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Reflections on the Nature of Sideman Work
One thing that is clear from this case study; sidemen like this artist piece together a career that involves maintaining dozens of relationships with bandleaders and collaborators. It demands flexibility, personal autonomy and being very organized, not only for scheduling gigs, but properly documenting his work so he’s paid for gigs and studio sessions. It also requires the artist to be a master performer and a willing collaborator. This is a remarkable skill set to have; someone who can pay attention to details, logistics and scheduling, but also have the performance and compositional skills to make it as a full time jazz musician. Clearly, his professional academic training in composition is a part of this mix, but years of sideman work have sharpened his playing, and widened his network of contacts for future gigs.
Sideman work is a constant hustle, with perhaps only three to six months of guaranteed work lined up at any time.
What we learn from this case study, in general, is that sideman work has its own pros and cons. One of the cons is the constant hustle. The fact that this Jazz Sideman has played with eighty-one different ensembles in the past six years demonstrates great ability, but also a need to take on work in a piecemeal fashion with, perhaps, only three to six months of guaranteed work lined up at any time.
The advantages are that sidemen are always paid. In fact, sidemen are often paid more than the bandleader. Sidemen are also immune to the risks and costs of touring or recording; their travel is covered and they simply follow the planned tour itinerary, or show up at the studio on time.
While sidemen assume no financial risk in a gig, there can often be a creative tradeoff.
Then, there’s the creative tradeoff. Sidemen are hired to support the bandleader’s vision, to follow their musical lead. While there is certainly room for improvisation and collaboration – whether live or in the studio – sidemen are paid for their time and expertise, and generally waive any rights to compositional or sound recording credits. While this, again, shield them from the risks associated with any artistic endeavor, it also means they can never reap the rewards related to the sale or licensing of works on which they performed.
The artist would generally prefer to do less teaching and admin work, and increase his playing and writing time. But simply increasing his creative activity would not be enough. He’s willing to put in the volunteer time, the teaching and admin work to make sure his very particular kind of jazz is able to be heard.
In this artist’s case, we can see a conscious shift towards more bandleader work starting in 2010 in his income. While his gross income increased, so did his expenses as he became responsible for tour costs and paying sidemen. But this was a calculated tradeoff. Indeed, when we asked him about his time allocation, Jazz Sideman-Bandleader affirmed he would prefer to do less teaching and administration work, and more playing and writing. But he made an important distinction that the simple increased activity of playing and writing was not enough. He is dedicated to a very particular kind of jazz, one that is not widely known or well supported. Because he is devoted to this kind of jazz, he is willing to take on the administrative work, or the pro bono production work, or run a record label without pay, or help with a tour, because doing those things enable him to play the music he wants to play.
Even though the artist featured in this case study plays a particular type of jazz, this is the career pattern experienced by many professional sidemen or session players. Being a session player requires – first and foremost – being a great player. But it also requires excellent people skills, organization, flexibility, and a lifestyle that allows them to say “yes” to the right opportunities. In return, session musicians are guaranteed payments for their time on the road or in the studio. It may take hundreds of gigs with dozens of ensembles to make it happen, but sidemen and session players can knit together a career as a full time musician.
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