Broadway Pit Orchestras: The Money Pit

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By Andrew Lepley

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Nick Marchione likes to tell the story of the shoe salesman who seemed determined to sell him anything but the black shoes he’s required to wear for his job as a Broadway pit musician. The man insisted on offering some very nice brown shoes. And as it was summer, perhaps Marchione would prefer sandals?

The young trumpeter explained that as a musician in a show orchestra he has to dress head to toe in black so his presence in the pit will be as invisible as possible to the audience. The man was more interested in grilling him about work than finding him any shoes. So, he asked, “That means you do the same show, the same music, the same way over and over, night after night, year after year?”

The musician nodded in the affirmative. The salesman replied, “Doesn’t that get, you know, a bit monotonous?”

Marchione laughs. Even after the fact he seems a little bit miffed by the encounter, but the Philadelphia-born horn player has a sense of humor as big as his sound and can appreciate irony. “Is it so exciting to be a shoe salesman?” he wonders. “Not to put down anyone’s job, but I mean, I get to do what I love, which is make music!”

In fact, it’s his sense of humor that helps this second-generation jazz trumpeter—his late father Tony taught Lee Morgan and Randy Brecker—deal with the challenges of working as both a jazz musician and a Broadway orchestra player. Like many jazz performers needing to subsidize their jazz passions in what many say is a universe of shrinking opportunities for players of live as well as recorded music, Marchione straddles two supremely different worlds. Since jazz encourages inventiveness and improvisation while show music pretty much abhors those things, that’s sometimes an uneasy balance.

If Marchione feels these tensions, as many do, he tries not to let it show. A Broadway veteran at 27, with six years in The Producers behind him, he maintains a positive attitude no matter what. It helps that a certain clause in the contract of the Broadway musicians’ union Local 802 requires players to be in their pits at least 50 percent of all shows scheduled each year, which means they are free to pursue other work the rest of the time. All they have to do is get their own substitutes.

Marchione’s “best friend,” Frank Greene, another trumpet player, has stood beside him at The Producers, and now does the same at the new Disney show The Little Mermaid and in the Village Vanguard’s Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (VJO). “We joke around a lot,” says Marchione, who feels it’s crucial to keep the mood light and lively in the pit. That’s especially important on Broadway where the score must seem as fresh and new as on the first night, whether performed for the 100th or the 1,000th time. He believes that audiences can pick up on your mood even if they can’t see you, so your energy and enthusiasm for what you’re doing, or lack of same, can be heard in the music. That’s why, he says, he makes a point of sitting up straight and smiling even when he is not playing.

He has been lucky in his Broadway gigs. Not only did The Producers last, but his conductor on that show allowed him to horn in with embellishments to the score on occasion, “to keep everybody actively listening and on their toes.” (Of course, this could be done only in spots where such tinkering wouldn’t trip up the performers, such as a transition occurring just after a dance number that “might have had a little swing in it already.”)

But such creative license is a rarity on Broadway. That fact is clear enough to Jason Jackson, another fine player who filled the trombone chair for the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Color Purple throughout the show’s three-year run, while performing as much jazz as possible with such groups as the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars featuring Slide Hampton and James Moody, the Charles Tolliver Big Band, the Roy Hargrove Big Band, Bob Mintzer’s ensemble and the VJO. No such liberties enjoyed by Marchione and Greene could be taken in his pit. No improvisation, no jokes and talk had to be kept to a minimum, library-appropriate whispers appreciated. (With players having individual mikes to be turned on only when they play, there’d be no risk of anyone in the audience hearing their chatter.)

Surrendering his individuality, musically and personally, hasn’t always come easily. Jackson, at heart a jazz guy who enjoys improvising and hanging with the “laidback” musicians he plays with in jazz gigs, has toured with Ray Charles, Illinois Jacquet and Slide Hampton among other headliners, and is featured on several Grammy-nominated recordings. But he understands that Broadway is a high-stakes, high-pressure environment, a “business” throwing diverse musicians together in tight surroundings, and every pit responds with its own culture. “Every pit is unique,” he says. “There’s a socially acceptable behavior. And you have to respect that.”

Anyone who has witnessed Jackson’s jazz solos knows his horn can flash a little blue or a whole medley of shades and tones, communicating varied moods and feelings. But for the last few years, whenever he’s been in the theater, balancing a performance schedule of eight shows a week, it had to be devoted only to the requirements of The Color Purple.

Not that this former student of J.J. Johnson isn’t glad for the opportunity. He always strives to give his best to whatever show he’s in, and like the others who do this work he gets something back: a regular paycheck, payments credited into health insurance plans and a possible pension down the road, things not very accessible to working jazz musicians who don’t have tenured professorships. And there’s another benefit: “You learn to be very consistent on your instrument. It’s important on Broadway to be extremely consistent and that’s something that’s helpful in all genres of music,” says Jackson. “The horn is in your face every day. It’s like with any athlete. You have to work your muscles every day and repetition is key.”

Maintaining his individuality in a situation that fosters conformity was no more welcome a task for Robin Eubanks, another trombonist who did Broadway before moving on as a musician known for his high-profile work with Dave Holland’s Quintet and Big Band and other groups, among many gigs including with his own EB3. “That was probably one of the hardest things for me,” says Eubanks, a former music director for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers who is a tenured professor of trombone at Oberlin and recently joined the SFJAZZ Collective. “As a jazz musician you cherish and try to cultivate your individuality to be different from everybody else so you can stand out from among the crowd. Why would they want you as opposed to somebody else when they’re hiring somebody? So you try to develop and almost even brand your individuality and that got lost in the Broadway pit.”

Show regulars like Marchione, Greene and Jackson are in excellent company, current and historical. When Hairspray trumpeter and jazzman Bob Millikan arrived for work at a show called Flora the Red Menace he was surprised to see who occupied an adjoining chair: the legendary trombonist himself, J.J. Johnson. “Such a great player,” Millikan says, still sounding a bit in awe to have found Johnson in his pit. The young Wynton Marsalis, who went on to stardom at the helm of Jazz at Lincoln Center, also did Broadway, playing in the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd. NEA Jazz Master and notable flutist and saxophonist Frank Wess, who played with the Count Basie and Billy Eckstine orchestras and later in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Jazz Orchestra, also did many shows. No doubt none of these accomplished players were encouraged by the management to just rip loose.

Even the esteemed Hank Jones, who performed on Broadway for the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ in the late 1970s, albeit as an onstage pianist (with the seven-piece combo also onstage but hidden behind a screen), found Broadway confining in relation to his larger capabilities and leanings.

A musician who has shared bandstands with Bird, Dizzy, Max, Miles and Ella, and who, nearing 90, is still playing exquisitely (as can be heard on last year’s Grammy-nominated Kids recording with Joe Lovano), the legendary jazzman got no special dispensation from the powers that be when it came to any “departures” or experimentations in the music.

Having taken over from Luther Henderson as both conductor and pianist interpreting the music and style of Fats Waller early in the run, “I had to learn on the job, getting used to the tempo changes, tempos that the singers preferred,” says Jones, who conducted from the piano. “After that it became easy. In fact, it was so easy after a while that you wondered why you couldn’t change something. But you could not. In a Broadway show like that, that’s a hit, you can’t change anything. You must do it exactly the same way every time. And I tried to do that.” While he remains upbeat about the entire experience, and is glad to have done it, his voice trails off a little as if having to rein in his inspirations wasn’t so easy. “You thought in your mind, Gee, I wish I could change that. But you couldn’t, you see. If you did, you would get a little personal note from the director: ‘Why did you do that?’ That happened to me I think … once … or twice …because I thought I’d do a little diversion, you know, something a little different.” A realist who can take a hint, he laughs. It’s a big, joyful laugh. “It’s not permitted.”

The distinguished veteran trumpeter Joe Wilder, like Jones another realist who has been-there, done-that, and is also an NEA Jazz Master recipient, spent more than 30 years doing Broadway musicals, including long runs in the landmark hits 42nd Street (eight-and-a-half years) and the original Guys and Dolls.

Wilder, who, like Jones, did a lot of other and varied work as well, including for TV as a long-time staff musician at ABC (Jones was at CBS), as a substitute with the New York Philharmonic and playing in the bands of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, Sam Donahue and Herbie Fields (he met Dizzy in his first professional job with Les Hite in 1941), acknowledges, “There’s a certain monotony in doing this, because when you’re doing a Broadway show you play the same music at the same time every day or every night and it can be very boring. But that’s another way you develop a certain discipline for doing it. You make up your mind that you’re going to try to do it as well as you can, every night. You don’t succeed always, but in trying to maintain the same level of performance you become a better player and more reliable for the people who are hiring you, you know. And especially if you have a decent conductor and a decent orchestra, then you’re kind of proud of that and you want to make a contribution to it.”

Many musicians are doing just that, or are scrambling to get the chance. “The large amount of world-class musicians currently playing in Broadway pit orchestras is a reflection of how difficult it is to make a living solely playing jazz,” explains Alan Ferber, a Brooklyn-based trombonist who has subbed for diverse shows, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Fosse and A Chorus Line. “On some level, I do enjoy playing Broadway shows as it gives me the opportunity to sit next to and perform with some of the best players in the world. It helps keep my chops strong and my reading sharp. However, I’ll also admit that I didn’t move to New York City with the dream of playing on Broadway and certainly find it challenging to keep my focus, and sometimes, inspiration, after doing the same show a bunch of times in a row,” adds Ferber, who composes music and performs as much as possible with his own jazz nonet. “In essence, my career as a Broadway musician and my career as a jazz artist are almost polar opposites. However, one feeds the other. ... I need the money to help fund my jazz career. ... It’s like the old joke says: ‘How does a jazz musician make a million dollars? He starts with two million.’”

The pay and benefits attracting these musicians can be substantial, though amounts vary depending on exactly how many shows are done and other factors. According to Marisa Friedman, senior Broadway representative for Musicians Union Local 802, a base salary of $1,500.75 per week can be earned by those who do all eight performances in a given week. Potentially that can translate into a base salary approaching $80,000 annually (if the musician misses no scheduled performances and the show runs that long). The base per-show fee breaks down to $187.59 for both show regulars and subs.

Obviously that annual base salary probably won’t be achieved by those who are often absent taking advantage of the “50-percent rule” to pursue other work. But the base per-show pay can add up. Musicians who play additional instruments or double (and many do) receive additional fees of 12 1/2-percent of the base rate for a second instrument and 6 1/4-percent for each one thereafter (and some play several). About $50 per week for “instrument maintenance” is automatically added to the base fee. Appearing onstage or in costume or in some sort of choreography can earn premiums, as does performing other services. For instance, one musician for each show is designated “in-house contractor.” This person, who functions as a day-to-day on-site manager and performs varied bookkeeping and other duties, including tracking who’s at work, who’s not and who the subs are, receives a bonus that is 50 percent of the base pay. Friedman adds that everyone gets time and a half for the evening performance on a Sunday matinee day.

Substitutes receive a credit for medical, vacation and pension benefits in lieu of the regular who possesses the chair. Medical benefits for each musician include an employer’s contribution of $170 a week for major medical plans, paid out in installments of $21.25 for each show performed. (The top medical plan of four offered includes hospitalization but musicians must average 5 7/10 shows a week over each six-month period, though other union work performed outside Broadway might help them qualify.

Up to three weeks of paid vacation a year can be earned, again dependent on whether a production runs that long and if the musician has done enough shows to earn that entire time. Six and one-eighth percent of the value of vacation is paid out over time, added to the per-show base pay (for a potential total of $4,500). And Friedman adds that a pension administered by the American Federation of Musicians works out to about 22 percent of what they’re earning. There is also a fund that entitles musicians to eight paid sick days annually.

Calculating what a particular or “regular” musician can expect to earn annually is a tricky business, since overall pay varies widely according to their participation. How long a show runs is another crucial element. “There are probably guys at the bottom end who are making about $50,000, then there’s a bunch of guys in the middle making about $60,000 to $70,000, and then there are fewer guys at the top end who are making close to a $100,000 or maybe even over that (with premiums or additional duties),” says Steve Armour, a trombonist who as an in-house contractor has seen many payrolls. But, he cautions, everything depends on if a show even runs a year. While some shows enjoy a very long run, “most shows close, they go for two or three months, or best-case scenario they run nine months,” he explains. “So you don’t end up making that kind of money and then you’re back on the street trying to sub.” Armour, whose last show The Drowsy Chaperone closed last December, is currently doing just that.

“If you’re thinking of how much money does your average jazz musician make every year from Broadway, if you figure the average of the guys who are regulars on long-running shows with the men and women who are subbing, I would say that the actual number is more like $30,000 a year, $40,000, something like that,” he says, emphasizing again that everything hinges on how long a show lives. “If you’re looking at the equation from the position of how much money do jazz musicians make whenever they’re working on Broadway probably a more realistic way of looking at it is thinking of them as having a regular show now and then and mostly subbing, in which case it’s more like $30,000 a year. Or less.”

Musicians cite multi-reedist Ted Nash of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (A Chorus Line) and the trumpet teacher Laurie Frink, who plays in the Maria Schneider Orchestra, as other examples of highly regarded jazz artists who do or have done Broadway. (Frink notes that she has left that work behind.) Drummer Dennis Mackrel, who has recorded with Hank Jones, did Broadway when he first arrived in New York as a young player. Trombonist Dick Griffin, who worked in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, recorded with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and clocked in performances with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, the Charles Mingus band, Dizzy Gillespie and McCoy Tyner, also did it. Trumpeter Earl Gardner also does Broadway, as does drummer/percussionist Warren Smith.

Keeping a show fresh after you’ve done it tons of times is “a mind thing over matter,” says Patience Higgins, a multi-reedist who has been featured with the new Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington Orchestras, played with T.S. Monk, toured with Stevie Wonder and the Charles Tolliver Big Band and, when he’s not in the reeds chair at Avenue Q, holds court with his own Sugar Hill group on regular nights each week at Harlem’s Lenox Lounge and Minton’s Playhouse. “You know, this is a professional job and you have to approach it that way. And you do that with all music. You want to perform the music at the highest level, just it’s not a creative outlet where you are expressing yourself.”

As difficult as it might be to regularly play a Broadway score, some say being a sub can be even tougher. “I went in to play Les Mis, and wow, it was like a rollercoaster ride,” says bassist Kermit Driscoll, who’s played jazz gigs with experimentally minded types such as Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, John Zorn, Ben Monder and John Hollenbeck. “I thought, Oh, shit, this is a lot more than I thought it would be. I thought I’d been used to playing some pretty intense music. But this is a different world. As a sub, you go in, and everyone else has played the music a thousand times so they know exactly where and how everything’s supposed to sound. So if you make one little mistake in three hours and 20 minutes it’s a big deal. Whereas if you make a mistake on a [jazz] gig, nobody cares. You make mistakes all the time because you’re going for stuff. You make a mistake here, it’s huge, and you can get fired.” (He mastered it, though, subbing in the show over a period of 10 years.)

“This takes a certain kind of focus and concentration,” Driscoll explains. “I remember I subbed for Lindsey Horner, who plays a lot with Myra Melford and Marty Ehrlich. A lot of his friends were jazz guys and he’d have several of them come in and they just crashed and burned, because nobody quite realized that the task was not all that simple.”

From his perspective as a percussionist/drummer, Smith points out that Broadway can be far more difficult than some musicians would realize coming into it. Things aren’t as “predictable” as some jazz people might expect. “You have to split your attention to the point where you are aware of what’s going on onstage and what’s going on in your area as far as the orchestra is concerned,” says Smith, who with Max Roach started the percussion group M’Boom and has done dozens of Broadway shows, including the landmark West Side Story. “The music just doesn’t go like one-two, one-two-three-four. … [Depending on what is happening onstage,] it’ll slow down, and it will pause, and it will pick up. And somewhere in your experience you have to be aware that the form is still there but it’s very pliable and adjustable.

“So you have to have people who are confident enough in just reading music so they almost take that aspect of it for granted. Your awareness is split so many different ways … so people who have to play and close their eyes won’t be successful because there’s too much adjustment to make.”

“You have to be very aware of following the conductor, especially when you sub,” adds Earl Gardner, who for many years was lead trumpeter for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and then the Mel Lewis-led group, which later became the VJO. “You can’t get comfortable. At a jazz gig you have the basic chart and then you count the chart off and you go. It’s straight down. But in a show, tempos can change from measure to measure, or every bar can be a different tempo. Or even within a measure it can change. That happens more often on Broadway than in a jazz gig.”

Some musicians maintain that doing Broadway has had a good effect on their musicianship, even helping to make them better jazz players. “When I first started playing Broadway shows I did a four-month run in Atlantic City, and when I came back I discovered that my playing, my jazz playing, was much better,” says bassist Melissa Slocum, a founding member of the Diva all-female jazz orchestra, who raised her daughter by doing shows and has occupied the bass chair at The Phantom of the Opera for eight years. “I think the reason for that was I had spent so much time focusing on doing this one thing particularly well, night after night, and that was one of the things that made me really want to study more. So I went back to school, finishing a doctorate now, and have been really working on my craft [on Broadway]. Because if you really want to express yourself as a jazz musician, the better command you have of your instrument the better off you’re going to be.”

Multi-reedist Charles Pillow, who composes and performs his own music in addition to playing in the Grammy-nominated Maria Schneider Orchestra, was concerned how he would make a living when he relocated to New York. So while he was in college he did a little research, realizing that to do shows he would have to at least play flute and clarinet, as well as saxophone. But it was oboe “that gave me an advantage as far as getting work on the shows. It basically narrowed down the number of people who did that in New York. And it got to the point where even Maria Schneider started writing oboe parts for me. So I found a way to use it creatively.

“So here I am playing a lot of oboe and it kind of cross-pollinated my jazz playing. Because when you play those instruments, the flute and clarinet, oboe, you study a different music,” adds Pillow, who has the woodwind chair on the new Mel Brooks show Young Frankenstein. “I found myself taking lessons from really fantastic players at the Met [Metropolitan Opera], listening to this music I’d never heard before, on a different level. This actually broadens your improvisational palette. Because you’re not just blowing on a set of chord changes. You’re thinking about other ways to express yourself. So maybe you’ll play a set of chord changes a little differently than you would had you not ever dived into, say, a Mozart or a Bach Sonata.”

Whatever the highs and lows of doing this work, musical and otherwise, Broadway provides an opportunity many musicians embrace at some point or another. As with Marsalis and Mackrel, it could be useful at the beginning of a career. As with Joe Wilder, who has always enjoyed playing different types of music but who also acknowledges that the work helped him raise a family—a priority for him—it can be something done for a very long time while also pursuing other things. Or, it can be an option to explore well into a long and illustrious career (as perhaps was the case with J.J. Johnson). Whatever the circumstances it has come in handy and provides a little security and some tangible reward in a world that doesn’t offer much of that to jazz musicians.

But how long can that continue?

Broadway’s always been a risky business, hence the old joke of the plot of The Producers that a producer should never invest his or her own money in a show. Who knows what will be a hit? But it’s a fact of life that if a curtain went up, it will come down sooner or later. But these days, even larger issues than the fate of individual shows loom over the presence of live musicians on Broadway. Rising production costs, what musicians cite as the shrinking size of orchestras (periodically, a point of union-producer tension), and the perceived threat of “virtual orchestras”—the possibility of someday replacing musicians in the pit with sophisticated electronically produced music—don’t make anybody who works in the pits happy.

Will the young Marchione get decades of work from Broadway, if he desires, the way Joe Wilder did? Who knows? But the big question, too, is will such canned music satisfy audiences?

While Maxine Roach performed in her famed father Max’s Double Quartet (which incorporated his own quartet with the Uptown String Quartet of all-female string players that she led), she doesn’t consider herself “a jazz musician.” But she has done a lot of Broadway shows and can speak authoritatively about what goes on there.

And this viola player feels that it’s the lack of music instruction in public schools that contributes to this case of musical uncertainty. Not having been exposed to real instruments, many people don’t have much of a taste for it. In effect, they don’t know what they’re missing. “You have a couple of generations of young folks who’ve never heard live music,” she says. “So many people are used to hearing something else.”

Roach doubts many people are sitting in a Broadway audience wondering whether what they’re hearing is coming from a synthesizer or not. But in fact synthesizers are being used on Broadway to some extent to supplement orchestra sounds, replicating and boosting the sounds of instruments to make it seem like more musicians are playing.

It’s impossible to know what will happen in the future. But considering the challenges to live musicianship that might possibly lie ahead, one might reasonably come to the conclusion that despite all the challenges jazz musicians face in reconciling their independent-minded inventive selves with the more prosaic needs of Broadway, a little routine now and then may not be such a bad thing.

Perhaps Earl Gardner, who has played with the Jon Faddis, McCoy Tyner and Tom Harrell big bands and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, should have the last word. In addition to having a bright clear sound, Gardner has an ample sense of humor and a pragmatic viewpoint, two traits that would seem invaluable whether doing Broadway work, jazz or just plain living. In addition to subbing, he has a regular gig in the Saturday Night Live orchestra. He likes to work and to play his horn, and making a living sounds good. “I like routine,” he says.

Originally published in June 2008

1 Comment

  • Oct 18, 2011 at 08:50PM Ben Uniacke

    I just got done playing a local show for a small theater in Wilmington. The show was Passing Strange and it was on Broadway. Best part of the show was that I got to do some improve! Sections would say "solo "b" blues and stuff like that. Fun show and a great time!

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