This letter is in response to Jan Ramsey’s Mojo Mouth blog posted last week.
I’m writing today about your online op-ed about musicians’ pay. This is a subject that is supremely misunderstood by the general public, and most frequently those who are not day-to-day professional musicians, those who don’t play gigs for a living, just don’t get it. Your piece really hits the mark. As I read, I was amazed at the accuracy and reality of what you were saying. It sounded like you play gigs for a living! (Have you been moonlighting?!)
My first gig on Bourbon Street was in 1972. We got $200 for a quartet, covering tunes like “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Mustang Sally.” My $50 went a long way in those days. My wife and I had a three-room slave quarter apartment off of St. Charles and Jackson that was, yes, $50 a month. Such great memories.
Forty-five years and over 10,000 gigs later, I am somewhat dismayed that you can still hear cheesy versions of “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Mustang Sally” on Bourbon Street, and you can still find gigs for $50. In fact, you can find gigs for less. When I moved on from that first gig in 1972 with the $200 quartet, I eventually joined the Musicians’ Union. In retrospect, that was fortuitous for me. Had all of the gigs I have played in my life been filed with the union, I would be receiving a five-figure pension now; instead, it’s much, much less.
In those early days, Bourbon Street was still largely all-union. I had the incredible good luck to play with cats older than me, much older cats, in some cases, like Don Suhor, Kidd Jordan, Roy Liberto, James Black, Dickie Taylor, Frank Trapani and many, many others, who are all gone now. I got in their faces: “Tell me how it was when you were young! Teach me how to play this tune! What am I doing right, and what am I doing wrong?” Some of those older cats blew me off, but most recognized their responsibility to pass the jazz hatchet to the next generation (a responsibility that is my main driving force these days), and so I learned how it was in the New Orleans music scene from the end of the Second World War to that time, the early ‘70s.
In that time, great, truly great, musicians abounded. The level of musical mastery was incredible and theoretical and historical knowledge of music and the art of playing it was commonplace, as compared to today. All the gigs were union, and they paid a living wage. Cats could play a six-night-a-week gig and support a family, without the spouse also working. If you were fired, you had a two-week notice and you could just transition to another six-nighter across the street. These conditions attracted quality musicians from around the world, and the virtuosity of the musicians in the local scene was astounding. Think of the famous jazz and R&B musicians that emerged from the New Orleans scene in that time period! It was a golden musical age, made possible by a viable “living wage” scenario. We are told, and we believe, that this is impossible today.
Today, union membership across all forms of labor is a shadow of what it once was. The hollowing out of the American middle class and the decline of American unions follow the exact same graph. The now “one-tenth of one-percenters” have waged war on working America, and they have won.
One of my Tulane jazz graduates, of whom I am very proud, recently called me and asked me to attend a meeting he was organizing. The topic was to be about how to get better pay on Frenchmen Street gigs. (I couldn’t attend, unfortunately.) I told him how union power had supported musicians in the past. The war against organized labor of all types had been so pervasive and so devastating, however, that I wasn’t sure if that avenue had any prospects for use today or in the near future. Although I urge all of my graduating jazz students to consider union membership, truthfully, I am not sure how useful that membership will be in their careers today. The need for union representation is greater than ever, but the union infrastructure has been destroyed, with intent, and with malice.
The point is that the declining value assigned to the “labor” of professional musicians is synonymous with the devaluation of all forms of professional labor. The inability of musicians to get decent pay, let alone a living wage, is directly tied to the intentional devastation of pay to all forms of labor.
Labor has dignity. Hard physical labor is its own reward.
I learned this by experience, but you can read it in books: the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, in fact in all of the ancient religious texts. The vicious war on labor has replaced the influence of these loving, glorious, egalitarian traditions with the twisted dark view of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics.
I stressed to that student of whom I am so proud that although unions may be no longer viable (even so, I am still a proud lifetime member of AFM 174-496), solidarity among musicians is absolutely essential to sustain any type of better pay or working conditions. And there, as you deftly point out, is the rub: musicians are notoriously difficult to organize. (“Herding cats”—a standing joke in regards to organizing musicians). I stressed to him that our inability to obtain good pay is intrinsically related to shitty wages everywhere, to the war on unionism, to the intentional hollowing out of the American middle class, and to slavish adherence to the sick, twisted ideology of shareholder hegemony. The slow destruction of playing music professionally as an economically viable human occupation is but one of many of the vast array of ugly effects produced by our grotesque and intentionally-produced economic inequality.
I still throw as many gigs as I can to my former student, and to all of my up and coming one-day successors who will attempt to carry the torch of live jazz into the next generation. But I fear for their ability to keep the living transmission, the tradition, the multi-generational lineage of live jazz performance alive. As digital technology transforms our universe the lure of live performance dims. If all information is “free,” then all music is “free.”
I don’t know how this will turn out, in the longest run. When my seniors come to me for career guidance, I have to tell them the truth: it was almost impossible for me to support a family of four by playing gigs for a living; honestly, in retrospect I really don’t know how my wife and I were able to do that. For them, for someone starting out now, I actually don’t know if it is even possible at all anymore. The field of “professional musician,” always having been historically perilous economically, may now actually be impossible, dead. But if so, it will not be technology that will have killed it; but rather human greed: the monetization of all things cultural, and the disregard of all things that are not monetized.
Without culture, without art, music, literature, cuisine, theatre, we are animals.
And now I’m going to practice my 19th century Czech upright bass, not because I have to, but because I want to. It always makes me feel better.
James Markway has been a professional bassist in New Orleans since 1972, played with a host of N.O. artists, and these days mostly enjoys playing Cajun music with Bruce Daigrepont, R&B with the Dixie Cups, trad jazz with the Pfister Sisters and at Fritzel’s, and modern jazz and funk with his own band. He’s been a music teacher since 1974; and at Tulane since 1991, where he teaches electric and acoustic bass and jazz combo.