How to Become a Jazz Bandleader

I’m not gonna lie: being a bandleader has its rewards. The fame, the money, the women, the Nike endorsements. . . (Oh, hang on—those are athletes.)

Nike endorsements aside, band-leading is a rewarding pursuit, and I’m sure every musician has dreamed of having his/her name in lights, or at least on a black and white flyer (this is jazz, after all) and being adored by handfuls of middle aged (if we’re lucky) fans.


But there’s more to leading a jazz band than soaking up fans’ adoration and hanging out with famous people, like the time I met Willie Nelson! (Well, it could have been Willie Nelson; it might also have been a homeless guy.) Being a bandleader involves a lot of behind-the-scenes hard work.

Let’s not forget, you’re leading musicians, not a group of accountants. Musicians: whose idea of getting up early means catching the brunch menu before it turns into the lunch menu. Musicians: whose idea of being organized means actually coming to the gig with their horn (yes, sometimes they actually forget). Musicians: whose idea of dressing sharp means to iron their shirt.

Being a bandleader involves playing several roles—part accountant, part nanny, part counselor, part communist dictator. Playing the music is the easy part.


So let’s talk through the process for running a band in NYC:

Step one: Get your band a gig. In NYC, this often involves actually meeting the owner/manager of the venue where you want to play. It would be in your interest to hang out regularly to get to know them. Managers get bombarded with emails from so many bands; it’s good to develop a personal relationship. A good rule of thumb is to spend twice as much money on alcohol as what the venue would pay you to actually play there. That would ensure a solid chance of getting a gig.

If you manage to pay your hefty bar tab, then you’re in good shape and, with any luck, you’ll be offered a date to play.

Step two: hiring the musicians. If the musos you want to hire are under 50 years of age, send a text to get their availability. If they are over 50, call them on their landline. (Anyone under 50 reading this please now google “landline.” Anyone over 50 please ask someone under 50 what “google” means.)


Have a few player choices on call for each instrument. The guys at the top of your list are the ones you call first, and they’re called your “first call guys” (duh).

Your first call guys will probably already be working (this is NY after all, and another bandleader more organized than you has already called them for a gig that day), so move down the list till you find someone who can do it.

Tell them the date of the gig, the dress code (yes, please iron your shirt) and whether or not there will be a free meal. This last one is important: due to living in their parents’ basement till around age 30, musicians never developed the ability to find or prepare their own food, so getting fed at a gig is a big plus.

Also, tell them the call time. “Call time” is muso language for what time to arrive—a rule of thumb is 30 minutes before downbeat. “Downbeat” is the time you start actually playing. (It’s also the name of a jazz magazine. Anyone under 50 please now google “magazine.”)


Musicians can, and will, pull out of your gig leading up to the big day. Don’t take it personally—making a living is hard, and if they get a better paying gig, I’m all for it.

So if all goes to plan and everyone turns up on time with their instruments, and with shirts ironed, you’re on the right track for having a successful gig. Break a leg!


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