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Chops: Living for the City

What jazz musicians need to do if they want to move to New York in 2018

Kassa Overall
Kassa Overall. Photo by William Brown

Jazz has changed a lot over the past hundred or so years, but at least one thing about it has remained a constant: New York is—and probably always will be—its undisputed hub.

Ever since Duke Ellington decamped from Washington, D.C., for Manhattan in the early 1920s, eventually establishing his orchestra as the house band at the storied Cotton Club in Harlem, New York has been a kind of Emerald City for aspiring jazz musicians. And every year they pour in, instrument cases in hand, hoping to make an impression.

The city is much more welcoming than it used to be (the Cotton Club audience, remember, was exclusively white). But it is prohibitive in other ways, with a high cost of living that can be particularly hard on creative types with no fixed income. Still, there are ways to get by, and plenty of young-ish jazz artists who’ve managed to make it work.

One of the best things you can do for yourself, a number of musicians say, is to move to New York with a little money saved up. Rent alone can drain your bank account in a matter of months, so if you give yourself a buffer, you’ll be in better shape. More to the point, the padding will, ideally, give you the chance to focus exclusively on your art. Musicians who move to New York without any savings are often forced to work side hustles or day jobs to make do, which can be draining.

If you can’t afford to save, says the drummer Kassa Overall, 35, then you should use your connections to seek out a cheap living situation. Overall, who moved to New York from Seattle in 2006, originally bunked with a family in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn for just $200 a month, allowing him the financial latitude to pursue his craft. Those in the house didn’t mind when he played, but he also split a cheap practice space with friends. “That’s pretty important—for drummers especially,” he says. “You split a room for four or five people and get a Google calendar [to arrange everyone’s practice times] and it can be pretty cheap.”

Ben Williams, a 33-year-old bassist who has lived in Hamilton Heights since 2007, says he’s never needed a practice space because his instrument isn’t that loud. But if you’re going to practice at home, as he does, you should be respectful about sound and get acquainted with your neighbors. “They might be a little more reasonable about you making noise if they actually know you,” he says.

Leaving the house and insinuating yourself into whatever scene appeals to you is probably just as important as practicing. When Williams moved to the city, he says he went out every night to absorb the music and make connections, and he suggests that other musicians do the same. Of course, club-hopping can get expensive—tickets at some of the swankier New York venues like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard can put you $50 or so in the hole—which is why Williams says that young musicians should get to know club owners and managers, who may let you in for free if they see you often enough.

It’s also important to remember that jazz isn’t the only cultural offering in New York. Young musicians should try to mingle with the wide variety of visual artists, actors, dancers, and fashion designers who have made the city their home. You never know what kinds of collaborations might come from such encounters.

Putting yourself in situations where you meet people outside your usual network is something María Grand, the 26-year-old tenor saxophonist, made an effort to do when she moved to New York from Switzerland in 2011. Her goal, in particular, was to find older musicians who knew more about jazz than she did. “Sometimes people only hang out with their peers,” Grand says. “I really believe that it’s good to have intergenerational communication.”

Maria Grand. Photo by Pedro De Las Rosas

Grand went to City College for three semesters before dropping out and going on an artist’s visa. Indeed, for most foreigners, it can be useful to pursue a music degree in the city as a means to bring yourself there. That’s according to Gilad Hekselman, the 35-year-old guitarist who decamped for New York 14 years ago from Israel, his homeland, to attend the New School on a full scholarship. Not that he thinks you necessarily need to go to music school in order to be a working jazz musician.

“You need to play your ass off,” says Hekselman, who spent a lot of his early time in New York proving himself at Smalls and Fat Cat, two clubs in the West Village. “You need to have something to say, and you need to be really good at it.”

Even if you aren’t moving to New York from another country, music school can help you make connections. “You have an immediate peer group you’re handed,” says the Canadian guitarist Matthew Stevens, 36, who came to New York from Berklee College of Music in 2005 at the age of 23. He originally lived in Dyker Heights, southern Brooklyn, far removed from the city. “It really sucked,” he says. But he was fortunate to have a steady gig lined up with the trumpeter (and fellow Berklee alum) Christian Scott that kept him busy and engaged.

Ultimately, you don’t need to move to New York all at once, Kassa Overall says. The city can be overwhelming, and it might not be the best fit for you. To find out if you like the scene, it’s useful to visit for a week or two before you have any commitments or rent obligations: “You can return for a month if you liked what you saw and heard, and then for six months, and then perhaps for a year or for good.”

Either way, you should be prepared for a lifestyle that is unlike anything you’ve experienced before. “It’s not an easy place to be,” Stevens says. “But what you get out of it is, by comparison, unlike anything else.”

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Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.