19 August 2010
Why don't more jazz groups tour the U.S.? The simple answer is that it's hard to be paid adequately to do so; the complicated one details just how hard it is. But in the rock world, artists more frequently hit the road in the face of financial uncertainty, even along the do-it-yourself/house show/tiny venue "circuit" if necessary. Sometimes, you see jazz or jazz-influenced groups doing the same thing; sometimes, they even come out ahead.
Careful readers remember Adam Schatz as one of the proprietors of Search and Restore, the concert presenter and online resource for New York's jazz scene. (Interview here and here.) He's also a saxophone player. And he recently went on a month-long, coast-to-coast tour with one of his "zombie jazz" bands, Father Figures.
Schatz and four bandmates — all recent or soon-to-be graduates of New York University — booked the tour themselves. They raised a bit of initial capital, played mostly rock clubs, stayed with friends and family and criss-crossed the country in a minivan. (You can find updates from the road at their blog.) Their music isn't quite jazz in the way many would describe it, though it comes from jazz-trained musicians; hear a track from their self-titled debut below.
Thinking that he would be a good person to talk to about the unique rigors of a DIY tour by an improvising group with two saxophones, I caught up with Schatz over Instant Messenger following the tour. Below is our conversation, edited for grammar and format.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: So, like, why, dudes?
Adam Schatz: It needed to happen. This summer seemed like the only time we could go for it as a band where no one knew who we were. But we still wanted to play our music across the country.
I also wanted to see how folks in cities that weren't New York responded to our music. New York is supremely spoiled with its heavy supply of adventurous improvised and creative jazz music. Which is definitely part of where we're coming from, but I knew that some of the places we were playing didn't have any community for that music at all.
PJ: How do people in New York respond to your music? I presume, also, that a lot of the shows you've ever put on are attended in large part by people you know ...
AS: It's true, first and foremost we have friends in the audience, but we've been fortunate to be exposed to some new audiences in New York City. We played at Death By Audio with Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers, an awesome rock group, and that crowd responded supremely to what we were doing. Which I think is modern jazz music crafted for the underground rock scene — a blend of strong melodic adventures, improvisation, with a weird pop sensibility at times. It's never based around solos as much as collective improvisation, creating spontaneous forms and new directions.
PJ: So, to be clear, it's improvised music with jazz instrumentation ... but it's not exactly "jazz" as most people think of it.
AS: Precisely. The term "zombie jazz" seems to fit. Once people hear it, they understand. Plus, it's a great word to get people's attention in the press. I think we got a few writeups on tour solely because we wrote "zombie jazz" in the email header.
PJ: You like this zombie idea.
AS: It's stuck with me since I first started throwing shows. But the zombie energy is a good one. It's not too cerebral. They're more concerned with eating brains rather than spending too much time using one. I think it favors the instinct, and human curiosity, things everyone can get behind.
PJ: So when you say you went on tour, you didn't just go on it — you planned, booked, drove, did it yourself, as it were.
AS: Correct. I did most of the booking myself — our keys player Ross booked some core shows too. We gave ourselves about three months to put it together and I think the whole thing was booked within two months.
It wasn't the first tour I've put together, but it's the longest. Twenty-five shows in 28 days. Mostly in places I'd never been to before.
PJ: Well, there were big cities with large music scenes to be sure, but there were others too, no?
AS: Absolutely, in the booking process I had to research everywhere we were going to find out who the best folks were to contact about shows. And it really exposed which places had scenes for music leaning on the weirder side and which places didn't.
Seattle has an amazing creative jazz scene, and we hooked up with a collective there called the Monktail Creative Music Concern who put us on their Sounds Outside festival with Wayne Horvitz. Their band Figeater played a show with us as well.
But then Portland, Ore. has much less of a scene, and so we played two rock clubs there (both were former funeral homes), and those shows were also really great. The audiences hadn't heard anything like us before, so that was a real treat.
PJ: I was gonna say, I presume you also played shows to crowds which weren't used to weirdo, err, zombie jazz. What was it like?
AS: One thing you get used to in New York is music students describing your music on their terms. But that's not the way the real world is, that's not the way most human listeners are.
PJ: Right right.
AS: So my favorite moment in that regard came in Portland, at funeral home #1, The Woods. An audience member was describing the feeling he got during one of our newer songs, "The Steamship Authority," which starts off with a steady pounding. And he said, "At that moment, I wished I was a rubber ball." And that just totally made my night.
But I think we are lucky in that the sounds we've found for ourselves really do fit into a wider realm of accessibility. So what we get a lot is, "You know, I've always liked jazz, but THIS..." I think we are able to take it to a new level for people who aren't necessarily jazz fans — which is a good feeling.
PJ: Here's another question. How much money did you lose?
AS: We lost no money!!! We did a Kickstarter fundraiser before the tour, because we wanted to make sure we could at least cover gas and potential van repairs, which we got out of the way before we left. So we went into this thing with $1,700, thanks to some serious, serious generosity. And gas came down to roughly $1,400. And we also bought a Kodak video camera to document everything accordingly, so that money disappeared.
PJ: One of them little flip cam guys.
AS: But we sold a bunch of records, and got paid at most shows, and occasionally got paid what we deserved, so we came out ahead. Enough to be able to fund our new record, which we're going into the studio for in September.
PJ: Wow. So you actually got paid enough to cover even food and lodging, and have some left over?
AS: Well, here's the most genius part. Ninety percent of the time we stayed with family or friends of family. We crashed with my grandparents, one of our girlfriends' grandma, one of our moms' college roommates, some aunts and uncles, the whole nine. But every step of the way we were with people who were psyched to have company, and were psyched to cook for us. So we actually spent very little on food and slept pretty great. Most of the time. We only got two motels the entire trip.
PJ: Ah so. Crafty ones, you are. Now, let's mention here, for the sake of launching another point. The money you made on this trip: it probably wasn't at the level that most jazz groups are used to pulling in. (Most jazz groups who manage to tour in the U.S., that is.) But it was probably comparable to that which some unknown rock band doing a similar tour would have made. Is that fair?
AS: That is indeed fair. A few choice shows gave us guarantees ...
PJ: Meaning a guaranteed level of $$.
AS: Yes. We could make as little as $25 on a show — usually it was better, but it all depends. We were going on the good graces of the people who booked us, and no one had heard of us in any of these places. The priority was the journey, the act of just doing it, hoping to reach new ears and not thinking twice.
PJ: Right right. So in light of that: why don't more jazz acts/"jazz" acts do this? I think I can provide the beginning of an answer. One, is that they don't have the business savvy of someone like you, who has been booking shows for years now. Two is that they often have families to support and day jobs/teaching positions to maintain, and it's tough to go on tour at all. Third is that it's not worth it, at that level of pay, for many artists.
At the same time ... well, you finish that sentence.
AS: In the real world, this sort of endeavor can only be worth it if people know who you are. If we had 100 people at every show we would have made plenty of money. But there's not an easy way for music from this world to be spread beyond New York City. Bands will tour to California, but most of the country largely gets ignored.
So step one is bringing the music to more people. Then the audiences will be there and be ready. When we tour again, more people will know of us, and we'll make more money. But ideally we'll have a better vehicle too, as great as it was to race to the coast in my childhood minivan.
PJ: See, that's the way of touring right? Once you can afford to play a nicer venue/use a nicer vehicle/make real, guaranteed bread, you will ... but sometimes that requires an agent, or a manager, or the time to worry about all those details, no? It gets easier, but it never gets easier.
And I guess that's why most bands make records, even if it's a net loss. (Especially now.) They need something such that people actually know who they are. Blowing unsuspecting peoples' minds is fun — but it's not a great way to make a living.
AS: Yeah, but guys aren't making records that they're totally proud of these days. It's in and out of the studio in a weekend. That's why this record is something I'm so proud of — it's been two years in the making!
PJ: Well there you go. Do you "wish," in any sense, that more jazz artists pursued this whole DIY touring thing? What would happen if they did?
AS: Absolutely, but the music needs to make sense. I think a lot of guys would need to take a little gloss off if they did it, so the music would make sense in the rock club setting. We can definitely get loud and crunchy at times. It also helped that we are best friends, so being cramped in a van ... it's all right.
PJ: I wonder about that sometimes. Jazz has all these performance conventions, usually. It's quiet. People applaud after soloing. They're seated.
AS: Yeah. We played a few seated shows, which were cool, but definitely not as fun. Our final show was in Cincinnati. We knew no one there. We were one of two bands in this cave venue called Bunk Space.
PJ: Like an actual cave?
AS: Looked like it. Looked like an underground airport hangar. Curved stone walls. So beautiful. Anyways, there were only 10 folks there when the first band finished, and then as we started playing the crowd swelled to around 30. They were kids who showed up just to hear music.
This wasn't in a downtown area — it was essentially the slums. But people trusted this space for music and they trusted the guy who books it. So they didn't know us, we didn't know them, but the experience was unreal. They loved the music and bought the records and yelled when they wanted to and it was just this incredible feeling. And I thought, "What if it could always be like this? But instead of 30, it's 100 people?" It's not too much to ask, and I think it's highly possible. And I'd take 100 people standing and shouting any day over 300 people sitting.
This tour proved it for me. We were going on nothing and still got something. Imagine what will happen next time, when we're going on something. We'll come back with ... lots of things!
PJ: Haha! Ok. So what final things do you need to tell people about touring?
AS: Avoid fast food. You don't have to eat it. I've toured on fast food before, and this time there was none. (Save for a Starbucks sandwich on the final drive home where we had to eat at a rest stop just because we wanted to get back to N.Y. as fast as possible.) Take at least three months to book the damn thing. And really work on a write-up for the band that will help you stand out. Everyone does something unique musically, so it's about figuring out how to put that in words. It will make booking and bringing in some press a hell of a lot easier.
And lastly, document everything. We filmed and audio-recorded every show and it will be so useful. Aside from just promo stuff, we can study the performances and hear what the music is doing. With improvisation I've found that listening back is priceless.
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