The music's difficult, so is the life

Special to The Times

The life of a jazz musician is not an easy one. And that, of course, is a sentence that will not exactly be enlightening to any of the practitioners of the improvisational art.

But the question of how difficult it can be has always been a matter of anecdotal information: a benefit for this player to cover medical costs; the revelation that a well-known artist from an earlier era has been homeless; the pay scales that haven't changed at anything approaching the rate of inflation.

Now, however, some factual information has finally arrived. And it is both disturbing and edifying. "Changing the Beat: A Study of the Worklife of Jazz Musicians" was prepared by Joan Jeffri and the Research Center for Arts and Culture under a cooperative agreement with the National Endowment for the Arts and the San Francisco Study Center. "Volume 1: Executive Summary" has just been published. Volumes 2 and 3 will be available in the spring.

The study, conducted in 2000, examined the lives of jazz musicians in four cities: New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and Detroit. (The Detroit results did not match the statistical standards of the others and will be published in a separate volume.)

Two surveys provided most of the information. The first was a conventional random sampling of musicians in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). The second used a kind of referral networking in which jazz musicians referred interviewers to other jazz musicians who then provided further referrals. The study calls this process respondent-driven sampling (RDS).

The musicians included in the study were those who answered positively to the question, "Do you ever play or sing jazz music?" That's obviously an extremely broad way to define jazz musicians, but the results nonetheless provide a picture that is for the most part consistent with what happens, day in and day out, in the jazz world.

There were differences between the two groups. The union-based musicians were, according to the study, "older, more likely to be white, more likely to be male and earned higher incomes than their RDS counterparts." They were also more likely to be employed full time and have health-care coverage.

Although the study does not say as much, the differences also trace to its broad definition of a jazz musician. It seems apparent that the AFM musicians were also more likely -- except for the nationally known artists -- to be part-time jazz artists, balancing their playing in that genre with active schedules of commercial studio work, backup gigs, dance gigs, etc. RDS respondents -- younger on average, with larger percentages of women and African Americans -- appear more directly connected to the music, less plugged into the commercial music world.

The differences in income between the AFM and the RDS musicians further underscore the relative security of employment within the union framework. For example, 62% of AFM players reported earning less than $40,000 annually; 91% of RDS players earned less than $40,000. (In San Francisco, nearly 66% of the RDS players earned less than $7,000.)

Continuing the pattern, more than 77% of AFM musicians have retirement plans; 57% of RDS players did not have plans. Eighty-eight percent of AFM musicians had some sort of health coverage; more than 66% of RDS players had none.

The study offered a more surprising -- if, at the bottom, equally disturbing -- revelation in its description of education levels among jazz musicians. In both the AFM and the RDS groups, more than 40% hold bachelor's degrees or higher. But their earnings, relative to the income of comparably educated workers in the overall population, were considerably lower. Average earnings in 1999 for men with bachelor's degrees was $52,000 annually, considerably higher than the jazz musicians' incomes noted above.

So what does all this mean? Despite a generally high average level of education, despite the endless hours of study and practice that are required to succeed in a creatively competitive field, the remuneration is as much as a third below that of other professions. And that's without the security of pensions and health insurance.

What's to be done about it?

One of the most interesting segments of the study describes some of the suggestions offered by the about 2,700 jazz musicians who were interviewed.

A few of those suggestions: "access to affordable health and medical care"; "revitalization of the union, especially those policies that would allow jazz musicians to get pensions"; "more emergency relief agencies like the Musicians Emergency Fund"; "programs to help jazz musicians learn to manage their own careers"; "grants going toward grass-roots efforts [such as] the CETA program in the 1970s and Chamber Music America's jazz ensemble grants"; and "a nonprofit independent music distribution company for artists' recordings."

Good ideas, all of them. But they are unlikely to be acted on until an appropriately funded organization is established with a mission to solve the very real problems identified in this valuable study, rather than to produce yet another meaningless awards show. The perpetuation of this art -- an extraordinary American accomplishment -- needs and deserves all the practical help it can get.

Volume 1 can be read in its entirety at



Speaking of appropriate funding, the Coca-Cola Co. is donating $10 million to Jazz at Lincoln Center to help build the Frederick P. Rose Hall, a performing arts center designed specifically for jazz. Similar corporate funding for jazz musicians' health and welfare benefits might not have the same PR sizzle as an association with Jazz at Lincoln Center, but it would go along way toward healing some chronic problems....

Live performance DVDs would seem to be a natural for jazz, an opportunity to both see and hear great artists in action. But the industry has been a bit slow in gearing up with product. Naxos/TDK Jazz Club, however, has released a group of four unusually appealing performances from '70s and '80s European concerts: "Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers" (Umbria, 1976), "Gil Evans and His Orchestra" (Lugano, 1983), "Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie" (Riazzino, Switzerland, 1981) and "World of Rhythm Live" with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Billy Cobham (Lugano, 1983).

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