Kind of Blue 

Will the Bay Area's jazz scene ever live up to its ambitions?

Page 4 of 6

Ellis concurred, adding that it's one thing for horn players to grouse about a lack of gigs, but when your bassists, drummers, and keyboardists can't find work either — well, that's a really bad omen. After all, every band needs a rhythm section. "I came back to the Bay Area in the 2000s and found out that rhythm section players were having a hard time getting gigs," Ellis said, adding that most full-time instrumentalists have to run laps around the world, or resettle in New York just to eke out a living. "I have to tell you, this is one of the longest droughts," he said. "It's making my peers question why we practice all them scales, when people are so tight with their purse strings."

That said, it's definitely possible to make ends meet as a full-time jazz musician in the Bay Area, but the going ain't easy — for any musician, for that matter. Around here, restaurant gigs pay $80 to $150 per musician for about four hours of work, while the more lucrative weddings, corporate events, or private parties can pay anywhere from $800 to $1,000 per musician. Out-of-town concerts often pay well (sometimes musicians can make $500 to $1,000 a pop for one-nighters) and touring musicians usually optimize their revenue by booking a bunch of cheap club gigs around one big performing arts center show. High-caliber local musicians can also demand up to $1,000 a day in the recording studio. Many musicians supplement their income by teaching, touring with pop acts, or joining church bands. Some, like pianist Vijay Iyer (a Cal alum who currently lives in New York) start their careers by soliciting grant money for projects, and then use those to break through.

All the same, making it in the jazz scene locally has more to do with who you know than how well you play. There's an uneven distribution of talent, and most business comes by word of mouth. Thus, musicians get more gigs by arriving on time and returning phone calls than by blowing audiences away on the bandstand. Most of them don't have the luxury of turning down gigs they don't want.

And there are other hardships. The unpredictable nature of the business makes it hard to plan anything. A full calendar doesn't guarantee a fat paycheck, since any gig can get canceled at the last minute. The only way to make it work, musicians say, is to hustle extremely hard and keep your name in circulation.

Those characteristics are not necessarily specific to jazz, but the genre does seem to create a particularly brutal workhorse lifestyle, especially in a scene with a small audience and a paucity of venues. Thus, few musicians can make it on jazz alone. Some hire themselves out to salsa groups, church bands, cover bands, or touring pop artists. Some sell weed instead of selling their souls. Others marry into money. And many ultimately make the exodus to New York, where jazz still seems to thrive, even if it's not that profitable.

The draw to the East Coast isn't necessarily money. Wages in New York are about commensurate with — or less than — the Bay Area, says Wiley, because of stiffer competition for gigs. The cost of living is higher over there, too.

That said, the high concentration of jazz clubs, record labels, music schools, and great musicians in New York ensures its perpetual superiority over any other scene in the country. Wiley said the appeal of New York is more about volume than anything else. "It has three major music schools," he said. "It has more of everything." That might explain why the Bay Area keeps grooming talent only to lose it to the East Coast at the expense of cultivating our own scene. And that trend will likely continue.

Take Julian Waterfall Pollack, a star pianist who graduated from Berkeley High in 2006. He left Berkeley to study at New York University five years ago, and never came back. Pollack currently lives with his girlfriend in a one-bedroom apartment in East Harlem. The two of them have a small kitchen and a living room where Pollack keeps his upright piano. He doesn't need a car and gets around easily by subway. Still, Pollack said that if he had his druthers, he'd move back to Northern California. "I talk to my friends from California all the time and say, 'Why don't we just get thirty to fifty musicians who are just really great to come back to California en masse, and make a scene?'" He laughed.

East Oakland-born drummer Darrell Green said he moved in order to play at a higher level, even though it required him to downsize. Ultimately, he saw more opportunities in New York, where there's a vast cross-section of venues, from hole-in-the-wall restaurants like Cleopatra's Needle, to medium-size rooms like Fat Cat, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club Lounge, and Zinc Bar, to larger places like The Village Vanguard or the Jazz Standard. And, he said, in New York you have a more voracious audience. "People seem to appreciate music more out here," Green said by phone while setting up for a gig at Lincoln Center. "I have a friend in Fremont who slides out here twice a month to see shows. That's really sad that he has to come all the way to New York to see jazz."

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