Every Jazz Producer Needs a Musician as Advisor

jazz logo Most producers of jazz events are non-musicians. One outstanding exception to this fact is George Wein, who produced the Newport Jazz Festivals. He played jazz piano extremely well on a professional level. He therefore had the respect of the musicians he hired and moreover, he could speak their language.

According to Cathy Lee, former director of Studio Red Top (a nonprofit organization dedicated to showcasing and advancing the work of women in jazz) a musician views a producer in much the same way as a tenant views a landlord. It is someone you have to respect and treat politely but it is clearly not someone who could ever be a friend. You expect the landlord to provide you with a well-kept rental but you never quite trust him/her. And most of the time the tenant feels there is something wrong with the rental that the landlord delays in correcting.

As Cathy explained “most musicians think of producers as ‘suits,’ not musical colleagues and certainly not friends. It is strictly a business relationship, and the best you can expect is to be cordial with each other. It is a rare and beautiful thing when you can have a relationship with a musician that transcends this dynamic.”

On the other hand the producer is drawn to the mystique associated with jazz and the people who play it well. Many producers would like to be friends with musicians, spend time with them and be part of their inner circle. Some of us who tried unsuccessfully to play jazz are drawn to people who actually can create the music we love. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that musicians don’t feel the same way. Most do not want “to hang out” with a producer.

Musicians and producers have different goals. Certainly the producer wants to present an outstanding musical event but it has to be profitable or at least break even. Marketing is a major concern and therefore the producer might try to influence the players about the tunes they select, or the sidemen they hire. For the musicians the musical quality and creativity are the primary concerns.

Someone has to bridge the gap. Enter the musician/advisor. He (or she) is the person who can negotiate for the producer, represent the producer’s interests to the musicians but also teach the producer how to earn the respect of the players.

In the case of Highland Jazz Alex Elin was that person. He was a professional musician who played both tenor saxophone and piano and was an associate professor at Berklee. He was also my friend. When Mario approached me to become involved with the free summer series I asked Alex for advice. He was enthusiastic and after meeting Mario he offered to help. In the beginning that was extremely important. Highland Jazz had no reputation and it is very likely that players were suspicious and even worried about getting paid. The fact that Alex was involved gave them confidence.

I learned from Alex what musicians looked for from a good producer-someone who understood the difficulty of playing jazz in an era when jazz was no longer popular music. I was familiar with this idea since Alex had often talked about his own frustration, of “having been born at the wrong time.”

As a producer I thought a lot about how to get more people to attend our events. From time to time I would come up with some programming scheme that I hoped would draw a big crowd. If it wasn’t a good jazz idea I would hear from Alex and he was usually right. I think every producer needs a sounding board, especially one who represents the musical side first.



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