Riffing on the Tradition: The state of the music (Part 2)
In “Riffing on the Tradition,” I try to use the past to inform the present and imagine the future of our music scene. You see, I moved to New Orleans in 1994 just a few months after the last of the great Creole clarinetists, Willie Humphrey, passed.
Consequently, my clarinet lessons in the New Orleans style could only consist of learning the history, collecting recordings, listening to interviews of the early musicians and getting to know local players and aficionados connected to the earlier generations of musicians. It’s exciting to work the same gigs that have gone on here for decades and walk in the footsteps of the jazz pioneers I admire, but the tradition's history also reveals that some things have not changed enough.
Last week, I found some troubling findings in the 2010 State of the Music report by Sweet Home New Orleans and compared and contrasted them to our jazz heritage in its formative years. Immediately, many supporters of the scene told me that conditions can't possibly be that dire. One person said that she receives several invitations each week from multiple mailings and social networks and goes to live music shows almost nightly, another local observed that Frenchmen Street is thriving with many venues hosting two or three bands each night.
Sure it’s true, there’s great live music virtually all the time in New Orleans. Listings on WWOZ and in publications such as Offbeat and Gambit Weekly often boast more activity on any given Monday night than most cities have in a week.
Sweet Home New Orleans explains why, despite all that activity, many musicians here struggle. "The reduced size of audiences paying for live music in New Orleans is one of the largest challenges of our cultural economy."
And there’s the rub. When the music is free, regardless of how well it is attended or how encouraging the audience, not only is it difficult to be paid sufficiently, but the most meaningful way for the community to show their support is bypassed. In this climate, without a real contract between artists and their audiences, the best one can hope for, be it from work in high-profile hotel lobby bars like Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, or endearing dives such as the Spotted Cat, is that profits from the sale of alcohol will dribble into our cups. (I'm intentionally leaving the subject of the "Tip Bucket" for later. Tips, by definition, should supplement a paid fee for a service, not be a substitute for compensation.)
In a town that welcomes visitors with banners saying, “We’re Jazzed You’re Here,” our historically diverse musical culture should flourish, artists should have sustainable careers, and fans should be able to find the music they are looking for. Those sound like ideal rallying points, right? Well, guess what? There’s a national non-profit organization called “Future of Music Coalition” and that’s essentially their mission. Furthermore, until the 28th of this month, they are inviting musicians to participate in an important survey as part of a study about how we earn our livings.
To better understand just how musicians do what we do, take a look in this three-minute introductory video on YouTube, and while there’s still a few days left, help the FMC help our music scene by forwarding it to musicians you know. Our culture-bearers need to be represented in this critical dialogue about creating a sustainable future for our traditions.
Clarinetist Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of Nola Art House Music. Click here for an interview with the artist. He writes "Riffing on the Tradition" for NolaVie.