|An Open Letter about Jazz Gigs
by Bert Thompson
In response to Pete Lay's 'An Open Letter to All Jazzers' in the March issue, I agree
wholeheartedly with Pete that musicians deserve to be adequately recompensed for their
performing and would add that the situation on the Left Coast of the US is much the same, it
seems, as that in the UK.
To illustrate, recently I was offered a job playing for a jazz society. The pay was a princely
$100.00 per man. OK, not too bad, some might think, for a four-hour gig on a Sunday
afternoon. However, the club is located a three-and-a-half hour drive from here. So that
means seven hours driving plus the four hours on the job. (True, the band plays only three
hours, what with the raffle, jam sets, etc, but the musicians still have to be present for the
four) So when we divide the $100.00 by eleven, we get $9.09 an hour. When the cost of the
gas is factored in (say $40.00) and lunch and dinner (say another $25.00), the remuneration
drops to $3.18 per hour (McDonald's pays more for flipping burgers.) And that does not take
into account the cost of running the car (insurance, maintenance, and depreciation), or the
wear and tear on the instruments. A motel would cost about $70.00 for the night, so staying
over is hardly an option unless one wants a net loss of $35.00 — even more if one includes a
breakfast. Who needs it? One is ahead by staying home.
Free gigs are another issue. Most often we are asked to play free for some fundraiser.
However, only the musicians seem to be expected to work for free. When we ask if the
bartenders and waiters are donating their services, if the caterers are supplying all the food
and drink free, if the hall or meeting place is being provided gratis, we are likely to get a
shocked look in return and an expressly stated — or implied — negative. (And, of course, I
have yet to find an oil company that will donate my gas, a car mechanic that will work on
my vehicle for nothing, or a drum store that will give me free drumheads, sticks, etc.)
Frequently musicians are told either that playing such 'freebies' is good exposure (but one
can die of exposure!) or they should be glad of an audience to play for. Ri-i-i-ight! Unlike
some would-be rock stars, we have not been asked yet to PAY for the privilege of playing in
an establishment, but no prizes for guessing what the response would be.
I am thankful that I did not, and do not, depend upon playing Traditional jazz for a living
— it would be a great way to starve to death. Often enough it is very hard just to break even
playing a jazz gig. An old joke comes to mind:
Q: How do you end up with a million bucks playing jazz?
A: Start with two million.
Bert Thompson, Orinda, USA • email@example.com The buck stopped before it got
here' — Bob Phillips