With Fewer Venues, Jazz Musicians Take Array Of Gigs, And Lean On New Skills

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A jazz trio plays The Beehive. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A jazz trio -- from left: Noah Preminger, Jared Henderson and Nat Mugavero -- plays The Beehive. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Walk down the practice hall at the New England Conservatory and you hear students blowing, bowing, even singing opera. And in one of the dozen or so rooms brimming with young musicians, Amanda Ekery is singing jazz.

Ekery, 22, is doing a master's in jazz performance at the conservatory. She says it would be nice to become a rich and famous jazz singer, but even after receiving a $46,000-a-year education, she isn't counting on it. She knows arranging a career in music will mean not just performing, but also teaching, for instance, and writing grants.

"I like doing a lot of different things," Ekery says. "I like writing and arranging, I teach songwriting ... I don't think you can have tunnel vision and only go for one thing and ignore everything else. You have to think about different options."

Being a pro musician in Boston (or anywhere else) has never been easy — whether you play in an indie band in Allston or a jazz combo in the South End. But there used to be a lot more work for jazz musicians, not only at the height of the Big Band era in the mid-20th century, but also in the 1970s when musician and composer Russ Gershon came to the city.

Gershon sits on a couch at his loft/practice space in Somerville and reels off the bygone jazz clubs.

"Back then there was a great place called Jonathan Swift's in Harvard Square," he says, "for a few years there was Lulu White's in the South End, there was [legendary Boston jazz promoter] Fred Taylor's Jazz Workshop and Paul's Mall. There were little places like the Sunflower Cafe in Harvard Square."

And there were many other spots for bands like the Either/Orchestra, Gershon's band for the last 32 years. Since then, there's been a steady decline in the number of jazz venues, leading to the small handful that exists today.

That new reality, Gershon says, forces musicians to make compromises.

"Among my peers, somebody might be playing a wedding on the weekend and get paid $500, and then go and play at a jazz club on Tuesday and make $50, and do a recording session on Thursday and make $200," he says. "The amount you get paid might be inversely proportional to the amount of artistry you feel you're expressing."

Newton-based tenor player Noah Preminger (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Newton-based tenor player Noah Preminger (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

WBUR spoke to people across the jazz scene — from promoters to players, to students and teachers — and they agree: In order to land the gigs they're vying for, musicians today need business skills like networking and marketing if they're going to survive on music.

Newton-based tenor player Noah Preminger graduated from New England Conservatory a decade ago. He has a running gig at The Beehive in the South End. Each member of his trio makes about $100 for this kind of gig.

"I teach private lessons a couple days a week, I teach at a couple different schools, I tour between five and 10 times a year nationally and internationally," Preminger says before going on stage. "I've made almost 10 records as a leader. I've played on dozens and dozens of recordings as a side man.

"I've paid serious dues, [but] not as much as Nat."

That's Nat Mugavero, the trio's drummer. He's an 80-year-old veteran of the Boston scene, and he remembers jazz taking a big hit with the rise of rock 'n' roll.

"Everybody went downhill, and Boston went downhill too," Mugavero says. "I was playing with a jazz trio and we got bumped by a new band called Bill Haley and the Comets. You ever hear of that band? I was the last jazz band to play in this club. And in came this music."

Not only did it mean Mugavero had to play different styles, it meant he had to keep a day job.

"I had a family, an early family," says the Lawrence native. "And so I had to work days in the play nights, I was doing seven nights at one time, and working five days. I was young enough to do it and have three children at the time."

Things have only gotten worse since Mugavero's time. Dayla Arabella Santurri says she has watched the diminishing of jazz in Boston since 1999 when she became general manager at Scullers Jazz Club.

"I know there's a lot of people who will think of the negativity of where we are, the state of jazz, the state of music, the state of even being a professional musician," Santurri says. "And 10 to 15, years ago, I would've felt the same way."

But Santurri — who in addition to being a publicist also books talent and does event planning — now sees signs of hope. She says music schools are teaching business to music students, and the students "get it."

"In the last five years ... I feel like there's a renaissance coming," she says.

Drummer Nat Mugavero is an 80-year-old veteran of the Boston jazz scene. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Drummer Nat Mugavero is an 80-year-old veteran of the Boston jazz scene. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

How Boston's Music Schools Are Responding

Santurri says the big Boston music schools — Berklee, New England Conservatory, Longy — are integrating business lessons into their curricula. Santurri says she's hopeful for the industry as a whole, because millennials are embracing the new reality, from the variety of work to the importance of innovation. And that tide could lift all boats.

"These kids are being raised in this environment where you have to be creative with your music, with the opportunities," she adds. "Maybe you're working with a videographer or corporations that might want to commission your work. You're looking beyond what the traditional musician's role was.

"That's why I see [a renaissance] coming."

"Maybe not even renaissance — I see it as a big bang," says Panos Panay of Berklee College of Music.

It's hard to find someone more enthusiastic about the intersection of entrepreneurship and music than Panay, himself a jazz guitarist and Berklee grad. In 2013, he sold Sonicbids, the platform he founded to link musicians with people who hire musicians, for $15 million.

A year later, he became the founding director of Berklee's Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship.

The institute offers a startup lab, courses on tech devices, even a trip to Silicon Valley, where students visit Google and Spotify. For Panay, jazz musicians have always been a creative set, but he says new technologies are helping to create markets that even a few years ago were not possible.

"And when I talk about these new technologies — virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, all these things that are coming — I don't see them as threats," Panay says, "I see them as opportunities for the best artists out there to use them to find a new avenues for exploration."

And the pace of change, Panay says, will only continue into the future.

Less than a mile away at New England Conservatory, the Department of Entrepreneurial Musicianship was formed in 2009.

"This department was a recognition that careers are changing, the economy is changing, the culture is changing, and how do we best prepare our students?" says its director, Rachel Roberts. "In short, we are helping students to understand that they are their own business, and we need to figure out what that means and how to manage it."

Students at NEC learn hard business skills as part of the core curriculum. Courses at the Entrepreneurial Musicianship department range from Finance 101 to a marketing class on how to create an audience. But Roberts tends toward talking about the entrepreneurial spirit.

"There are so many hard skills that you can define whether it's marketing or budgeting or music copyright law," she says. "But really what's most important to us in the department is the mindset that we cultivate of, how do you dream and make your dreams a reality?"

Reality has led many musicians back into the classroom — only this time around, they're facing the students, teaching the next generation what it takes to make good music. That trend is praised on one hand for providing a refuge for musicians but also criticized as "the jazz education Ponzi scheme," in the words of bandleader Gerhson.

"In a sense, jazz musicians training people to play jazz is training people for gigs that don't exist," he says.

Even people at the top of the jazz game, like New York-based saxophonist Miguel Zenón, have to teach to pay the bills. Zenón, who's on the jazz faculty at the conservatory, says the music is making "this big exodus into the classroom."

"You see jazz schools everywhere, people studying jazz everywhere, and I know because I work in those places all the time," Zenón says before a gig in the South End. "And sometimes I feel like it's almost unfair to think all these musicians are going to be out there basically fighting for the same gigs."

This segment aired on March 27, 2017.


Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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