Mentors are key to success for jazz musicians


Beserat Tafesse plays trombone for the Pureum Jin Quintet concert at the International House on October 13th, 2016. Photo: Rebecca Zissmann.

Beserat Tafesse plays trombone for the Pureum Jin Quintet concert at the International House on Oct. 13th, 2016. Photo: Rebecca Zissmann.

Jazz, a genre that once flourished with live performances, big bands and vinyl sales struggles to stay relevant at a time when modern audiences turn to digital records and streaming for music.

Young jazz musicians are directly impacted by the declining popularity of jazz music as jobs get scarcer and record contracts fewer. But the American Federation of Musicians, a national union, teaches artists the business side of the industry so they can achieve success, particularly younger ones who dream of moving to the city to play music.

“New York City is the capital of jazz,” said Beserat Tafesse, a 24-year-old trombone player from Washington. “If you want to learn, you go there.”

Tafesse is a graduate student in jazz performance at the Manhattan School of Music. After completing his undergraduate studies in classical music in Seattle, he fell in love with jazz and moved to New York. He heard about the American Federation of Musicians’ New York chapter, Local 802 in Midtown, which recently hosted a series on jazz mentoring called “Finding your niche in the jazz world.”

Local 802 started a jazz mentoring series in March 2016 to teach young artists about entrepreneurship and how to avoid exploitation by record producers, club owners and distributors.

“Employers don’t want live music anymore when they can hire a DJ or play MP3,” said Todd Weeks, a jazz historian who organized the series. Because gigs and touring are how jazz musicians make a living, Weeks said it’s important to have mentors in the industry, which is common place given the collaborative nature of jazz.

Mark Taylor, a French horn player and composer, who has lived in New York for more than twenty years, found a mentor when he first started out. Like Tafesse, he came to the city to pursue his dream. “It was where my heroes were,” said Taylor who arrived in 1990 and met Max Roach, the famous composer, percussionist and pioneer of the be-bop style of the 1940s.

“Max was my mentor for years,” said Taylor. “Yet I didn’t play in his band until the late 1990s.” In the jazz community, more experienced artists often help newcomers get started by giving them advice, introducing them to people and even finding them little jobs, said Taylor. “You want to help someone else along if you can,” he said.

The old-school way of mentoring has faded recently as more younger jazz artists attend universities and play in bands with people they know who are often the same age. In New York State, about 50 percent of musicians held at least a Bachelor’s degree in 2014, according to Career Info, a website from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But holding a degree does not necessarily prepare a musician for the competitive jazz scene. Nielsen’s 2016 mid-year report on the music industry showed jazz comprised 1.2 percent of total albums sales. Another challenge for the jazz industry is its aging audience. According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which was last taken in 2008, the median age for jazz concertgoers was 46.

“Jazz artists have to adapt to the Internet because that’s what the younger audience knows,” said Bill Kirchner, a renowned musician, producer and educator who has taught at the New School for 25 years. “You have to go where the audience is, and now, many people discover music on the Internet, on YouTube.”

To adapt to the changing musical landscape, young musicians have to establish their own style while being ready to change if a job requires it, said musician Bobby Sanabria. The 59-year-old is an award-winning percussionist and a panelist for the Jazz Mentors series. For him, the key to success in the jazz industry is versatility.

“I’m proud to say that I’m a working class musician,” he said. “I can fit in any situation musically because of my training and my being open-minded.”

Sanabria is known for playing Latin jazz but has played different kinds of music, including country. He grew up in the 1960s, a period when jazz was prominent on radio and television, as well as in cartoons or more serious channels like PBS. Sanabria said more millennials are television program producers who don’t promote jazz music.

“Do not become a jazz snob,” said Sanabria who believes integrity and excellence are essential. “Even if you’re a drummer and you’re called to play an easy beat for a pop song, think about it.” When producers make requests, Sanabria said, “they could have programmed it on the computer but they called on you instead. Take it.”

Most young jazz musicians in New York are aware that they will have to compromise to make ends meet. Some of them like Tafesse also know they might not play all their lives.

“I want to teach at some point,” he said. “I also want to be in an amazing big band, do my own music and play for others. But in reality, either one of those would be great.”

Five years ago, Taylor had to stop playing his instrument due to health issues. He pursued one of his other interests, composing for film and television. Now, he’s thinking about teaching.

“I realize that young people are interested in my experiences and the people I benefitted from.”