Drop into the famed Village Vanguard Jazz Club on Seventh Avenue and you’ll usually spot a group of Japanese tourists sound asleep in the corner. It’s not due to the jazz – which is the best in the world – but the tremendous jet lag due to the 12 hour time difference between New York and Tokyo.
Visit most of the great jazz clubs of New York and the Village such as Blue Note, Smalls, Iridium and Smoke, and you’ll find at least one-quarter and sometimes as much as half of the audience consists of Japanese, French, Italian, Swedish and other overseas tourists. “We get a bus load of Japanese in here every Thursday and Sunday,” said Lesley, who works the bar at Smalls on West 10th Street.
While there is a lively Village jazz culture fueled by foreign tourists, often some of the better American musicians will be earning their living overseas. New York, home to the world’s best and largest jazz scene, caters to the world’s audiences for jazz. However, in one of life’s twists, many musicians earn a big chunk of their daily bread touring overseas. “I often do festivals and other gigs in Europe,” said Jen Shyu, a talented multi-media singer/performer often seen at 55 Bar and other venues. Chris Dingman, a Brooklyn-based vibraphonist and rising star in modern jazz added, “People do tours in Europe all the time.”
There’s no doubt New York’s global jazz fans are a boon to the club market in New York. In 2010, the city hosted 8.5 million foreign tourists. Meanwhile, 16 percent of New York University students are from abroad, a total of 8,000 students, forming a core audience for the Greenwich Village jazz clubs like Blue Note, La Lanterna, and Le Poisson Rouge.
New York is also a magnet for international talent, many of whom are happy to have a chance to play anywhere in New York. Institutions such as The New School and city universities like Brooklyn and Queens College contribute to the foreign population of jazz players. While adding to the energy and international talent pool, this inward migration also drives down payment for everyone. Clubs pay musicians as little as $25 per performance and players often fight over non-paying gigs in small bars and clubs. Such vicious competition creates an inhospitable lifestyle for professionals.
In Europe, meanwhile, although there are far fewer clubs, they tend to pay a living wage and are hungry for American talent; European governments often are willing to help foot the bill through federal and local subsidies. “Many venues and performances in Europe are government subsidized, at least in part. For instance, performers in Denmark are always paid a standard rate, as mandated and subsidized by the government. “Festivals are more often sponsored by corporations,” Dingman noted.
Europe has a longstanding tradition of supporting the arts that may go back to the days when the Kings made sure to have well-paid artists to entertain the royal courts, notes jazz scholar Wolfram Knauer, director of the Jazz Institute in Dramstadt, Germany.“Based upon our history as kingdoms and fiefdoms, culture is seen as an official task, and we are content that a big percenTAGe of our tax money goes into culture,” he says. “The national government spends about 8 billion Euros a year for culture.”
Even in distant China, some of America’s best young musicians have found a home at clubs like JZ in Shanghai and the CD Café in Beijing, where they can be paid a quite adequate salary to play jazz five nights a week.
There’s no turning back the clock on this trend. Nevertheless, certainly the U.S., and New York City itself, could do more to support a local art form that contributes significantly to the city’s tax base and provides a healthy flow of tourist dollars to restaurants in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village.
Jazz musicians honing their skills are lucky to have a generous donor in the form of a host of European governments willing to provide subsidies to domestic and foreign artists alike. It’s unfortunate that our own country is not equally generous.
Lionel Loueke with Jeff Tain Watts
290 Hudson St.
Thursday May 10 – Saturday May 12
9, 10:30 pm
Every so often a musician will appear in New York clubs as if fallen from the sky. Guitarist Lionel Loueke is one. Born in the African country Benin, Loueke defies traditional categories. Part African folk musician, jazz guitarist, and rock ‘n roller, Loueke has recorded with his mentor, Herbie Hancock, and most recently toured with another unusual musician, bassist Esperanza Spaulding. He appears at the wonderful Village non-profit performance space, Jazz Gallery, with a quartet featuring Wynton Marsalis’original drummer, the dynamic Jeff Tain Watts.
May 15 – 20
Bill Frisell is one of the earliest musicians to use the guitar as a multi-tonal voice instead of a plucked replacement for the piano. His sounds are occasionally weirdly off-color – notes bent like silly putty and chords so dissonant the mouth puckers. But he is intensely musical and has had a loyal following for years. His trio includes a tasteful yet high powered drummer in Rudy Royston, and an eclectic Seattle born player of the Chinese Erhu – whose music mixes punk with classical.