Master Vs. Entrepreneur

Originally published on

Saxophonist Michael Zilber notes the changing of the jazz guard, and how the lineage has shifted from the age of the jazz master to the age of the entrepreneur.

Question: Other than being jazz musicians, what do Louis Armstrong, Freddie Hubbard, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders, Bill Evans, Max Roach, Dave Liebman and Coleman Hawkins — just to name a few — have in common?

Give up? O.K. Let me throw another wrinkle into the mix. All of them have a very different musical background in one important way than, say, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, James Carter, Dave Douglas, Diana Krall or Ryan Kisor.

Still stumped? The common link among Louis, Miles, Trane, etc., is that all of them started off as players in the bands of universally acknowledged masters. All cut their teeth working under the demanding tutelage of the leading players of the day. It was this experience, this forge of fire, that gave these players legitimacy in the eyes of their fellow musicians and indeed, in the eyes of the jazz aficionados following the music.

This lineage and tradition continued pretty much unabated through the years. King Oliver begat Louis, Moten begat Basie who begat Lester. Eckstine begat Diz and Bird, who begat Miles who begat far too many to list here. You get the idea.

In essence, jazz had a loose, but very effective system of jazz apprenticeship, whether it was Roy Haynes learning from Bird and Trane, eventually passing his legacy of knowledge onto Dave Kikoski and James Genus, or Trane learning from Diz, Johnny Hodges, Miles and Monk, then passing the torch onto Dolphy, Pharoah, and McCoy and Elvin. Art Blakey and Charles Mingus were two others who discovered and nurtured (well maybe nurtured isn’t exactly the right word in the case of Mingus) promising young talent.

Today? Whatever you may think of the intrinsic musical worth of folks such as Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, James Carter, Dave Douglas, Diana Krall or Ryan Kisor, none of them followed this path. Nor do hardly any of the current practitioners of the jazz trade (I include myself here). Jazz has moved from the age of the master and apprentice to the age of the entrepreneur. This represents a dramatic sea change in how jazz is developed and presented.

Why did this happen, and what are the implications for what is widely held to be America’s most valuable contribution to the world of arts?

The Passing of the Jazz Giants

The first and most obvious factor is the aging and passing of the giants. Go back only 30 years and everyone from Duke to Basie to Miles to Dizzy to Dexter to Woody Shaw to Woody Herman to (God forbid) Stan Kenton was active and on the scene. Despite the ravages of the rock era, there was still a healthy sampling of jazz clubs in every major city where these giants could practice their art seven nights a week. Lastly, the music was still a relevant part of the background noise of pop culture, and bands as varied as Santana, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago and Brasil 66 were heavily leavened with jazz influence in solos, harmonies and rhythms.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Other than Chick Corea or Dave Holland, think of a master jazz musician from that time who is not only putting out vital music, but is discovering and shepherding young players into the spotlight. Virtually all of the masters of the 1950s and ’60s have left us, and many of the graduates of the schools of Davis, Mingus, Blakey, etc., have not chosen to practice the mentor/apprentice model.

Folks like Blakey and Miles seemed very comfortable working with musicians sometimes 40 years younger than them, whereas many of today’s masters seem more at ease playing with the folks they’ve known all their adult musical life. This is not a value judgment. It would be a fool who protested the sublime trio music of Keith Jarrett with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, for example. I wish merely to observe that the opportunities for synergy between the young and the masters has lessened greatly.

Another aspect that cannot be overstated is the role of record companies and marketing gurus in forming and touting groups of “names.” One example that comes immediately to mind is the Roy Haynes trio currently being touted by Verve. With no disrespect intended to any of the three superb musicians in that group, I would defy anyone to take a blindfold test and tell me it matched up to the extraordinary interplay and ferocious swing of Roy’s groups featuring Dave Kikoski and James Genus, groups which received not nearly as much attention.

I understand that record companies are for-profit enterprises, and clearly Verve believes that a band with Danilo Perez and John Pattituci will sell more records than with the lesser-known Kiksoki and Genus. However, in the past, companies would defer to the musical choices of the musicians, rather than insinuating themselves into positions of creative decision-making. Can you imagine a record company telling Miles or Mingus who was going to be in his band? Too often now, extra-musical factors, such as look, demographic or name recognition, take precedence over the intrinsic musicality of the situation.

Adding a Marketing Hook to the Music

Hand in glove with this is the pervasiveness of the “concept”record. Whether it’s a tribute to Bob Marley, Sinatra, Gershwin, Mary Lou Williams or Weather Report, the generic jazz CD nowadays must have some kind of marketing “hook” in order to even be considered.

It may well be that all of these artists would have, of their own volition, decided to give up writing their own pieces and make documents of all covers, but as someone who has witnessed the dialogue from the inside, I can tell you that the marketers and promoters are strongly pushing us in that direction.

Let me be clear: I am not questioning the artistic integrity of these projects. I think if there is a genuine desire on the part of the artists to rework the material in a way which authentically expresses their voices, it is a wholly valid and important part of the jazz tradition. I would, however, humbly posit that if one is to do a well-worn chestnut, one has no less responsibility to come up with an original take than did Coltrane when he covered “Body and Soul” or “My Favorite Things,” or Herbie Hancock with “St. Louis Blues.”

(Full disclosure here. I just finished rewriting standards for a project which should see the light of day in the next year. I’ll leave it to the listener to decide whether we fulfilled the mandate of bringing our own take to the material we covered.)

Lastly, there is no opportunity for bands and apprentice musicians to cut their teeth in a club situation. As someone who runs a college jazz program, I certainly advocate the vitality and value of many college jazz studies departments. However, too often these programs are big band heavy and quite incestuous.

I remember a talented drummer returning from a program in New Jersey. He’d had trouble playing in time at a session and turned to me indignantly. “Shit, man, I played duets all the time with the best sax player on the East Coast, and WE never had any trouble together.” I smiled, impressed. “Really! Was that Brecker, Sonny, Liebman?” He looked a little chagrined. “Uh, no, he’s actually just the best player in my school.” Jazz in school is a valuable corollary to, but is no substitute for, the organic, brutally honest and no-safety-net action of the jazz club. Sadly, there are far too few of these venues around nowadays.

The Phenomenon of the Jazz Entrepreneur

What has this situation given us? The phenomenon of the jazz entrepreneur. As the great masters slowly fade away, the demanding and exacting standards they insisted on are falling by the wayside. In their void has come a phalanx of cocksure self-promoters who may or may not have the tools and tempered steel of those who went through the academies of Mingus, Duke, Miles and company.

What these young lions and lionesses do have is what Mark Twain called “the calm, cool confidence of a Christian with four aces.” Well-studied in the business of business, persistent in their phone calls and slick in their websites and mailings, this new breed realizes that, in absence of jazz masters charting the stars, jazz fans, radio people, critics and A&R folk are adrift, ships without a compass. As well, those in what is oxymoronically referred to as the jazz industry are desperate to somehow make a buck merchandising an art form which has habitually lost money. The old joke has much truth in it: How does a jazz musician make a million dollars? Start with two million.

The jazz entrepreneur may or may not have the greatest insight into swinging, developing harmony or melody, group concept, etc. But what he (and increasingly she) does have is the ability to speak the language of business, packaging him or herself as an attractive approximation of a living, breathing jazz musician. This resonates with the folks in what is laughably called the business end of the jazz world, since they, like some feckless Don Quixotes of capitalism, keep trying to turn a profit on what is a profound, baffling, mysterious and ultimately unprofitable kind of music.

To paraphrase Pauline Borsook’s trenchant new book on Silicon Valley, “Cyberselfish,” it’s a dirty little secret of current day jazz that superior marketing and inferior music will beat out inferior marketing and superior music every time.

All too often, a truly superior musician such as NYC guitarist Wayne Krantz will toil in relative obscurity while dozens of trees die extolling the virtues of some lesser talent. (Don’t take my word for it about Krantz — ask Mike Brecker, Steely Dan and Carla Bley, just to mention a few.) Of course, once in a great while through a happy serendipity, as in the case of Dave Douglas, there is a synergy between authentic talent and the marketing machine.

Dave is an exceptionally high-level musician who is richly deserving of the attention he is getting. However, it is far more often the case that the tremendous energy and time required to be a jazz entrepreneur (4–6 hours a day of soul-killing, schmoozing, wheedling, cajoling and pestering from what I’ve observed) leaves precious little on the table for any kind of credible artistry.

The truth is that unless you really care what the musicians who take this music seriously think, it doesn’t terribly matter if you miss the occasional tricky turnaround, add an extra A section, skate on changes or stumble through a fast tempo. The audience won’t know, and a high percentage of them will accept the word of the critics and the flaks (often one and the same) that what they are hearing is superb jazz.

Smile pretty and deck yourself out in a fusillade of conceptual verbiage, hire a persistent and proactive publicist (or be your own) and you too can be a successful jazz entrepreneur.

The Challenge: Artistry Versus Approval

A long time ago, when I was a callow youth filled with other folks’ praise about how well I copped a certain period of Mike Brecker, I went to study with the aforementioned Dave Liebman, who is a pretty sharp knife himself. He put it starkly at the end of our first lesson. “99% of the people who ever come to hear you in a club won’t know the difference. To them, you sound good enough now. You don’t need to change a thing to get their approval. If it matters to you that Sonny or Joe Henderson or I could walk in a club, listen to 4 bars and know whether or not you were bullshitting, you’ll get the things together I told you about.”

It did matter to me — he was a master and I took him seriously. How many people nowadays would care? So many young musicians nowadays think that if they buy some Aebersold records, memorize some transcribed solos out of a book (never listening to the record) and put a band together, the next step is to make a CD and start self-promoting.

Due to the loss of the masters as gatekeepers, replaced by non-musician A&R types, critics and yes, barely musical music educators, the quality of the music has suffered tremendously as the jazz suits and entrepreneurs have filled the void. And yet…

Louis, Duke, Bird, Trane, Bill Evans, Mingus, Miles, they all still walk the earth and live in their glory at your fine local music stores. There is a whole host of Masters on record and there are probably even master musicians living right in your home town. They KNOW! Kind of like Santa Claus, they know if you’ve been jive or swinging, they know if — well, you’ve heard the rest of the song.

So put on those records, aspiring jazzer, LISTEN. Go out and learn from the living masters. Embrace the whole jazz tradition, not just a convenient part of it. Cause guess what? Whether or not the press knows, whether or not your fans know, in the end, YOU’LL know that the masters know whether you’re swinging or jive, so swing, for Miles’ sake — peace.