Entrepreneurship in the world of music is a difficult thing, certainly among classical and non-mainstream musicians. The career prospects for musicians getting out of college with performance degrees are rather slim, not many orchestral jobs are available with intense competition for each one. The prospects of being a soloist or a recording artist are reserved for the top 1% of the top 1%. How is one supposed to forge a career and actually make a living doing so? It's very possible, but you reap the benefits you sew. My recent interview with Jeff Albert, Trombonist, blogger, professor, and all around trombone ‘mercenary’ as he likes to call it, explains exactly how he was able to create his own career and steer it in the direction he wanted it to go.
Jeff is professor of digital media at Loyola University in New Orleans, and has maintained a performing career that has spanned 20 years in the New Orleans area, having played in a vast array of ensembles ranging from The Louisiana Philharmonic to Lady Gaga. Jeff usually makes his home in the avant-garde though, playing mostly left of center jazz and hosting a weekly gig called Open Ears at the Blue Nile, a club in New Orleans. Always very insightful, Jeff was nice enough to answer a few questions about his career and how he made a name for himself with a very unlikely career.
You can check out Jeff here: http://jeffalbert.com/
Do yourself a favor and pick up his CD’s, here.
Evan: You maintain a record label, a blog, you’re a full time professor, a full time performer…When did you realize it was important to diversify yourself as a musician, and how did you go about starting to do that?
Jeff: Yeah, so a lot of what I do is a mix between my gig here at Loyola as professor of Music Industry and playing gigs. I suppose I was in the right place at the right time a lot, I guess a lot of the stuff I've gotten involved with has come out of my feeling of some need to either to do that specific thing say, Blogging, or for that thing for happen in my community and no one else was doing it. I said, ok, well maybe I should do these things that interest me.
Evan: So you feel like you have to spearhead a lot of the things you’re doing?
Jeff: I tend to step into leadership vacuums sometimes. Let’s take blogging for example, I haven’t blogged nearly as much lately, but there was a time in which I was blogging a lot, and I remember the exact gig in which I decided I was going to start blogging. It was a gig at a place called the Big Top (in New Orleans) and I think there was some traveling musicians in my band, and the gig was poorly attended. I thought, none of the music outlets around here back then, this was early 2005 probably, were covering the type of music we were playing…kind of avant-garde Jazz.
Evan: By music outlets, what exactly are you referring to?
Jeff: Oh, print media that usually covers the ‘scene’ here. Gambit, Downbeat, etc.., and their websites weren’t huge presences…most of what you were able to get from them was from their magazines, the internet wasn’t as widespread back in 2005. They just weren’t covering the interesting music that I wanted to go hear…which I can understand, if I were running those magazines I wouldn’t cover that music a ton either…But I thought, maybe I should start a blog and write about the niche stuff that I wanted to deal with, kind of take matters into my own hands. So, the blog started like that, and when Katrina happened within a couple of months of me starting to put the blog out there, and it kind of blossomed into something different, because there were no gigs for months and months, I started writing a lot. There was a sort of a heavy ‘Jazz Blogisphere’ back then, there probably still is, but I’m just less involved with it. There were some heavy New York cats involved with it, Ethan Iverson from the Bad Plus, and Darcy James Argue who has that great big band, and we just started to comment on each others blogs and chatting…I ended up getting to really know these people to the point that even though we had never met in person, I would go to a show in New York, and they would recognize me and say, “Hey, Jeff! How’s it going?”. Anyways, I found that what I really got out of it, it was more of a social thing, you got to meet people and get in peoples mind’s eye and it ended up being really beneficial for me. When I went back to grad school in 2008, the blog got relatively neglected…
Evan: That being said, you’ve still made a name for yourself in that realm and it was still very beneficial to your career…
Jeff: Right…I’ve met a lot of people through this avenue, and it sort of naturally moved into other forms of social media, like twitter and Facebook and what I’ve found from that, that has really worked for me, is the social aspect of it. Not so much using twitter to say, “Oh I’ve got this gig here” or “Oh, I rehearsed with the meters yesterday”, but the interaction with people that I’ve had with people who are noted and really active in scenes that aren’t New Orleans. I’ve had long twitter conversations with people who I really respect and can really learn from, and that’s the beauty of the day and age we live in, getting yourself and your ideas out there can really do a lot for your career and for your own art.
Evan: So you’re saying that this blog, and your diversity in your art form is a way to put yourself out there, and allow people to see the things you’re doing?
Jeff: Yeah, so I see it as a way to create and foster relationships, since all of what we do in our industry is relationship based. I function almost entirely in a system that is word of mouth, “I need to hire a Trombone player, oh this guy is around and he isn’t a jerk, lets hire him.” So, knowing people is vital to working. I see all of this usage of social media as a way to really get to know people and create those relationships which really lends itself to my diversity as a performer. I think there is a lot of value in people thinking they know you as an artist which gives them a more vested interest in your specific art. Since a lot of my own personal interests and artistic experiences happen on the edge of the mainstream music, and even if I was playing mainstream Jazz, it would still be on the edge of the mainstream, but since I’m playing Jazz that is even on the edge of the the Jazz mainstream…
Evan: That’s what makes me so interested in your career, because you’ve been able to be so successful in such a niche market and on the edges of the mainstream…
Jeff: However, that niche market is almost entirely financed by being a ‘mercenary’ Trombonist, there is no financial success in any of the free Jazz records I’ve recorded, but I’ve been able to pay for all of those records by wearing a Tux and playing Brick-house at weddings.
Evan: Do you feel as though a lot of the things you get paid to play aren’t necessarily the things you feel artistically strong about?
Jeff: Sometimes. You know, it’s funny, because after I got this full-time College teaching job, I realized I didn’t have to play stupid gigs for the money anymore. Although, I also realized that all those stupid gigs I was playing really helped my Trombone playing. I came to this realization that a lot of the things I wanted to do, and started to do were a combination of two of three things…it was music I liked, it was playing with people I liked, or it happened to be a lot of money. I spend a lot of time playing gigs that have great music, and great people I liked for very little money. If the music sucked, but the pay and the people were great, I’d still take it. Every once in a while, I’d get the trifecta, but that doesn’t happen that often, and it usually happens in Europe.
Evan: When in your career would you say that you realized that you didn’t have to do every gig that came up, because you had to for either financial reasons or because you felt you couldn’t say no?
Jeff: Fairly recently, actually. When I was 18, if you asked me what I wanted to do, I would have said I wanted to make a living playing the Trombone. Some guys paint houses, some guys build cabinets, I wanted to play Trombone. Initially, that was my goal, it wasn’t necessarily an artistic pursuit so much as it was a craftsman pursuit, I wanted to be a bad-ass Trombone player who could do pretty much anything. One night, I remember playing an Opera called Susannah at Jefferson Performing Arts Society, and then right from there I left and played a gig with a Reggae band and thought, man, I’ve arrived, this is exactly what I want to do. Just being able to do anything on the Trombone…
Evan: So at this point, it didn’t necessarily matter what type of music you were playing?
Jeff: Just out of college, no it didn’t really matter, because my goal was to make a living playing Trombone. I didn’t want to have another job, playing the Trombone for a living was my goal, and this helped me achieve that. Pretty much, if someone called and that spot in my book was open, I said yes. When I was 29, I got married, and essentially between when I graduated and up until I got married, I was able to make a living playing the Trombone, I did a few cruise ships here and there, but I was playing a lot of gigs, and it was cheap enough to live here at the time. When I got married, my wife has a pretty solid job, I feel like that freed me up for some more artistic pursuits, I didn’t feel like I had to take gigs I didn’t want to, because they put food on the table. I started to be able to do more of what I wanted to do, because quite honestly, my wife is very supportive of my career and she made enough money to pay the bills. This allowed me to take a lot of the money I made playing the Trombone, and reinvest it into my art. I have to say, I really enjoyed staying home and taking care of the kids, too. I loved being Mr. Mom, lots of time to practice as well! When the kids are watching Sesame Street, they don’t care if you’re in the back corner playing Long Tones.
Evan: So did you feel like you were successful as a freelancer?
Jeff: Yeah, I took pride at the fact that I could take gigs for the money, and no other reason. The accomplishment was that I was getting called, and kept the gigs. Maybe there were things I didn’t really enjoy musically, that wasn’t really a concern at that point for me. When I went back to do my MM at UNO (University of New Orleans), from 1998-2000, I guess I started to get more artistically focused at that point. I was making a living playing, but OK, I wanted to get better.
Evan: To refocus a little?
Jeff: Yeah, to refocus, and the act of going back to grad school, and studying with some heavy hitters at UNO, made me realize a little bit more of what I am. Around that same time, I started to get called to do more interesting creative things, such as the Naked Orchestra, and Tony DiGradi’s band. There were a bunch of people in these groups that were very active on the scene, who kind of opened up my ears a little bit. I felt very lucky to be involved in these things, putting me into an artistic space with all these people who truly considered themselves as artists, it made me realize that I can really hang with these guys. Maybe on some level before performing with these guys, I wasn’t really sure I could hang, until I was in that space, doing it with them. Then I thought, oh ok, I can do it. Then I started to lead my own groups, and seek out more artistically driven situations rather than financial situations.
Evan: Do you feel like the type of avant-garde, free jazz, and your art comes from a need to express yourself in a different way?
Jeff: Well, I don’t know if its “oh, I need to express myself”, I think it’s more that it’s that I like making that type of music. Even the stuff that appeals to a very fringe audience, I think it does some societal good. I think challenging art, makes the world a better place. It makes us think differently, even in the situations of the mainstream Orchestras…Orchestra’s program Beethoven 5, and then Orchestras program things that people aren’t sure what to do with, they walk out of there not sure what to think, and I think that’s good. Making people think about stuff, is good. Getting emotional responses from people, confusing them, making them see beauty in things that they didn’t previously realize were beautiful. All of that, I honestly think that has some societal good. I kind of justify my arts participation from the angle of, this needs to happen; someone needs to do this stuff. I suppose we don’t HAVE to, but it’s a better world if we do.
Evan: Speaking of making people think, and making people feel something different…You run a series called Open Ears, a weekly gig for people, who have the same thought processes as you, who like music on the fringes of the mainstream. A place where people can try things out, and do it in a club setting. Can you talk a little bit about Open Ears, and how it started?
Jeff: I have to admit, that it started completely from a selfish space…There used to be a club on North Rampart Street, called King Boldins, run by this guy named Mario…on Tuesday nights, Mario had what he called “Jazz” night. On the weekends, he would have reggae, DJ’s, whatever…he made tons of money on the weekends…but Mario loves Jazz, left of center, creative improv type of stuff. He would have different groups on Tuesday, and once a month Mario would call me to do something, anything I wanted. Mario made so much money at the club, he would pay us decently, so it was great gig. He ended getting shut down by complaints from some whiny neighbor, and jive liquor licenses, typical New Orleans situation. After he got shut down, I was thinking, oh man, we need gigs…what are we going to do? So I talked to a buddy of mine, who said that the club owner at the Blue Nile was cool, and like Jazz. So I started to scheme up an idea for a weekly series. I have some friends in Chicago, and there is a long history of musicians, self-presenting in Chicago. Starting 10-12 years ago, there was a resurgence on the north side of Chicago by guys like Ken Vandermark, and that group of people, doing weekly series. This would happen in clubs that usually had other things, more popular acts most nights of the weeks, like in Chicago it would happen at the Empty Bottle, a pretty well-known rock and roll club. So, these guys would find a whole new audience by playing at clubs that they wouldn’t normally.
Evan: What did you take away from these guys? Did you learn a lot about running a weekly date from them?
Jeff: I played in a band with Jeff Berman, who organized the series at the Empty Bottle, I called him up when I was starting this series and asked him some advice, things I might need to know…He said you have to do it on a night that the club doesn’t make any money, so any money the club does make is lagniappe, he said you have to be there every week you can, because if you don’t care enough to go, then the club won’t care. Support the people who support the series, lots of people will ask you for gigs, but make sure you hand out the gigs to the people who come and hang out. Use it as an opportunity to build community. One thing he mentioned, that we got really lucky with, is that you have to have the right bartender. If the bartender working your event hates your music, people who listen to weird music don’t generally drink a lot, so the bar ring is going to be low. So if the bartender hates the music, and all the club owner hears about, is “this music sucks and I am making no money”, then it’ll slowly come to a halt.
Evan: So how did it work at the Blue Nile?
Jeff: I called Jesse at the Blue Nile, and I said look, this is how it’ll work…I’ll take care of all the bookings, I’ll make sure the bands get paid from donations and door charges, all you have to do is send a bartender and open the doors. We don’t want a piece of the bar, I don’t want any flak from you about what we’re going to play, and we want to do whatever want. He said ok.
Jeff: Oh yeah, they were closed on Tuesday nights anyways, so any extra money they made was cherry on the top. It’s literally no work for him. And what he soon realized was, is that he gets this credibility as a “real” music club, because he hosts a creative thing instead of just filler rock bands.
Evan: Yeah, this series has been talked about in downbeat and the Blue Nile has been mentioned as a must go to club, because of the Open Ears series, which is great publicity for him. This series has been running for 8 years, since then, have you had many challenges to keep it going?
Jeff: Well, at the beginning it was three of us doing the series, Justin Peak and Dan Ostrander. Justin ended up moving to Brooklyn and Dan is in Trombone Shorty’s band, so he is on the road a lot. So it’s really kind of cut down to being just me running the gig. But in the beginning, it was difficult to get acts to play, so we ended up filling a lot of the dates ourselves. We’d look at the schedule, and we’d say “who is going to put a band here” because we don’t really have anything…early when we were discussing it, the frequency was talked about, should we do it every other week? Once a month? And I argued heavily for having a weekly date. It needs to be a thing where people don’t have to think about it, it’s every Tuesday, there is something interesting going on at the Blue Nile. I think it’s worked really well for us. Especially for this type of a thing, because we were working to create a community. So early on, we had to work to fill it up, and then word started to spread. Now I have people call me, and we’re booked 4 months in advance. Sometimes if there is something I want to hear, I’ll call those people, but it’s mostly people who call me.
Evan: So this has also provided you with another artistic outlet, has it opened your eyes and ears at all?
Jeff: Oh definitely, it has totally changed the way I played. Like I said, I played more often early on, but like anything, to be a good improviser you have to improvise a lot, and I was doing that. I also think the scene throughout the city is stronger because of it, because they now have an outlet to do it. That really has been my goal for it, I wanted it to be a place where things could happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Like, if you wanted to write a song cycle for Soprano and Saxophone quartet, where are you going to do that? Come do it at Open Ears. I don’t want Open Ears to be all about me though, most of interesting creativity coming out of the community is coming from the creativity of those people, I feel like my role really has been to provide a safe place for that to happen.
Evan: How do you keep all of this straight? You have a full-time teaching job, a full time performing schedule, not to mention two kids. How do you make time to see support the arts, and still get out there to see live music?
Jeff: Well, first of all, I sleep a lot when I get the chance. I believe on a certain level that if you claim to like music and you don’t go hear people perform, that you’re lying. The root level of music is people performing for other people, in the same room. That’s the most basic form, and if you don’t like doing that, you’re lying about liking music. It’s just important, I have to go hear things to keep me fresh in some artistic way. In some way, I do feel an obligation to support the arts as someone who financially can.
Evan: Don’t you ever feel burnt out?
Jeff: Of course, there are times when there are things I feel like both for my own musical interests and as a member of the community that I have some obligation to go hear, and I just don’t make it. It just doesn’t happen, but I make every effort to go when I can. I think a big part of it is the “hang”. The social interaction in person is really important. I was talking to a student earlier, and he was talking about sitting in with people, I told him you have to be seen. You won’t be called for gigs if they don’t think of you when they need a bass player, and they won’t think of you as a bass player if they haven’t seen you for three weeks. You have to be seen, be out there in the scene. A lot of work is a function of being around, and being a member of the community, and contributing to the community. I feel like, if people aren’t willing to make a time and investment into the community, then the community doesn’t owe them anything. Supporting artists is important, we should go see music so that people keep making music, and as a musician the things I gain by going to listen to music are great. Even if its music outside the realm of what I’m doing, I still learn a lot and find levels of inspiration from that. It makes you think differently.
Evan: Transitioning into something a little different, what do you think as an educator, a music industry professor, are some of the bigger challenges facing your students today?
Jeff: Well, our philosophical way to teach this, is that you will get the jobs that you create. My students are going to be dealing with issues like, how do we develop a fan base for our band, they’ll be going into varying careers, managers for bands, rappers, producers. The challenge for them will be figuring out where the money comes from. This seems to be a problem across the music industry going forward. People seem to be over paying for recordings, and we haven’t figured out how to really deal with streaming services yet, so it’ll be a challenge for a lot of these kids to figure out where the money comes from. Sorting out the balance on how we are going to get paid for art is a gigantic challenge facing all of us, maybe not just my students. The problem is that we all make art because we like making art, but we have to be able to afford to keep making that art. You can’t make the art if all you do is work at the grocery store. In most fields, the pay is the money, in our field, the pay is the art, it’s the process.
Evan: The last thing I really want to know about, is really some of your musical background and your musical influences…how you got to be Jeff Albert the musician?
Jeff: My mom sang in the church choir when I was a kid, and she was pretty musical. She had a voice scholarship to go to Stephen F Austin. My dad was NOT musical at all, his joke was always that he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket…but my dad’s family is full of musicians. His father was a band director in the army, his uncle was director of the navy school of music, one of my dad’s cousins was the associate dean of Shenandoah Conservatory, and his son Matt was the original violinist in Eighth Blackbird, so it sort of just skipped a generation. Every time we’d go to my grandfather’s house, there were tons of musical instruments around and he’d always play something. I grew up around it, and I always knew I liked music. When 5th grade came around, it wasn’t a question of if I was going to play in band, it was more of what I would play.
Evan: Why did you pick the Trombone?
Jeff: I didn’t, actually. I went to my grandfather’s house the summer before, and he gave me a coronet, and a few lessons. I showed up the first day of 5th grade band, and there were 500 people who wanted to play the Trumpet and only one person who wanted to play Trombone. My band director was smart, she knew that the Trombone player was my next door neighbor and we were good friends, she said “Jeff, you have bigger lips, you should play Trombone, Robert can help you.” My mom was not happy because we had just been given a free trumpet. So I started playing Trombone, and it worked out great, because I’m a Trombone player by heart, not a Trumpet player.
Evan: Have you always been very interested in avant-garde type of music?
Jeff: So, the High School that I went to had a really great Jazz band, a number of people who were older than me who were great musicians and who were really into that type of left of center type of music. There was a culture there, that being into it was really cool. When I was in junior high school, I was more into Rush and Styx, and then I eventually got into Maynard Fergueson. A few of my buddies were getting into more interesting stuff, like Miles Davis. And I remember reading the name J.J. Johnson on this album called Jazz at the Philharmonic with Dizzy, and Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson. It blew my mind, they did a take on Sweet Georgia Brown and J.J. played like 8 choruses. I heard that, and thought, I didn’t even know you could do that with a Trombone. I was really into Thad Jones and Mel Lewis in High School, much more mainstream. When I came to college I wanted to be J.J. Johnson. What I later realized looking back is that whenever I heard stuff that was more adventurous, I always reacted to it well. I always liked it, I had a proclivity for liking weirder stuff. In my high school there was a guy name Clint Majen who plays with Preservation Hall Jazz band now, and a bass player named Charlie Wooten who plays in Cyril Neville’s band, we all grew up together, so we had a weird confluence of a bunch of us who remain professional musicians to this day. I remember going to Clint’s house one time, and it was John Coltrane live in Japan. We had all sort of gotten into Coltrane, but it was more mainstream Coltrane. Clint puts it on, and it starts going and Pharaoh Sanders is making all these crazy whale noises and I looked at Clint and said, dude…what? Is this? But it was fascinating, I didn’t really get it at first. Things progressed to when I was a student at Loyola, and one day we had 15 minutes left in class and Tony DiGradi turned off all the lights, and he said “OK, I’m going to turn off all the lights, I’ll play a note, I want you to react musically to what you hear”. We ended up going for 30 minutes, and when the thing ended it was like a trans formative experience for me. I was totally free. What I found as my career went on, is that every time I tried to sound like J.J. Johnson, people were nice about it, but I felt sort of hollow. Whenever I went and played in freer situations, people seemed to react really well to what I was doing, and I felt great about it. I realized, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, that’s what my artistic outlet is supposed to be.
Evan: Why do you think that is?
Jeff: I think it’s sort of how my brain works, I tend to think in terms of shapes and textures and big picture. Not a whole lot in terms of real details and minutia. To really play Be-Bop well, you have to deal in the super fine detail. I would much rather make the shape and not have to worry about exactly what’s in the middle of those thousand notes. Even the way I hear things, I’m not so note specific, I hear shape and rhythm much better. In the freer less harmonically specific spaces, that approach works much better. I love the interactions of timbre and the free space that deals more with timbre. Maybe it’s because the first time I did the free jazz, avant-garde thing, I was comfortable doing it. So maybe it’s more of a social acceptance thing. I had a really influential experience playing in Michael Ray’s band, who was the trumpet player in Sun Ra’s band, and the trumpet player in Kool and the Gang. So, I think that helped a lot. I realized that everything was always on the table, anything you wanted to do, I learned to turn the sensor off. Now, your musical tastes will keep you in line, but you can’t be thinking of what you’re not allowed to do because it’s not allowed in this space, you just have to follow what you feel. Play what you feel that the music needs right now. In freely improvised situations, that really is the case, everything IS on the table.