Like most musicians living in NYC, I am not from NYC. I am from elsewhere. Not elsewhere like the West Coast type of elsewhere; I am from the South. No, think further south. Further again. You’re close! Now think: the place next to the place where Lord of the Rings was filmed. You got it! Right, the place with the kangaroos and where men wrestle crocodiles on their lunch break (form an orderly line, ladies). However deluded my sense of manliness might be, I am nonetheless in a similar situation as musicians from a closer “elsewhere”: moving to NYC as an outsider to make a living and carve a niche in the NY scene. And a question I am often asked is, “How did you get started as a musician in New York City?”
So I thought I’d divulge for the inquisitive readers of The Syncopated Times a simple “how to” guide for making it in New York.
Rule #1: You’ve got to be good—and if you’re not, you’d better get good fast or you’re broke and on the next plane home. As soon as you step off that plane, you’re competing with the best in the world. These are the guys you grew up listening to!!
Rule #2: Check out as much music as you can. If you see a band you like, ask if you can sit in.
Now this is IMPORTANT: you’ve got to be confident in your abilities. You can imagine: if you run a band and a stranger comes up to you with a saxophone asking to sit in, you need to size him up pretty quickly because there’s nothing worse than having a guy up on stage who doesn’t know what he’s doing. So there can be a mild level of intimidation involved and if you know you’re good, so will they.
So, when sitting in with a band it’s important not to be too flashy or take long solos. Don’t be self-indulgent, nobody likes that. A good bandleader can size you up in the first few bars. If they like you, you’ll probably be allowed to play out the rest of the set with them.
Be polite. At the end, thank them and give them a business card. They may call you. Probably not.
A few weeks later, go and sit in again. No matter how well you play, chances are they won’t remember you. Don’t take this personally. In a town like New York there are so many great musicians it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. So remind them who you are. Ask if you can sit in again. If you did a good job last time it should be cool.
Rule #3: Always have plenty of business cards on you. This may seem a bit funny at first but that’s how it’s done there. After two years I’ve collected a pile of other people’s cards that stacks up to my waist. I don’t even know who half of those people are! (NB: with the surge in smartphone usage, business cards are less practical than before, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry them. We’re musicians making a living from music that’s 100 years old, so who are we to say what’s out of fashion?)
Rule #4: Follow up on every opportunity. Anytime you meet a muso (muso=musician) and they say “come sit in with my band on Wednesday” or, “you should contact this bass player and say hi”; then DO IT. New York is full of opportunities. It’s hard work but some wonderful gigs have resulted in following this rule.
I took any chance to play I could get (not in the least because I love to play!). There are days when I get up, dash off to Central Park to busk with a jazz group, go to an afternoon rehearsal, do a gig in the evening and then play at a jam session at one of the downtown clubs—most of which don’t start till 1 am! And look at me now, I’m writing for The Syncopated Times!! Huzzah!!!
If you follow these rules and have a bit of luck on your side then anything is possible!!
Reedman extraordinaire Adrian Cunningham is the leader of Professor Cunningham and his Old School Jazz Band, based in New York City. His most recent CD is Ain’t That Right! The Music of Neal Hefti issued on the Arbors Jazz label. Visit his sites online: www.adriancunningham.com and professorcunninghamjazz.com.