1 March 2013

Post 1: HOW TO RUN A JAZZ BAND

It's tough being a traditional jazz band manager. That's why I think it's the duty of all members of a band to support their manager in every way they can and to appreciate his efforts on their behalf.

What do you think is the most important skill a band manager needs? Playing an instrument outstandingly well? Wrong. If you want to run a band that attracts plenty of worthwhile gigs, your business skills are likely to be more important than your musical skills.

In my view, here's what a band manager needs.

1. Business and marketing skills
Publicise your band in the most effective ways. And always have business cards available. 
2. Customer-relation skills
Courteous and meticulous attention to customers' comments and correspondence.
3. Common sense
For example, don't waste time quoting a fee the client obviously can't afford. Don't play music inappropriate to the occasion.
4. Musical expertise
Obviously essential, but less important than business skills.
5. Optimism
Don't be disheartened by knocks and setbacks. Always smile and look cheerful on stage.
6. Policy
Costume, style, repertoire, etc. Read my blog post about this by clicking here.
7. Willingness to devolve
Let other members of the band be the Musical Director and the Announcer if they are better qualified for these duties.
8. Man management
Recruit the right musicians and keep all members of your band content and well-behaved - and happy to be part of the team.
9. A sense of humour
An obvious help - especially in the jazz world.


On 29th August 2014, I heard an interview with Zeev Aram on BBC's Radio 4's Today programme. Zeev was a man in his 80s who in 1964 set up a London furniture business specialising exclusively in the highest-quality modern designs. Although some people at first thought his business would fail, it has in fact been a huge success.
Asked what advice he would give to anyone else who wanted to set up a business, he said:

Decide what you want to do.

Be consistent.

Be absolutely committed.

Don't compromise.

It immediately struck me that this would also be terrific advice for anyone setting up a traditional jazz band. If you follow these four principles, you could end up playing music of the highest quality. I think we should at least try to keep those four principles in mind.

Here are two young bands based in New Orleans who - in my view - are working exactly in accordance with the Aram Principles. These two bands are an example to us all:

The Shotgun Jazz Band:

Decide what you want to do.
They want to play mostly the standard jazz repertoire but in a no-frills manner that is authentic, raw, dynamic, exciting, energetic and full of heart.
Be consistent.
They struggled at first. It's not easy being consistent in the early days when you're looking for other musicians also busking like yourselves on the streets of New Orleans. But by 2014 Marla and John had assembled a great group of highly-talented players all with the same approach to the music.
Be absolutely committed.
Watch videos of their recent performances (for example  click here  ). Can you be more committed than that?
Don't compromise.

See above. They had to compromise a bit at first. But they're not doing so any more.



Tuba Skinny

Decide what you want to do.
They had a clear business plan. They wanted to play in the style of the bands from the 1920s. They wanted to rescue from obscurity and play very well - with terrific arrangements - many of the old rags, blues and other songs played by the jazz bands, string bands and jug bands of the 1920s and 1930s. They wanted to emphasise ensemble work, without individual exhibitionism.
Be consistent.
Like The Shotgun Jazz BandTuba Skinny have been consistent in their aims but have had several changes of personnel. By 2013, they had achieved a great line-up.
Be absolutely committed.
There's no doubt about their commitment to the aims I outlined above. (For an example,  click here  ). 
Don't compromise.
They don't compromise.
=================
Though different in their approaches, both these bands have developed a great and exciting house style.

Here's another bit of advice. Communicate with your audience!

I remember a classical music concert at the Wigmore Hall in London. At the start, amidst applause, the musicians walked on to the stage, and without a word took their seats, played their two pieces, bowed and went off. After the Interval, exactly the same procedure occurred.

The musicians were some of the best in the world. Their playing was sublime. But throughout the two hours of the concert, nobody spoke one word to the audience. This is a convention with some classical music performers, but I think it is a pity. 

I have attended some classical concerts where the musicians have told the audience something about the music and have given a few other bits of information about themselves and where else they will be playing. On one occasion The Wihan String Quartet pleased the audience with a question-and-answer session.

In traditional jazz, too, when you have been booked to give a formal concert and your audience is politely seated, listening attentively to all you play, I think it is important for the band leader - or someone acting as spokesperson/announcer - to have a few words with the audience between tunes.
Speaking to the Audience:
Kenny Ball was a jazz musician who
set a good example.
This is good for achieving a rapport and is also helpful in letting the audience know something about the tunes, the history of our music and about the band.

It is inexcusable to take no notice of the audience between the end of one tune and the start of another, as I have often seen bands do. Why do some bands not even tell the audience the titles of tunes with which they may be unfamiliar?

Remarks to audiences don't have to be profound or scholarly. They can be relatively trivial. For example, you could say which towns the musicians come from. You could say where you have been performing recently. You could tell them it's the banjo player's birthday. Little scraps like this help to establish a good relationship.

And don't feel compelled to tell jokes. There's no need to do so unless your timing and delivery are good and the jokes are of a kind that will not give offence.

Speaking to an audience is not easy. So regard this as another skill you need to develop. It may even be worth practising things you will say.

Something else to avoid is the poor discipline we often witness. Between tunes, members of the band on stage talk among themselves and guffaw at each other's comments - while the audience is left with no idea what is going on.

And there's no excuse for the band members to argue among themselves about what to play next, while the audience sits waiting. From the audience's point of view, this kind of behaviour is irritating. But some bands are guilty. Cut it out!