How We Can Fund The Everyday $200 Gig

52nd Street in New York, mid-century i i

From Wall Street to Swing Street: the jazz club hub of 52nd Street in New York in 1939. Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images
52nd Street in New York, mid-century

From Wall Street to Swing Street: the jazz club hub of 52nd Street in New York in 1939.

Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images

Last week, we spotlighted two acts of jazz philanthropy. An anonymous donor gave $20 million to SFJazz for its forthcoming $60 million complex. And retired McDonald's executive Fred Turner gave a total of $2.5 million to Drake University for new facilities and an endowed professorship.

Bay Area trumpeter Ian Carey took note of this, and wondered, both in the comments and his own blog post, if that sort of money might be better spent. Wouldn't the entire jazz ecosystem benefit more if that money were distributed more widely across smaller gigs? As he put it, what if we could sponsor 12,500 smaller shows at $200 each* rather than dumping $2.5 million to one place?

Because having a gig — at a club, a bar, a cafe, restaurant or whatever — has been the backbone of jazz music for a century. Having a place to play — work through your stuff, learn the ropes and try out new things, interact with other musicians and the audience — is how musicians have honed their craft and the music has grown, evolved, and flourished since the days of Buddy Bolden.

Perhaps even more importantly, it's also the primary place where audiences have gotten to know jazz — been exposed to it, responded to it, thought about it, and for some percentage, become long-term listeners, without having to pony up a lot of dough or put on a suit. And in the Bay Area, the number of places to do that — especially if you're not a big name — gets smaller every year.

I'm awfully glad all those millions are going to jazz somewhere — and to what appear to be responsible, competent institutions who will do well with them — rather than nowhere. But I have a great deal of sympathy toward Ian's position. And I'd like to do some brainstorming as to how we might make it come about in the future.

Festivals are fun, schools are important investments and concert hall shows can be magnificent experiences. But the magic of the club/bar/whatever sort of gig — the intimacy, the casual atmosphere, the sound, the musical workshopping, the fortuitous guest appearances, the price, the fact that it happens frequently — all that is a huge part of why most of us, musicians and fans alike, generally love jazz. Smaller venues offer gigs to many musicians in different neighborhoods, in different cities, in different ways and means and programming approaches. The best of these places are, pound for pound, very efficient at nurturing interest in jazz. And as we know, they're not doing so hot at the moment. If there's money to be had for the music — and apparently, there is — Ian and I can't be the only ones to want more of it to trickle down faster.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Big, central institutions, by their nature, have massive potential for outreach. They can spend money on making money, whether by hiring publicity people, financial officers or big-name performers. (NPR benefits mightily from this phenomenon, I might add; I'm well aware that my job is possible because of it.) In contrast, Mom and Pop's Bar sometimes doesn't even have the wherewithal to put up a serviceable Web site with updated show listings. If you were a potential investor, sponsor or major giver, wouldn't you want to donate to a place with accountability, a proven track record and highly visible accomplishments?

But.

Locating dollars is not a zero-sum game. If $20 million go to one place, it does not follow that none will go to the other. There are other funders out there, and demonstrated interest in something tends to spark more interest in that same thing. If that money indeed exists, and if we want a fully healthy jazz economy where $60 million showpiece venues and Mom and Pop bars can thrive, we ought to find ways for the grassroots to share the next intake.

I ain't got no MBA, and I certainly don't know all the issues involved. But I want to at least kick-start the conversation. I see three places where significant infusions of cash monies could come from:

  1. Public Funding. Wait, you mean, like, taxpayer money to small business, or even small non-profits? Well, subsidies happen all the time at the city/county/state/regional level; local community leaders get to know the economic and cultural value of jazz clubs and concert series, and NEA money supplements the grantmaking coffers of regional and state arts agencies. The trick is directing more federal dollars not only toward the large festivals and presenters, but also to a smattering of small operations. And how can we make it easier for clubs to see any kind of public money? They do it in Scandinavia (where the countries are the size of U.S. states, but still) ...
  2. Business Interests. We see big-time corporate sponsorship often on big festivals: the Monterey Jazz Festival sponsored by Verizon, the TD Canada Trust all over Canada's jazz festivals, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival sponsored by Shell. It does seem unlikely that we could get companies like that to sign on to Wednesday Night Sessions at the Mom and Pop, brought to you by Merrill Lynch. But maybe companies with products of interest to jazz audiences could step in? Alcohol vendors, naturally, would seem to be a good fit — or if that's controversial, audio-visual manufacturers or stylish clothing stores. (I presume it's no coincidence that Banana Republic chose Esperanza Spalding and David Sanchez for its "City Stories" advertisements.) Any place with somewhat youngish people with enough money to pay for admissions to clubs is a place where lots of advertisers want to be.

    As an aside, you could also do what George Wein is doing with this year's CareFusion Jazz Festival New York — using CareFusion's support to help produce a lot of affordable shows, mostly in association with the existing clubs of New York City. Alas, those sorts of backdoor opportunities don't happen that often, though it's worth considering what a semi-permanent CareFusion concert series in clubs would look like. What if there were another sponsored Jazz Club Week much like New York's finest restaurants do reasonably-priced prix-fixe Restaurant Week? George, you reading?
  3. Private Grants and Philanthropy. You know, charitable foundations and other wealthy folks. Here's the case which started this whole conversation — and the one I still have the most trouble imagining. How do we get the people who think big to pay attention to the day-to-day transactions of jazz? The only impulse I have is to think about strength in numbers. As musicians form collectives to increase visibility, what would it look like if the venues of a particular city convened an ad-hoc organization expressly to act as a umbrella for a donation to The Jazz Scene Of Said City? Or if existing jazz societies decided to take on special campaigns on behalf of their cities' clubs and small venues?

Since mine are clearly inexpert, I'd like to hear your ideas and viewpoints. Those in this industry, speak up! The capital is apparently still there for jazz. What funding structures have you been thinking about which would get more money to more $200 gigs, as Ian Carey puts it? Indulge your what-ifs; contribute your hare-brained schemes. The thought of a robust network of venues, from bottom to top, is too valuable to stop dreaming of.


* $200 being a somewhat arbitrary number, of course, and borrowed from Ian Carey's imagination. I certainly don't mean to prescribe this as the ideal amount to make on any one night.

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