Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity) by Marty Khan, non-fiction, Outward Visions Books,
by Kirpal Gordon
(an abridged version was previously published at Big Bridge)
“Better get it in your soul,” penned Charles Mingus when amongst us, and he was on to the Big Powerful Something about this music: it can change your life. Although gettin’ it in your soul is the destination of jazz, the music industry historically has preyed upon the recording and performing jazz artist, so there is much to celebrate in this insider’s look on how to survive and thrive in the contemporary environment of all too many musicians looking for all too few gigs.
Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity) by Marty Khan is a watershed work, a summing up and a moving forward with his eye to the jazz tradition as embodying a living spiritual presence, not merely selling a dead commodity. Like hearing John Coltrane, “whose message and spirit have been the primary inspiration in my life’s work” (from Khan’s dedication), reading this book changes the reader at the cellular level. For one thing, it’s clear on every page that the music has changed Khan’s life. He started out as a teenage fan in the mid-Sixties, learned the alto sax, dropped out of college to play and study with Sam Rivers, “graduated” to record distribution and artist management, pioneered the use of the non-profit organization for the self-empowerment of jazz musicians while forging a new circuit of performance opportunities for an array of avant-garde artists such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, George Russell, the World Saxophone Quartet and Sonny Fortune before branching out to dancemaster Alwin Nikolai and composers Steve Reich and John Zorn.
The exploitation of art and makers of culture has not been limited to the shenanigans of the music industry suits. What makes Khan’s book so worth reading is that it’s both a monstrous wake-up call to the facts and a call to arms with a non-stop series of ingenious tactics to reverse the trend at the personal level. In this sense it is an intriguing read for any performer, but it holds particular significance for the literati, especially those
MFA-ers who graduate in large number but have no clue to the racket or how to build an audience, market a
book, create a tour or work collectively with other artists to serve the
existing literary needs of a community.
However, for all his can-do style, Khan is tough and serious-minded; he goes against the grain of the typical contemporary how-to guide, which generally is cut to fit the size of a sixth grader’s mind with an additional purchase in the wings like a seminar, a second title, a thousand spin-offs. Khan believes too deeply in the transformative power of the music to make us buy twice or to sugarcoat the funky details that hem in today’s musician. Furthermore, even though much has happened in the industry since the book was published, one needs no other guide to help navigate any of that. By the time one gets to the last section of the book, “Strategies, Recommendations, Solutions,” one won’t be thinking about any issue in the same ol’, same ol’.
Hey, one can’t get through Chapter Two, “Ten Disturbing Facts That Must Be Understood,” without checking a lot of personal baggage at the door. Cutting right to the chase, here are a few of those facts: “There is an enormous amount of money in jazz, produced by an economy that is based on failure.” How about: “The entire economic structure of the music business---artist and publishing royalty rates, CD prices, etc.---is a fabricated reality that bears little resemblance to its real economics.” Or: “Jazz professionals distrust musicians even more than musicians distrust professionals.” Or: “Virtually everyone on the business side of jazz is a failed musician.”
Khan has distilled in these 432 pages his 35 years in the game. This is where the revolution has gone, not televised but hybridized, joined with other art forms, street legal with a 501 (c) (3), ready for anything, capable of navigating every opportunity to perform and get paid---even inventing new venues along the way. So the reader isn’t getting conjecture about what might work for an individualistic, idiosyncratic (alleged non-commerical) sound but what has worked, when, how and why---and what the next step is to take.
In addition, the guidebook is highly organized, making it easy to find everything---and everything is the key word: complete, exhaustive and thoroughly explored from every angle! His anecdotes about clubs, musicians and the scene aren’t bad either. His succinct prose style owes a great deal to Raymond Chandler, but his brains are all Coltrane: he sees every permutation in an unfolding event and how it connects. So in sections like “The Artist’s Team,” there are descriptions and stories of what to look for in a manager, agent, attorney, roadie, rekkid producer, engineer, publicist, consultant, fundraiser-grantwriter, band member. Ditto the major labels, execs, A & R, indies, art and marketing directors, radio promo and every aspect of the performance---clubs, managers, bookers, concerts, fests, venues of all sizes, promoters, line producers, house crew, sound tech, audience.
It is more, however, than just an ongoing artist empowerment strategy, a welcome attitude adjustment, a new “skillful means” way to do business, a method to replace alien-nation with jazz-nation that roots and grows through one’s own labors. It’s also the antidote for that “gimme a gig” mentality, among the mistaken entitlements that Khan socratically scrutinizes. The sixteen questions he asks and answers in Chapter 1 are worth the price of the book alone. To check out his interview about how the book came to be and to access for free “Seven Keys to Empowerment and Productivity,” click www.outwardvisions.com/straight_ahead/