Whilst there are vibrant cities all over the world, there has long been a fascination with the New York jazz scene and its position as one of the most iconic places to live and work in as a musician.
We asked Jazzfuel newsletter subscribers in the area to answer a few questions about the state of the NYC jazz scene 2023.
From different income streams and venues to the best piece of advice they received when starting out in New York, read on for the results and feel free to use the comments section to add insight of your own.
[Note you can get access to a Google map of the 38 NYC jazz venues mentioned here]
There aren’t many cities in the world where you can hop from club to club any night of the week seeing living legends like Ron Carter and Marcus Miller and modern greats such as Mark Turner and Jason Moran alongside the ‘rising stars’ of tomorrow, and everyone in between…
But what’s it like to be on the ground, trying to earn a living and make your way amongst such a hugely competitive scene? Not to mention the fast-changing world of music and the economic challenges it throws up?
This was a question which came up in the Jazzfuel community a while back and, with bassist and NYC resident Shane Allessio, we decided to put these questions to musicians there. Throw in a request for tips on New York jazz clubs, in-demand players and advice for new arrivals and the results are here to read.
Before we jump into the survey, a quick caveat…
60 jazz musicians from New York took part in this survey, which of course barely scratches the surface. So whilst the goal is to present some generalised views on the scene and spark further discussion, it’s by no means a jazz census.
Putting it out via social media and the Jazzfuel newsletter, we also had no control over the demographics involved, so things like gender and age should not be taken as representative of the scene, just the people who took part.
But put that aside, and we hope you’ll find some specific quotes and pieces of data which provide some useful insight or talking points about one of the greatest jazz cities on earth.
As always, feel free to use the comments section or various social media links to add your own experiences or opinions to the topic.
Demographics: Who Are These New York Jazz Musicians?
To give you a picture of who’s taking part in the survey, we asked respondents to share (optionally) a few pieces of content to get a general overview of who they are…
Whilst there’s a broad group of musicians, the 25-44 age range made up more than half the participants, with the two extremes (18-24 and 65+) making up the smallest groups.
The Gender Balance
The balance of just 20% female-identifying artists is actually very close to the results of various studies, including the 21.6% reported by Rolling Stone Magazine (2020) and Northwestern University (25%, 2019).
(As a note, participants had the option to enter their own answer for this question if they wanted; it wasn’t a straight male/female choice)
Location, Location, Location: Where In New York?
Perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with jazz in NYC, Brooklyn was the most representative borough (42%) followed by Manhattan (22%).
It’s worth noting that 25% of people who took part, listed themselves as “outside the city” which suggests that they are commuting in and out for their work.
The Players (instrument-by-instrument)
Instrument-wise, there was a broad spread of main instruments listed, with piano, guitar, sax, voice, bass & drums augmented with trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, vibraphone, clarinet and composition.
Is Formal Music Education Really Necessary?
A straight 50% of respondents reported having a masters degree in music, with just 17% noting no formal music college education.
Years active on the New York Jazz Scene
As you can see from the chart below, there was a huge range of responses to the length of time people had been playing in New York, with 17% of them (perhaps notably, the same % as those who noted no formal music college education?) at 30+ years.
At the other end of the scale, 15% of people noted they’d been in the city for less than 3 years.
The Economic Realities of Jazz in NYC
More than half of the participants noted their ‘performance-related work’ as up to $20k/year.
Of course, this is not an indication of total income, as it doesn’t include ancillary work such as teaching – which is something that 62% of respondents noted doing, and 37% noted as being their biggest source of income.
Perhaps logically, the results were gradually smaller for each subsequent income-bracket, until the top ($100k+) which was added by just one person.
In terms of the different types of work musicians do in New York, perhaps reassuringly “my own jazz gigs” was the top response (63%), closely followed by teaching, sideman gigs and functions. It was the functions, though, which brought in the money!
When we opened up the survey to additional comments, it was interesting to see the range of non-playing or -teaching work that people did as part of their careers in New York…
- Promoting other music projects
- Producing music & podcasts
- Own studio
- Music Preparation
- Retail clerk
- Music School Manager
- Songwriting for a media company
- Personal Trainer
- Work with books.
- Music Licensing
- Coffee shop
- Commissions for new works for contemporary classical ensembles
- Contracting bands for function gigs
- Writing for independent and corporate films
So whilst these responses have hopefully given some interesting insight on the scene and the survey participants, it’s the long-form answers where we get some real interesting insight…
“How has the jazz scene changed since you started playing in New York?“
With participants ranging from relative newcomers to those who’ve been on the scene more than 30 years, this question was of course open to a lot of different viewpoints.
With reponses touching on the change in venues, finances and other social aspects, there seems to be a general feeling that a consistent growth in talent on the scene has not been matched by performance opportunites, nor pay.
Perhaps due to this growth, there’s also a sense that the scene has fragmented into lots of smaller scenes, rather than one big community.
There are hard facts to back up many of those comments, but changes in personal circumstances can of course also impact the experience, as one musician pointed out:
“I think I changed more than the scene has changed”.
Here are the responses, split into broad categories.
Changes in the Venue Landscape
- Lots of venues went out of business or changed hands during COVID.
- More live music in Brooklyn.
- Very few places to play.
- With both of my “home” clubs closing (55 Bar and Jazz Standard), I feel like there are less and less opportunities.
- Fewer clubs now, less of a “scene”, more fragmented mostly because NYC is so expensive in general I feel.
- Clubs close earlier (the Vanguard late set is only at 22:30!)
- Fewer venues in Manhattan, more venues in Brooklyn
- There are fewer places to play, so it feels even more cutthroat.
- Far fewer gigs, far more pass the bucket gigs, more gigs in Brooklyn, fewer pickup gigs.
- The pay has stayed the same, or gotten worse.
- Be prepared for going long periods of time without making money.
- Less opportunities that are financially viable.
- Roughly the same pay as 30 years ago.
- Fewer gigs, more talent.
- It has become decentralized across multiple boroughs and has turned largely to door or pass the hat.
- Fewer clubs, fewer venues with pianos, fewer background gigs, pay the same or worse.
- Much less opportunity for much less money.
- In short, there are fewer gigs that pay (background-ish type gigs) and more and more jazz musicians on the NY scene.
Shifting Musical & Audience Trends
- Less drugs, earlier gigs, much less swing.
- Many more younger musicians on the scene, an even greater diversity of music.
- Audience interest seems lower these days.
- Gotten larger, more diverse and more fragmented.
- It continues to grow!
- Seemingly less of a community feeling (for me)
- Fewer clubs, much more white musician, focus more on original music and less on the ‘canon’.
- Many of the important elders have passed on and the younger players listen primarily only to other young players.
- Lack of jam sessions.
Impact of Technology & Media
- The pressure to be your own publicist via social media is new.
- There used to be a ton of press outlets that listed jazz concerts, which would actually drive audiences toward my gigs, and now there are pretty much none except for the jazz-exclusive monthlies.
Social & Cultural Shifts
- There are more women.
- More tribal, a lot of little closed groups.
- More women (but still far from equitable), more LGBTQ+ friendly.
- Seeing more wealthy-ish hobbyists out there.
Personal Reflections & Philosophical Takeaways
- It’s back to its pre-pandemic vibe, spoilt for choice each night.
- I think I changed more than the scene has changed.
- Drastically. In 1981 when I arrived it was thriving and open. Now it is much more exclusive and “clique” like.
“What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you started playing in the city?“
As anyone who has read the Jazzfuel interview series will know, I’m a big believer in getting advice from people who’ve been there and done it before.
So I was very interested to know not just what musician’s today would advise on ‘making it’ in New York, but what the most memorable piece of advice they received was.
As you can see below, there’s a great mix of practical and philosophical, from “go out and support other musicians’ gigs” to “enjoy the journey rather than fixate on a destination“.
Keeping in mind that this advice could have been given anywhere between 1 and 30+ years ago, here’s the best of the best, split into broad categories…
Networking & Building Relationships
- Show up, be out there
- Take advantage of any playing opportunities
- Make connections with peers and play as much as possible
- Go out to the sessions
- Go hang out and meet musicians by supporting their gigs
- You have to socialise to get gigs
- Go out and network constantly
- Learn to network without being scummy
Financial & Survival Tips
- Save as much money as possible
- Be prepared for going long periods of time without making money
- Don’t expect to make money or even make a living from this
- Keep your monthly “nut” low so you can survive
- Keep a low overhead, stay healthy, have good friends and allies
- If you want decent paying gigs, the suburbs have more opportunities
Skill Development & Career Growth
- Have patience
- Dave Liebman [his Jazzfuel interview here] said on the last day of his class at MSM that we should now focus on our strengths. Find out what we do best and are most inspired by and develop the shit out of that.
- It takes years to cultivate the scene that you will be part of
- Figure out how to stay in NYC and focus on being better than everyone else on your instrument
- Keep showing up and keep shedding
- Play every gig you can and learn lots of music
- Quality over quantity
Reputation & Professionalism
- Be nice
- Your reputation is everything
- Be a good person, be supportive of others, be on time
- Don’t say no
- Be strong and show conviction in your statements
- Always be respectful. Don’t be a dick – to anyone
Personal Growth & Mindset
- That no one will care about your project/band more than you
- Enjoy the journey rather than fixate on a destination
- Everyone is on their own path. Find your own path
- Give it time
- The best things happen when you least expect them
- Don’t quit
- Try to understand what other players are trying to say, and help them say it
Jazz Clubs In New York (Bonus #1)
Of course, there are more than a handful of New York Jazz clubs which are renowned around the world.
But as every local musician knows, there are a whole lot more than that.
Rather than look for favourite clubs, we asked participants to tell us the last ‘audience’ gig they played. The results give a great snapshot of venues in New York in 2023 – click here to get access to the interactive map version.
- Bar Bayeux
- Bar Lunatico
- Bar Tabac
- Beacon Theater
- Bloomingdale School of Music
- Blue Note
- Cafe Bohemia
- Canary club
- Cellar Dog
- Chelsea Table & Stage
- City Winery
- Club Cumming
- Cooper Union
- Dizzy’s JALC
- Fiction, Brooklyn
- Groove (Manhattan)
- Ibeam Brooklyn
- Jazz club at Aman
- Jazz Gallery
- Joe’s Pub
- Marquis Theater
- Penny Jo’s
- Shift @ 411 Kent (Brooklyn)
- Symphony Space
- Tambour wine bar and restaurant (Brooklyn)
- Tartina Restaurant
- The Bitter End
- The Owl
- Tomi Jazz
- Webster Hall
“Who’s one player on the scene who seems to be getting a ton of gigs and attention right now?” (Bonus #2)
Of course, there’s a constant flow of jazz talent in New York, but from a professional point of view it’s always interesting to see which names seem to be creating a buzz at any given time.
With no additional requirements other than the question above, respondents gave a big list of names. It was also notable that, on a scene as competitive as New York, so many of the participants added a note to their suggestion about how this musicians’ success was “well deserved”.
Check them all out here: Spotlight on New York Jazz Musicians
Round up: Jazz in New York (2023)
That rounds up our mini-survey of jazz musicians in NYC. I hope you found some interesting talk-points, takeaways or pieces of advice!
There was a lot of focus on the challenges involved with the scene, but important not to forget – as several people noted – that part of the cause of this is the sheer volume of talented musicians and groundbreaking, diverse music which exists in NYC.
If you are working as a musician on the New York jazz scene and have things to add, feel free to use the comments section below to share anything additional you think could be useful.
Also venues, promoters, publicists, agents etc… your input is welcome!