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Jazz Corner: How Does a Jazz Musician Have 1 Million Dollars?

It is a worldwide phenomenon that the returns from jazz music are quite sparse

Sunil Sampat Jun 20, 2017
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Miles Davis. Photo: Tom Palumbo/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

Miles Davis. Photo: Tom Palumbo/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

With fairly large amounts of money made in the music business, there was this rhetorical question put forth by a well known jazzman a few years ago. “How does a jazz musician get one million dollars?” I am sure a lot of jazz players would like the answer.

“He starts with two million dollars” is the simple solution. Jazz musicians are fairly modestly compensated for all their efforts. They seem to be forever struggling financially. As vocalist Kevin Mahogany once remarked, tongue firmly in cheek, “I have been a jazz singer for 30 years. If I had sung pop, I might have retired in The Hamptons some 29 years ago!”

It is a worldwide phenomenon that the returns from jazz music are quite sparse. With the possible exception of Miles Davis, there are no jazz superstars to compare with, say sportsmen. Rock and pop music creates quite a large following and resultant commerce, though perhaps their longevity has a much shorter span.

These thoughts have arisen particularly after the huge monetary turnover from Justin Bieber’s recent concert in Navi Mumbai. It just doesn’t work that way for jazz.

There was a sequence of Jazz Yatras, festivals held in Mumbai starting in 1978, held every two years and very well attended. Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, Clark Terry, Joe Williams, Don Ellis, Billy Taylor, Betty Carter and more performed at Jazz Yatras.

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While the music was of exceptional calibre, it was also the ambience and atmosphere of the open-air Rang Bhavan in south Mumbai that contributed to the huge draw. Groups of friends with their food and drink hampers, snack and merchandise stalls all contributed to a festive atmosphere. Also, the times were more liberal: there were no deadlines for the music to stop and no decibel meters being pulled out. And, unlike an auditorium where one is seated quietly through a performance, the Jazz Yatra was conducive to walking around, talking to friends and socializing. There was one band, for example with a bombastic name that comprised just one musician playing solo trombone for over an hour! During such sets, sales of samosas, tee shirts and other merchandise really picked up. Imagine being in a dark auditorium listening to solo trombone glued to one’s seat-it would be enough to turn most off jazz!

In recent times, the Mahindra Blues Festival has replaced Jazz Yatras for the social platform for friends to mingle with food, drink and music. Actually this mix is a pretty heady cocktail and long may it live!

So with such meagre returns why does a jazz musician continue to ply his trade? Simply because it is a heady, almost cerebral music, complex to master and yet satisfying to play. Why is jazz following restricted to just a few? That’s because it requires a good listener. The more basic the music the greater the numbers listening to it and conversely, the more subtle and deep the sound, the fewer the number willing to make the effort to get involved.

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Ultimately you get what you pay for. For God’s sake at least pay attention!

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and contributing editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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