Rethinking Competition in Jazz
Jazz can be more like pickup basketball games and less like a series of NBA tryouts. Here’s why we need to promote more friendly, low-stakes competition among musicians.
After my post on confronting bullying in jazz, I received a comment that I’ve gotten before when I’ve made similar arguments – “Well, jazz has always been competitive.” While there is certainly a historical precedent for jazz musicians bullying each other, I think that the problem isn’t necessarily competition – it’s the kind of competition that’s promoted by the powers that be.
I’ve previously used the analogy of pickup basketball games versus NBA tryouts. The former is friendly – where players of different backgrounds engage in often humorous competition. The point is to have fun, not worry too much about differences, and challenge other players while still respecting their skills. The stakes are low – about the worst thing that can happen is a slightly bruised ego. The latter is high-stakes, with numerous players vying for a handful of openings. The point is to outperform and eliminate rivals at all costs.
Cutting contests – the prototype for competition in jazz – have been both friendly and high-stakes throughout their history. They started as a kind of audition, with house pianists often losing their jobs if they lost, but gradually became more of a humorous, friendly rivalry between peers – with no jobs on the line.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should completely eliminate high-stakes competition from jazz – that has and will always be a reality for professional musicians. What I’m saying is that we should do more to promote low-stakes, friendly venues for players of all levels, not just beginners. I’ve been trying to do just that by hosting a series of jams through my employer, Jazz Night School.
We also need to stop promoting the idea that the only “true” jazz musicians are those who’ve succeeded in high-stakes competitions – the NBA players of the jazz world. Here’s how the cycle works, whether you’re an NBA hopeful, a conservatory-bound musician (or one auditioning for an American Idol-type reality show), a new grad student hoping to one day be a professor, or anyone looking to be a “superstar” in their field:
You’re initially led to believe that being a superstar is a) feasible for just about anyone and b) the only way to make a living in your field. Once you start entering more high-stakes settings, you’re immediately judged harshly by authorities (and sometimes peers). Once you realize you can’t and/or don’t want to sacrifice everything to attain near-perfection, you leave feeling ashamed and bitter. Then as the final insult, the institutions that rejected you hit you up for your patronage as a donor and/or audience member.
I spent over a decade beating myself up and resenting others for not being able to “cut it” in two competitive fields – first jazz and then academia. But I finally realized that the problem wasn’t competition itself, it was the systems requiring large pools of hopefuls to eliminate all but the absolute “best.” (And here I do mean the systems, not the individuals working in those systems who are well-intentioned).
In my own performance and teaching – I try to encourage my students and fellow musicians to challenge themselves, to face their fears, and not settle for mediocrity. But I also respect them, use humor to lighten things up, and always point out that jazz should be fun – not constantly scrutinized. I’ve realized the power of friendly competition in defining my own professional trajectory. I mourn the loss of relationships torn apart by high-stakes competition and treasure those forged through friendly competition.
“Yes,” you might say to yourself, “but what about the fact that pickup games are unpaid and NBA players make millions?” In other words, is it possible to make a living surrounding yourself with friendly competition? I believe it is. Whether it is jazz or basketball or any other field – there are tons of people who want to participate, be challenged, and make improvements – even if they never get anywhere close to the level of superstars (although they can certainly appreciate the talents of the superstars). By developing products and services – both as a musician and performer – that are of value to others, I’m slowly starting to build a successful career. The biggest stumbling block to my business hasn’t been a lack of potential clients/audience members – it’s the attitudes about competition and success that I internalized during my time in school.
We don’t need to get rid of high-stakes competition, but we do need to do more to promote friendly competition among players of all levels. At the very least, we need to respect those musicians who have opted out of the high-stakes path.
Note: The image in this post was taking from this news story, about a video of a pickup game between kids and cops in Indiana that has gone viral.