Making a living in the music world can be tough. Here Gene Santoro reports how six fledgling jazz musicians are building communities and carving out careers.
It’s July 2015. Violinist Nora Germain is crowd-sourcing the cost of her fourth album and making her weekly gig at LA’s Children’s Hospital. Trombonist Nick Finzer is promoting his second CD and working on his new work A Ten Year Suite in-between world tours with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox or New York gigs at Smalls. Keyboardist Greg Nahabedian is doing a dozen things in New Hampshire, including composing their first opera (Nahabedian is a person who experiences gender identity and expression outside of the man or woman categories and prefers plural pronouns). Pianist Samora Pinderhughes is visiting family near Boston, after a trio performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; he’s finishing a large-scale work that actress, playwright, and professor Anna Deavere Smith will produce. Bassist James Riotto is hiking and kayaking around his Bay Area home, when he’s not doing sessions and live shows or working as a studio engineer and producer. And mandolinist Eva Scow is making her hometown, Fresno, work for her: leading two bands and playing in a dozen more, hosting a radio show, and, like the rest, managing the business of making her music pay.
They’re all under thirty, and looking for ways to create and eat in an edgy macro-economic environment that leaves many of their peers under- and unemployed. Aside from loving music, these six musicians don’t share much—except for DIY culture’s bent to define and control their own situations. In the post-web era, when the music industry has shrunk and indie releases, bootstrap touring and crowd-sourcing support have become quotidian tools for musicians, the person staring back from the mirror, for better and worse, is where the buck starts and stops—when there are any bucks.
The person staring back from the mirror, for better and worse, is where the buck starts and stops—when there are any bucks.
Nick Finzer is self-consciously building a career in ways that reflect both old and new eras. A conservatory product of Eastman and Juilliard, he was born into a musical family—his mom Sherry is a noted flutist—and started his training early. By his teens, he’d connected with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, of Lincoln Center’s Jazz Orchestra, and started linking up with more mentors and peers, who have recommended him for sideman gigs. Though he works crossover gigs, he stays focused on his future as a jazz musician. At Juilliard, he played with saxophonist Lucas Pino a lot in practice rooms, developing a rapport that carried over after graduation and into gigs, like the regular one Pino leads at New York’s Smalls.
“People can make you feel stupid if you don’t quit. But what if Nina Simone had stuck to classical piano? One person can make a difference, and I want to do that.” - Nora Germain
Finzer represents a twenty-first-century update of the model that guided jazz’s first century. Then, musicians signed on as sidemen to get on-the-job training via oral history and pointers from the vets on the bandstand, and learned to deal with the then-realities of the road and recording by living them. Now, jazz wannabes fill conservatories and big state schools from coast to coast to learn technique and history in courses and practice rooms—a radically different culture with different results. As Finzer explains, “At Juilliard, people formed groups and worked together. Naturally, this carries over: we’ll call each other for gigs first because we’re so familiar with each other’s playing.”
Who can guess how many music students hope to forge jazz careers like Finzer’s? One professor told me candidly, “Most of the serious ones think they’ll go to New York, become sidemen then lead a group at the Vanguard. It’s unreal. I try to prepare them for the truth without destroying their dreams.” Some, like Finzer, manage to translate that dream into some form of reality. Some can’t. For others, that dream isn’t theirs: they create their own, and how to get there.
Unlike Finzer, Samora Pinderhughes found Juilliard an intimidating, at times alienating experience. “I wasn’t shedding on my instrument every day like everyone else; I was writing, because I wanted to be a composer. I was black in an overwhelmingly white school. And I’m very political, which Juilliard certainly isn’t.”
Born in Berkeley CA, two-year-old Pinderhughes studied Cuban and Venezuelan percussion, and at five began jazz piano. At Berkeley Jazz School, the fifteen-year-old recorded his first two albums and got commissions from the Caramoor and Moab music festivals. At Juilliard, although being a composer put him at the edges of typical conservatory parameters and made him anxious, it didn’t stop him. “I wrote The Transformations Suite in 2011,” he explains, “because I wanted to show how icons like Dr. Martin Luther King are changed in popular culture. Now he’s celebrated as this Gandhi-like peacemaker. But by the time he was assassinated, King had taken on the Vietnam War and larger issues of economic inequality. He was divisive and controversial. That’s been erased to make him less threatening, so he’s a safe symbol.”
Today, many roads can lead to life as a working musician. All wind through inevitable struggles with no guaranteed payoffs, but that’s the timeless same-old artists always face.
An avid networker, Pinderhughes has toured the globe and played at the White House and the Monterey Jazz Festival. But his focus now is his work The Languages of Healing, which Deavere Smith, whom he met via family contacts, will produce: “She’s inspired me to think in bigger terms—not just music, but a whole multidisciplinary presentation.” Like Finzer, though with very different goals, Pinderhughes has used the access to mentors Juilliard offers to carve his own musical path.
Jazz conservatories and big state colleges produce an annual wave of musicians on the make, but they’re not the only entry ramps. Like Pinderhughes, Hampshire College grad Greg Nahabedian is a keyboardist and composer motivated by social themes. But where Finzer, more a jazz purist, sounds a bit defensive about working with the pop crossover Postmodern Jukebox, for years Nahabedian’s primary focus was the art-punk trio Derive, inspired by the French Situationists. “Improvisation is always involved in the music I write,” they declare. As it is in their hour-long oratorio (they call it a “melologue”) about slave trader-turned-Anglican-minister John Newton, who co-wrote Amazing Grace. The oratorio, If the Lord Should So Incline My Heart, mingles influences from Meredith Monk, George Crumb, Stravinsky, art punk, and jazz. “The story needs to be told because it’s been misrepresented,” Nahabedian declares of Newton’s complex relationship to God and slavery, sounding like Pinderhughes on Dr. King.
Derive is now defunct, but Nahabedian’s work ethic—they once logged seventeen gigs during a school break—focuses on building and nurturing a supportive community. They’ve done hundreds of benefits for soup kitchens and homeless shelters. They tap into Patreon (a website where fans can financially support artists) for crowd-funding in innovative ways, like listing monthly “milestone goals” from $25 (“I can be a little less nervous about gas and food”) to $700 (“I can pay for gas, food, rent, my bills, and have a little left over to help me get out of student debt”). They also create and distribute e-zines to raise money for students entering college and teach while finishing their opera based on the Armenian genocide.
Like Finzer, Nora Germain bridges old and new forms of jazz apprenticeship, but in ways that underscore differences between their two paths. After years of classical training while playing Celtic music and bluegrass around Madison, WI, where she grew up, Germain discovered jazz at California’s Idyllwild Arts Academy, where Marshall Hawkins, a former Miles Davis bassist, turned the 16-year-old onto Stephane Grappelli and became her mentor. She studied at USC, becoming the first jazz violinist to graduate with a degree—though she scrambled to create courses for herself that the music program lacked and worked on projects in the film and theater schools. “It wasn’t always easy,” she says, sounding like Pinderhughes: a square creative peg trying to make a round academic hole fit.
Unlike Pinderhughes, whose parents have talked him through inevitable bouts of self-doubt and reassessment, Germain faces ongoing discontent from her family. “People can make you feel stupid if you don’t quit,” she observes. “But what if Nina Simone had stuck to classical piano? One person can make a difference, and I want to do that.” Though her forte—and biggest gig-getter—is her ability to channel Grappelli (“I work with a lot of guitar players,” she chuckles), she’ll play or do whatever she can to channel her creativity: film scores, theater pieces, acting. “I love jazz and work constantly to improve as a musician,” she says, “but there are so many other things I want to do too.”
Eva Scow would agree. Born in a hamlet outside Fresno, CA, Scow leads two outfits—Espacio does Brazilian and contemporary jazz while Experience meshes R&B, soul, pop, and improvisation—while playing mandolin, five-string electric mandolin, and even guitar in diverse situations from San Diego to San Francisco. Unlike her peers here, she only recently started using the internet to reach potential fans elsewhere; it seemed more natural to her to build a community and a career based in her hometown, using old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. “Fresno is a good-sized city,” she explains, “but you can get to know everyone in the music business and the fans. It makes it so much more personal, and I like that.” It’s paid off: “I have every weekend of every month booked.”
Of these six young musicians, Scow arguably comes the closest to the older, on-the-bandstand model of musical apprenticeship. She didn’t attend a conservatory or college music program, though she had twelve years of classical training on piano and violin. She met mandolin great David Grisman at a music camp, and hooked into the Bay Area network of ambitious jazz-meets-bluegrass players like Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Her decision to become a jazz musician came with her 2006 selection to join Edgar Meyer at a New York workshop that culminated in a performance at the Weill Recital Hall. At 18, she went to Brazil with Brazilian musicians she played with in California and soaked up pointers from local choro players in clubs and on the streets. “The most amazing thing to me was, all kinds of music are just part of life there,” she says. “Here I think people hear the word jazz and figure it means the room will be full of snobs. To me, jazz is part of all this. What matters is finding ways to reach audiences.”
With that in mind, Scow plans to crowd-source new albums to add to her first two. Maybe not surprisingly, her approach to recording is old-school: “We had no rehearsals before going into the studio. We recorded the studio rehearsals as safeties and did one or two passes at each piece. That’s it. This music is meant to be live.”
James Riotto has a very different vision of the studio—the result of redefining his musical goals since his days at Hampshire. There the budding youngster studied with bass great Mark Dresser and reedman-composer Marty Ehrlich by day, and performed nonstop with Moanin’ Dove, his experimental jam band by night. After graduation, the trio moved to the Bay Area, figuring it for a congenial scene to grow their music. But like Nahabedian’s Derive (and, of course, most bands), Moanin’ Dove expired. Riotto took a workshop with avant-garde pianist Myra Melford, arranged a Roscoe Mitchell piece, and worked with Bay Area stalwarts like guitarist Charlie Hunter. And he teamed with Mohsen Namjoo, an exiled Iranian singer whose improvisational attack parallels jazz and whose lyrics get him compared to Bob Dylan. “His songs are amazing challenges and fun: we’re basically improvising all the time,” Riotto declares. Once a year they do a world tour, stopping at Iranian expat colonies that revere Namjoo as the poetic voice of home and freedom.
But Riotto’s part-time job as an engineer at all-analog Tiny Telephone studios started making him think beyond the bass. He realized recordings offered options in conception and execution that a creative producer could partner on with musicians. So he’s decided to focus on that. It’s far indeed from Hampshire, where his senior year yielded a probing arrangement and performance of Charles Mingus’s Solo Dancer. “I’m not shedding every day on my bass anymore,” he explains. “I know I’m not the best bass player in the Bay Area, and that’s fine. I still play gigs. But I’m composing, and learning to shape and create in the studio, line by line, layering textures, interacting with the musicians.”
“All roads lead to Rome,” the old saw tells us. Today, many roads can lead to life as a working musician, as our six road warriors illustrate. All wind through inevitable struggles with no guaranteed payoffs, but that’s the timeless same-old artists always face. I once mentioned to Sonny Rollins how young jazzers were talking about careers. He shot me a piercing look, laughed, and said, “Careers?! I just wanted to do whatever it took to play music.” For aspiring musicians, that’s still the first answer they should hear when they look in the mirror and ask, “Why am I doing this?”