You and Me

Pianist/composer Jeremy Walker says forget about business models, record label contracts, or dire predictions about the collapse of the music industry - the fundamentals of playing - and the human relationships at the center of it all - haven't changed.


AFTER I FINISHED MY ESSAY SERIES, JAZZ IS A BASTARD, in February, asked me to continue writing for them regularly about music in the Twin Cities and nationally. I am very happy about this — I like to play music most of all, but as a close second, I like to think about it. And given the forum, I like to talk and write about it, too.

The Walker and commissioned the previous essay series from me, specifically, to look at the state of jazz in contemporary culture and come up with new ways to think about it; in so doing, those pieces were expressly intended to attract young audiences. To that end, I am afraid a series of articles with links to videos is likely not the kind of sweeping technical or cultural advance that we were all hoping for. That said, technology is hardly the problem. It occurs to me now, after writing and thinking on the state of the form for some months, that determining the nature of the cultural context for jazz, or for any organic music, is the more important question to consider. With that in mind, the articles I write in the coming months are not part of a series. Still, it seems inevitable that many of the same questions we’ve looked at thus far will continue to dictate, at least to some degree, the tone and topics of what I write going forward.

On that note: I am tired of all the talk about the collapse of the music industry. Record labels only worked for a select few artists anyway. Those artists signed to a major label functioned, and to some extent continue to function, as a chosen few, with the kind of sure exposure and ongoing support that enables them to enjoy careers of perpetually upward motion. The high fees, ease of distribution, and promotion that come with such support built those select artists careers that the rest of us could only dream about.

But before anyone gets the idea that I am throwing grit at the Joe Lovano-s and Marsalis-es of the world, let me say that the fact of their success in no way diminishes the quality of their work; these musicians all produce great music and worked hard for their position. What are they supposed to do? Say ‘no’ to great careers simply because other deserving musicians, due to bad luck or industry bias, don’t enjoy the same benefits? That would be stupid, and it wouldn’t help less fortunate artists anyway.

And as far as how mp3 downloads, iPods, and all the rest have affected the music business — let’s just move on. Technology may change, and current tools may make it easier than ever to listen to artists’ work without paying for it, but there have always been ways to get music for free. Music was always has been and forever will be a hell of a difficult way to make a living — and that’s true even for the ‘chosen ones.’ The highest paid jazz musicians are still relatively underpaid, when you consider their work, inventiveness, and sheer commitment.  

A couple of weeks ago, my wife was talking to Charles McPherson, the great alto saxophonist most known for his work with Charles Mingus. Mr. McPherson was talking about the specialness of jazz, in particular the sense of intimacy and warmth that characterizes its community. He raised the question of whether we should be talking about increasing the jazz audience as much as glorying in the audience the music already has. And that’s a sage question, man.

All music, in any genre, devoted to emotional and spiritual integrity faces an uphill battle. Artists who insist, first, on expressing authentic feeling as accurately as possible will always struggle to find a lasting place at the industry table. Sometimes a “hit” comes along, but the industry inevitably moves on to the next exploitable profit center. That’s just the nature of the business. But true music establishes a lasting connection with its audience, and that link between artist and listener transcends industry dictates and technology. All these true road warriors, past and present, continue to connect at the most human level: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Bach — all of ’em.

For whatever reason, the world needs music. Somehow, if it’s good, an audience will find it and, once found, hold on to it.

That is the heart of it: human connection. Fundamentally, music is about an exchange between the player and the listener, where both parties are equally important. Music isn’t just about me as player — you don’t owe me your ears or your money. And I am not a jukebox either, or a trained poodle jumping through hoops to please you. An honest exchange has to be more than that. It has nothing to do with fashion or technology, or what’s getting media play. The kind of exchange I’m talking about transcends all that; it involves a human relationship that is both ancient and ongoing.

Aside from my perennial obsessions with Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Jaki Byard‘s trio records, lately I have been clicking my way through folk, older country music, blues, gospel, as well as stuff I never thought I would listen to — Bob Dylan comes to mind, as does Lucinda Williams (I guess that speaks to my younger self’s stupid biases). What strikes me about the best of it is the sense of immediacy that comes with listening to good music: it reaches across time and, even via the (supposedly detached) medium of online listening, puts me right in the room. It’s kind of like all the social network stuff: Does Facebook keep us from organic, meaningful interaction with each other, or does it foster connection? The answer, of course and on both counts, is yes.


When you think about it, there are thousands and thousands of places to play live music: unused band shells, living rooms with pianos in need of tuning, picnics, churches,school auditoriums, backyards, coffee shops. Once a note is sounded, you’ve got yourself a venue.


But, in spite of the ease and ubiquity of affordable direct-to-consumer distribution, it has become hard for musicians and listeners to connect. Without labels doing the legwork of networking and promotion, it is harder for clubs to book artists and fill seats. And, without that umbrella of record label support and financing, it’s also more difficult for artists to travel, and to build connections with listeners on tour.

The bad news is as bad as can be. And with a record label-dependent business model on the way out, I don’t have an answer for how the industry should be rebuilt. Recording is not the problem — anyone can have a record or make a music video, have a website, and all the rest.

We all know how transient live music venues are, they come and go, and it’s always a struggle to make them profitable. And when a beloved place to play shuts down, it can leave a lot bitterness in its wake.  Everyone is talking about venues, always. But, really, there are thousands and thousands of venues when you think about it: unused band shells, living rooms with pianos in need of tuning, picnics, churches, school auditoriums, backyards, coffee shops. Once a note is sounded, you’ve got yourself a venue.

The problem is, of course, money. But the problem of money really just amounts to willingness or unwillingness. As a musician, I have to be willing to accept that the passed hat might come back empty. As the listener, you have to be willing to face up to how you really feel about the music played. Is it worth paying for? For me, playing music, even for a few dollars, is always much better than staying home to watch The Office in reruns.

A few weeks ago, my friend Pamela Espeland advocated for listening parties on her excellent blog, Bebopified. That’s actually what got me thinking about this whole thing, about the way we connect with each other and how we listen. There should be more listening parties, and there should be more parties centered on live music, in particular. Live performance doesn’t require a cabaret license or building permit. Invite some musicians, invite some friends, maybe pass the hat, and a connection has happened that would not have otherwise. We can bring real, live music back just by our own individual energy and willingness. We can bring different music together, too – listening parties with a jazz guy and a folk guy, or classical musicians with whatever. Something beautiful might occur in the proximity between them. Jazz and folk and blues have always lived right next to each other anyway. And collaboration doesn’t always or necessarily have to be musical; the mix could just be social, to mix things up, which is probably more powerful anyway.

This idea, the notion of simply finding more ways to listen together, strikes at something profound and a little frightening, because it’s ultimately just about you and me. All the other stuff — the money problems, the technology, the venue — can be thrown out. When you think of it this way, it all comes down to you and me, me and you — listener and musician. It is frightening because we are both exposed. This understanding of communication is a little too direct, too intimate for our modern sensibilities, I suspect. But I think we can get used to it, and even learn to love it. This is, after all, the fundamental relationship in music — someone playing for someone else.

So, I think this is a great time for an organic model of music. The technology is available to widely and cheaply distribute what we do as artists, and similarly to get the word out about it. And the old way of doing business has clearly collapsed. I mean, I miss record stores and music magazines as much as anyone. Thankfully, they are not gone completely, and the ones that remain are as much about us as ever — they’re real community spots of debate, exploration, and exchange. What is gone are the barriers; if we have the willingness and courage to connect, there’s nothing stopping us. The music industry might lie in rubble, but this could be a great spot to be, for those of us willing to put two bricks together. You and me.


Related performance details:

“The NOWnet’s Last Dance” at the Loring Theater, Minneapolis, April 15. Seven years after its start at the storied Brilliant Corners jazz club (with a kick-off by the Wynton Marsalis Quintet), the non-profit Jazz is NOW! will announce a new artistic director (Bryan Nichols) and present the final performance of its critically-acclaimed band, the NOWnet, under the leadership of founding artistic director, Jeremy Walker. Guest artists for the evening, Marcus Printup (Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) and Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson (Wynton Marsalis Septet), will join the NOWnet – a band which consists of Jeremy Walker (piano), Chris Thomson (tenor saxophone), JT Bates (drums), Jeff Brueske (bass).


About the author: Jeremy Walker is a composer/pianist based in New York. He has performed with Matt Wilson, Vincent Gardner, Ted Nash, Anthony Cox and other notable musicians. He was the owner of the now defunct club, Brilliant Corners, and is the Artistic Director for Jazz is NOW! in Minneapolis. Walker currently leads two bands, The Bootet in New York and Small City Trio in Minneapolis; Small City Trio just released their first album, a collection of original songs by Walker called Pumpkins’ Reunion, available digitally on iTunes.