I discover I’ve ignored an incredibly important part of my musical knowledge. I’m this professional guy from L.A. and I’ve moved back here to live and work. But I’ve been a big band sideman for most of my career, and mostly played changes by ear.
I find I don’t know most of the basic standard tunes, or if I do, it’s only the bridge or the first eight bars of the tune. (That’s all the damned arrangers ever gave the trombone section.) And I find, to my horror, that even though the bass and piano player usually know the melody and form of a tune, a lot of them haven’t a clue about the right changes, let alone good or even hip changes. I am totally hosed, and very embarrassed.
A year later, I am finally able to front a small group, knowing that I can play all the necessary tunes and changes for a four-hour casual with total confidence, regardless where the rhythm section wasn’t. Thank you, Jamey.
Even then, events intermittently conspired to go far beyond one’s control. For example: A few years ago, I drove north to a New Year’s Eve gig at a country club, about a half-hour normal driving time, but close to an hour that night, as we were only able to go about 25 m.p.h. through a raging blizzard that brought the wind chill to –30 degrees.
The job started at 9pm. Half-way through the second set, I heard what sounded like Gregorian chant coming from my right. I looked over at the tenor sax player, a young fellow just out of college, and noticed he had already achieved a total state of inebriation. I knew this not just because he had been reading alto parts while playing tenor (which meant that all the unison lines were a fourth apart), but because I saw his eyes: They glistened as if the vitreous humor had been replaced with cheap Chardonnay. I leaned over to him after the tune ended and dryly suggested: “Hey, you want to play alto on that alto part, or are you still OK on tenor?” He looked at me with bleary eyes, and mumbled, "Oh," and, remaining clueless, we started the next tune.
Our female singer for this night was not our leader’s choice. Politics were involved. She was a good friend of one of the VIPs in the country club. She walked onto the bandstand for her first song, paused before the first tune, and informed us that she'd never worked with a live band before, only with a karoke machine. On to a new adventure.
She did try, in her limitless mediocrity, to sing a couple of "live" songs, but collapsed about halfway through each song, totally unable to cope with the variables of actual human players. Eventually, she (not to mention the rest of us) admitted defeat, and after the fourth tune, plugged in her Karoke machine. The band headed for the tables or the bar to wait out the set.
We watched as she sang to the thrumming of bad Karaoke. Our leader and drummer, in an attempt to appease the patrons, to convince them that they were still getting their money’s worth, tried to play along with her machine while she sang.
At 11:50 pm, for no apparent reason, the power went out, but only in the area of the dance floor. Now we were without electricity. This was the last straw in an entire field of hay. Our leader lost it. He went ballistic. He screamed: "Fix it, fix it, fix it!!!" and raged for another five minutes until the TV set over the bar began to announce the arrival of midnight with the first of the countdowns from the Times Square crowd. The bartender turned up the TV. Our leader, now entirely exhausted and shaking in frustration, collapsed on his drum set while we amusedly watched the patrons sing Happy New Year to Dick Clark. Now, with less than an hour remaining of our most unusual night, with nothing left but to get through 45 minutes more of weak singing via mechanical backup, we watched from the periphery of the dance floor, checking our watches every few minutes, waiting hopefully for the final signal to pack up and go home.
All this wonderful and most historic aggravation paid $300, with the leader’s stipulation that we "please don't cash the check until next week so I can get some money in the bank first." And then there was the trip back home in the same raging blizzard, but that’s another story.
The next day, I sent the above legend to a great friend and trombonist in L.A, Randy Aldcroft, ending my story: So, how was your NYE job?
He wrote back: “I had a two-hour jazz casual about 15 minutes from my house with some of the top L.A. jazz guys. We finished at 9:30 p.m., but they wanted us for another half-hour, so we got $750 instead of the $500 we thought we were getting. I had a great time and was home in time to watch NYE on the tube with my wife and kids.”
The above story illustrates the difference between urban and rural work. In larger cities, competent musicianship is usually the default. In a rural setting, it is most likely to be whatever bodies you can find to make up the band.
A few months later I worked with the same leader I played for on the New Year’s Eve job, this time for a dance at an area yacht club. The job was going its average way when we got to the tune, “ The Way You Look Tonight.” It seems that there are those rhythm players who must add a four bar vamp after the 13th measure before going back to the top. Our piano player was no exception. However, those of us in the front line thought it was a stupid idea, and refused to do it. Our drummer, the leader, was not informed of our spontaneous decision to ignore the pianist.
I glanced at the pianist as we started the top again. He was obviously angry and muttering to himself. We came to, and ignored, the next four-bar vamp. Now the pianist was livid and beginning to swear angrily. We ignored him yet a third time and he stood up and began screaming at us. As we ended the tune, he was beyond control and quite red in the face. We looked at him. “Come on, chill out for God’s sake. It’s just a stupid tune.” The leader, of course, hadn’t a clue as to why this vicious verbalizing was now spilling into a most interested crowd of listening dancers. The leader finally calmed him down, but forever more, I thought of our pianist as: THE PIANO NAZI. And this guy was the principal of a high school on the east side of the state. Give me one break!
Dantes, Carmellos, and many of the other great jazz clubs thriving in Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s are gone. New clubs may be filling some of the gaps, but jazz musician friends of mine in Los Angeles tell me that “It’s just not the same as it used to be.” Is this really true? I think so. Attitude, competence, always performing at your best, choices, being at the right place at the right time, always willing to take an important call, no matter what the cost personally, marketing ability and pure luck. All the aforementioned combine to make a musician who will either work forever, or work enough, or not quite enough, or who will be phased out slowly, and, knowing that, decide to shift into another area of music before being phased out entirely. (It’s the right combination and luck that insures longevity.)
I talked to several acquaintances who have lived in my area most of their lives working as part-time musicians. One musician told me that, in the 60s and 70s, during the summer months (that would be after Memorial Day up to Labor Day) he worked two or more jobs a day, at least six days a week. In an average three-month summer, he could easily earn over $5000. Translated into today’s wages, that would probably be closer to $20,000. However, one minute after Labor Day, work dropped to a couple of paying jobs a month until New Year’s Eve. You might still have the occasional jazz job, but you’d have to consider it more for love rather than paid-for music. In a rural area, the working year is about three months, and only during the summer. In an urban area, the working year is the year.
Two of the musicians I talked to, one from L.A. and one from my area said that today you must generate your own work. You can’t be your average sideman, depending on someone else to call you. You must make the calls, do the marketing, sign the contracts, convince the managers that they need your group and your kind of music. For the average sideman, this can be overwhelming. You’ve always worked by being called from a contractor’s list. When you got to the job, you performed at the expected high level of competence, got paid, and went home. Today, in 2006, you must do the pre-job work yourself if you want to play your kind of music.
One musician I talked to made an interesting point. He placed the blame for the lack of jazz on the managers of the clubs and hotels. He thought these people were afraid of any risk that wouldn’t guarantee money for the club or hotel. They refused to be put in a position of failure so they stuck with light rock, top 40s and other forms of common-denominator mediocrity in music that might attract an eclectic rather than singularly minded crowd. In other words, in today’s climate, whether in politics or jazz, fewer people are willing to take risks.
I will never agree with that philosophy. There is little in life not worth the risk. Music is no exception. There would have been no Jean-Philippe Rameau, J.S. Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Shubert, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and so on, had not both composers AND audience been willing to take risks; and that list is only for music. This is true even more so today, despite the attempt to justify a risk-free atmosphere.
There will always be a place for small group traditional, Dixieland and swing (which includes big band swing). These musical forms have been staples of American music for nearly one-hundred years, and are a part of not just American, but the world culture. They are easy and acceptable forms of music to listen to and enjoy, whether in a rural or urban milieu.
Modern jazz, like any form of newer music, in addition to emotional acceptance, demands more intellectual analysis. Big cities are traditionally multinational in culture, and used to and accepting of the unexpected and new. That’s why less acceptable attitudes in rural areas are so often more acceptable in urban settings. Rural environments seem to cling longer to plateaus of conservative thinking, so it takes a more courageous but convincing marketing format to draw an audience into welcoming newer and different musical styles.
Once more the question is asked: What’s the difference between working in an urban versus a rural environment? For one, in a rural environment, you must have full knowledge of your craft, because you can’t count on anyone else to have it for you. Two, you’ll find, by default, countless players of quality in an urban environment, but not nearly as many in a rural environment. In fact, many of the essential rhythm players that were living in my area have moved back to urban areas in order to get more quality work. Three, you will always find cliques of musicians who will kill for whatever jobs are available in both urban and rural areas. But even with more jobs available in urban areas, there are just too many qualified musicians. But nonetheless, there will be year-around work in an urban environment, as opposed to only about three months of steady work in a rural environment. There is one point to remember, however, and it is that the stories heard from musicians working in a rural environment are often so much better than those in urban areas.
Now I must illustrate another negative side when working in a rural area. I started working occasionally with a so-called “very important” pianist/leader who was well-known and respected all over Michigan. I had been told that many people (not musicians, though) considered him a jazz treasure. He was a member of museum boards and fund-raising committees. He seemed a humble and honest person, even telling me on the first job I worked with him that he knew he was not that great a jazz pianist, so he always made sure to surround himself with the best he could get. (Flattery will get him everywhere.)I only discovered his well-kept secret after I had worked my third job with him: He capriciously made the decision to pick one or more of the musicians who worked a job for him and not pay them. I, much to my dismay, was one of two not paid for that job, but I join a long line of musicians who have not been paid in the past by this leader. After seven hours of rehearsal time over two days with this financially very well-off person, concluding with a two-hour job that took place six months ago, you would think there would be no question about pay-ment. Yet this pianist/leader has worked dozens of jobs all over the state since then, and the two of us still have not been paid. I would hope that anyone reading this narrative would make a decision never again to work for that leader, or any leader who acts in so scurrilous a manner, unless all accounts are paid in full.
The above story demonstrates why an urban environment can make a good buffer zone between employer and employee. If I had been working under union rules, I would have been paid. In a rural area, with no protection other than honesty and ethics, fraud can be a part of daily musical life. Therefore, it pays to find out with whom you’re working. In my case, no musician who had worked for this leader ever warned me until after he had cheated me. Even more inexplicable, there are literally hundreds of musicians in the last 20 who have worked for him, and half of them have been deceived.
In conclusion, I acknowledge that there are probably as many musicians who will say they are working continuously as are those who say they hardly work at all any more. Obviously there are good and bad sides to both urban and rural environments. They seem to be so evenly matched in pros and cons that I believe the only way to end this article is by using an expression from a well-known contractor for the former Johnny Carson show: “It’s six and a half dozen, one to the other.”