[Dixielandjazz] : Mardi Gras >> Band Tips >> What is a Professional?

BudTuba at aol.com BudTuba at aol.com
Thu Mar 6 21:55:12 PST 2003

In a message dated 3/6/03 5:15:48 PM Eastern Standard Time, zenith at ans.com.au 

> When a business man retires from his day job and now only plays music 
> fulltime, does that make him a professional musician or are you talking 
> union membership here?

The definition of a professional musician versus an amateur musician has been 
vented on the DJML many times.  There are several contributors who have 
devoted their entire lives and beings to music and no one would question 
their attitude and approach as anything but profession.  As times of want for 
playing opportunities came along, they continued to slug it out night after 
night and in most cases shunned the opportunities of making a "killing" in 
some other way.  When someone suddenly appears from out of the woodwork (as 
we would say in America) and starts to get popular in music for whatever 
reason (maybe an effective manager), there is a natural tendency to wonder 
why...why not me? and resentments can be harbored.  That could be what makes 
some old guard professionals dimiss the upstart as "not professional".  

The cause of professionalism is often confused with the musician's union.  
Certainly in the old days, the union provided some protection for the large 
cadre of people who made music for a living.  There were many abuses taken on 
musicians to gyp them of their pay or find a lower bidder for a gig, etc., so 
the concept of a union found a home.  However, in today's free-wheeling world 
of entrepenuerialism, who needs a union?  What can they do for me?... is the 
question that new entertainers quickly dismiss.  Our union local has many 
members who are lucky to play 10 times a year!  Are they being professional 
or amateur about their ambition?  (Well, they will draw a pension some day.)

I can recall some negative criticism in this forum about Kenny G.  Now I 
don't really care for his syrupy sax style and will change the station as 
soon as I hear it on the radio, but thousands of Americans must like it or 
have been convinced by the momentum of their friends to like it, for he 
continues to be broadcast frequently.  Is Kenny G. a professional musician?  
I would have to say yes from what I know.  He has reached the status where he 
don't need the union.  I don't know his union status, but frankly would be 
surprised if he is a member.

Now enters a consideration of the amateur musician.  I have seen all levels 
of skill among amateurs and have played with some who look to me as "having 
made it" and played with far more who I think "have made it".  I  recently 
passed through the Eastman School of Music and happened to hear eight tuba 
players all crammed into a tiny practise room waiting for the opportunity to 
audition for the Marine Band.  They were sharing insight and ideas as they 
perceived them as to how to pass muster on the test.  From the licks I heard, 
everyone of them can flow halos of notes on the tuba around me, but are they 
professional?  Well, not quite...they're either amateurs hoping to become 
professional or something in between.  Turned out I heard later from a Marine 
band alumnus who now resides in Rochester and tutors on the tuba, that only 
one of them was accepted from the Eastman School, the first one in eight 
years and the one who was accepted...was a pre-freshman not even yet 
matriculated!  Was he an amateur now turned professional?

What happens when these kids come out of music school with abiliity to burn, 
trained in all the idioms, perfect pitch, able to transpose instantly from 
any key to any other and play trumpet from a Eb sax part or whatever.  Play 
church music on Sunday, concert band on Tuesday, and jazz on Friday, 
improvising the heck out of stuff with chord progressions much more 
complicated than Back Home In Indiana.  Do they still have to earn respect by 
20 years on the road, to be called "professional" musicians?  We have such a 
pianist in our band.  Is he suddently an "amateur" by playing with us?  He 
likes what we do because of our roots in the history of the trad jazz style 
and he adds to our sound by his knowledge and different perspective.  There 
is a constant tug and pull to keep him "simple" while he pulls us into the 
world of complex.

Now our band has been around for a long time.  We are technically amateurs, 
having had professions that sustained us over the years.  We range from a 
research chemist to a handyman in home repair, but we share a great love to 
play the sounds of jazz from its earlier formative years.  In order to be 
able to play that stuff, we need an audience.  It is only when you get an 
audience, that it fulfills the needs as articulated by Sir Barbone in his 
post WHY WE DO IT.  So we have to be innovative in how we get audiences.  The 
days of the good paying nightclub and country club gigs is GONE for eight 
piece groups.  We pay our professional members more than our non-professional 
members.  We practise every week to keep our timing right and not forget the 
songs.  We play a lot of gratis gigs for charity to keep in front of the 
community and keep sharp.  We play in festivals where we drive 90 miles to 
get 45 minutes on the stand.  Is our dedication any less professional than 
the old guard?   We're trying to wave the flag of REMEMBER REAL JAZZ  just as 
hard as any of them.  Jim Cullum started out as an amateur with his dad's 
Happy Jazz Band...when did he turn professional?  

Well, I'm exhausted from all that typing and heavy breathing.  Now I'm going 
to sit back and watch the fireworks.  As Stonewall Jackson said, "Go to it. 

Bud Taylor
Smugtown Stompers
Rochester, NY
Traditional Jazz since 1958
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