A college degree is no guarantee. It’s a cliché, but it only becomes truer as time goes on. It’s truer still in the music world, and perhaps in the jazz world most of all.
“There’s this kind of fallacy that you get a jazz degree and all of a sudden you’re supposed to be gifted gigs,” says Dan “Chimy” Chmielinski, a bassist who graduated from the Juilliard School in 2017 and toured extensively with Joey Alexander. “It’s not a golden ticket. I’ve never once been asked to do a gig and asked where I went to school or how many degrees I had.”
To some extent, though, a degree isn’t so much ignored as it is assumed. New York and Los Angeles are full of musicians competing for the next open booking or ensemble chair; more of them have music degrees than don’t. “We are oversaturated with qualified people,” says Alkis Nicolaides, a native of Cyprus who got his bachelor’s from Berklee College of Music in 2015, just completed his master’s at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and is about to begin his Ph.D. there. “It’s the same kind of deal with any degree, really.”
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Where, then, does a jazz studies or music degree take you? What do the degree holders do, especially in the first few years after graduation? There’s no one answer, of course; every jazz studies alum’s story is different. However, in conversations with over a dozen recent (within five years) graduates of the top collegiate jazz programs in the United States, certain patterns do emerge. Luck plays no small part; resourcefulness also has a major role. The connections formed at institutions of higher learning are crucial.
The most common observation taken from jazz degree holders, though, is this: What you get out of your immediate post-collegiate career is what you put into it.
As Chmielinski notes, there are few stories of people needing to show their academic credentials at jam sessions or calls for a gig. Sometimes schools come up as a curiosity, a way to ascertain who one’s teachers or classmates would have been. Nobody, though, gets asked about their grade point average.
“There are people who have great careers and didn’t do that well at school,” says Nicolaides. “At Berklee, I had Roy Hargrove as a teacher. He said that when he was a student, he would miss all of his classes to go to New York and gig. So he obviously wasn’t prioritizing academics.”
Yet nobody questions the value of the college experience. It’s a time when creativity can be a top priority, and where lessons can be channeled into projects and collaborations that continue to bear fruit after graduation. Hayley Lam, a 2016 Berklee graduate, won several composition contests, including one sponsored by the Jazz Education Network (JEN). When she moved to New York, she says, “I actually decided to enter more competitions, just to put myself out there.”
Garrett Wingfield, a saxophonist and composer who earned his master’s degree at the University of North Texas in 2016, decided to stay in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for a year afterward. “I used that time to continue some projects that I had started while I was in graduate school,” he recalls. “I was working out these things and rehearsing with as many bands as I could.”
After his extra year in Texas (which burned him out), Wingfield moved to Los Angeles, where three erstwhile bandmates lived, which points to the most widely cited benefit of music school: networking connections. Another North Texas alum, vocalist Tahira Clayton, moved to New York—where she worked with an established pianist and classmate, Addison Frei, to establish herself. “He’s the constant factor in my music here,” Clayton says. “I had one great musician, in Addison, who understood who I was.”
The connections need not be so immediate either, says Lam, a pianist: “There are a lot of Berklee alumni in New York. So I went to a couple of events to make connections and to just keep searching for work and gigs. Most of them I got through the Berklee network.”
Moreover, connections beget connections, as pianist Mark G. Meadows learned when he moved to Washington, D.C. from Baltimore, where he’d attended the Peabody Conservatory (earning his degree in 2013). “I was able to play with key people, who got me connected to other key people,” Meadows says. “And I was able to then very quickly find my inner circle … the people that kept calling me.”
Even these kinds of associations, however, require some active effort on the parts of recent grads; knowing people doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting for the gigs to come to them.
Thaddeus Tukes, a vibraphonist who graduated from Northwestern University in 2016, planted himself back in his hometown of Chicago. But while he obviously had a network there, and had also played there as a sideman (with both classmates and saxophonist and program director Victor Goines), he had to put in work to get work. “Pretty much right after school I was focused on building my own brand,” he says. “I had one album out, and I’d built a presence on social media, so I was able to pitch myself.” When he got called as a last-minute substitute on a gig at Andy’s, one of Chicago’s top-tier jazz clubs, he was able to parlay that into bookings of his own. Two years later, Tukes has his own slot at the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Clayton, however, sets an astonishingly high bar for proactive pursuit. Upon her arrival in New York in January 2016, she spent the first few days researching every venue in the five boroughs that she could potentially play—then started emailing them. “I would say that I wrote probably a hundred emails [in my first week],” she says. “They basically consisted of ‘Here’s what I do, here’s my music, here’s my website, here’s my bio, here’s every bit of information that I think you might wanna know about me before booking me.’ I would drop MP3s, I would drop music videos that I’d done; pretty much everything that showcased my artistry, that I could make easily accessible for them, I would put it in my email.
“It was terrifying,” she adds. “That sort of cold-call atmosphere of being brand-new to the city and having a lot of more established people around, and sort of, ‘Well, who am I to any of these people?’ But it was a great way to lay my foundation for what I would be doing in the city…. Of those hundred emails, I heard back from maybe five. But those are venues that I’m still playing now.”
Even with that kind of initiative, however, Clayton encountered some speed bumps. She’d saved some money before moving to New York, but it went fast—faster still once she started gigging and had to pay her accompanists for both rehearsal and performance. Within a few months, she was working as a cash register in her neighborhood grocery store. (Within a month she’d lost the job; she was so happy to engage with customers, as she would with an audience, that she’d hold up the line while she talked to them.)
Having to take a day job to make ends meet is commonplace for new music-school graduates. “I’m doing odd gig work here and there,” Wingfield says, “but the vast majority of my income is from working in coffee, and I’m doing tutoring and other side hustles.”
Unsurprisingly, teaching is the most frequent day job. (It’s also one outlet where they do want to see your degree.) According to Berklee—which graduates more jazz studies majors than any other school in America—70 percent of its alumni are in a music-related occupation; of that 70 percent, 29 percent work in performing arts as their primary job, and 25 percent (the second largest subgroup) work in education. Meadows’ move to D.C. was facilitated by an offer to join the faculty at Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts. Lam gigs as a pianist and composes for commissions, but calls piano lessons “my income source.” Reggie Bowens, who competed with Howard University’s a cappella jazz ensemble Afro-Blue on the NBC TV program The Sing-Off before receiving his master’s degree from Indiana University, is now an adjunct professor of voice and piano at a community college in Cleveland.
Cesar Orozco spent 14 years as a sought-after jazz pianist in Venezuela before coming to the U.S. to study at Peabody. (He graduated in 2014.) Even with that impressive résumé to go with his degree, though, Orozco got to New York and found that performance wasn’t viable as a primary profession. “I realized that playing $100 gigs was not a way to make it,” he says. “I saw that all my friends were living in little rooms, with many roommates—some of them have been living in the city for 20 years, and they’re still, all the time, not knowing how they’re going to pay the rent next month. I have a family! That’s impossible—that’s not a life.” After six months, Orozco took a job at a private elementary school in Jersey City.
But he’s a happy man. The job is flexible, still allowing him to gig; the faculty and students love him; and he composes fun melodies for the kids, making their lessons more interesting and giving him a creative outlet.
This type of satisfaction with teaching is a common refrain. Bowens has also “come to love teaching at the collegiate level.” Clayton now teaches in low-income NYC schools through an outreach program at Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, which she’s found to be transformative. “I’ve stuck with teaching and I probably will for the remainder of my time on earth,” she says. “It’s a sort of fulfillment that you don’t get with performance sometimes.”
Those whose primary work isn’t musical often make their peace with that, too. Wingfield doesn’t love being a barista, but he appreciates not depleting his musical energy during the day, so he’s fresh for the jam sessions at night. Nicolaides relates an anecdote about an L.A. friend and Berklee classmate. “He actually became the manager of a pet shop,” he says. “And so he goes to the pet shop at 5 a.m. to set up the store, and then he practices his saxophone in the store until it opens, and then he closes and he can do whatever he wants. And he’s probably the happiest person I know! He’s balancing life and creativity, and I think that finding this balance is key after you graduate.”
Extremes of Fortune
Planning for a postgrad career is an important thing, but one also shouldn’t downplay the role of sheer luck in a young musician’s successes and failures. There are examples of this on both ends of the continuum.
Hannah Truckenbrod graduated from Western Michigan University in the spring of 2017; by that time, she had already been hired as the female vocalist for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. “I was visiting my grandpa in Florida, and he always goes to this little pub, and the drummer in the trio that night was CEO of the company,” she says. “He set me up with an audition. This was in the spring of my junior year as an undergrad.
“Later in the year I got the opportunity to sub for the current female vocalist, and when she put in her notice that she was going to be leaving, I got the call. It’s a pretty right-place-at-the-right-time story.”
Truckenbrod’s good fortune is hard to overstate. The Glenn Miller Orchestra is the only one of the swing-era tentpoles that tours as heavily now as it did in its prime: about 46 weeks a year, with five or six shows a week. Calling it “the company,” as she does, is appropriate; she’s a salaried employee, with benefits. She’s automatically plugged into a network of musicians—“Currently the band is pretty young, younger than it has been in previous decades,” she says—and forging connections with industry professionals all over the United States. The range of possibilities is vast.
“It’s a goal to get my master’s one day in performance, and hopefully someday even a doctorate. I’m interested in arts administration, or teaching, or both, at the university level,” she says. “[But right now] I’m just dedicated to the hustle.”
On the opposite side are those who aspire to be dedicated to the hustle. Jackson Laskey lives in New York and has a career, of sorts: He’s a professional poker player, on a level high enough that he spent much of summer 2018 at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas (“I did well,” he says) and co-hosts the popular podcast Just Hands Poker. He also works as a consultant to a cryptocurrency firm. These were Laskey’s plans C and D, respectively; he graduated from Oberlin in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in jazz piano, and moved to New York to be a musician. “I probably play on average about one to two gigs a month, although probably at least one of those would not be in New York,” he says.
His other revenue streams have largely removed Laskey from the cutthroat competition of the New York jazz scene. “I’ve sunk a good amount of time into other ways of trying to sustain myself while living here. And so it’s just often not been possible to do what I do during the day and have the energy to go out at night for a fairly late jam session, to probably play one song that I may or may not know.”
Laskey earned a second degree in computer science, hoping that he could sustain himself that way. He quickly found that field to be as competitive as music, but it’s helped him a bit in the crypto work. Similarly, his studies with Billy Hart at Oberlin have allowed him to work on occasion with the drummer. He’s lately found himself in a much more stable financial position, and says he’s now beginning to immerse himself in the jam and social scenes he’d previously been isolated from. However, Laskey’s experience to this point has given him a somewhat bleak outlook.
“I do think having some skills outside of music is really useful in this stage of your life,” he says. “And I think this stage, unfortunately, depending on how aggressive, talented, and lucky you are, seems to last for a while for a lot of people. … If you can’t come and expect to get good work now, I would [tell an aspiring musician] not to come to New York.”
It is between these two extremes that most music majors are likely to land.
Notes of Wisdom
The takeaways from these young musicians’ stories are as varied as the stories themselves. In my conversations with them, I asked if they had advice for fresh or soon-to-be jazz studies graduates. Three of their answers were particularly pertinent.
“Make a plan,” Thaddeus Tukes says. “That plan is gonna change, but it means you do have a plan. Recognize it’s gonna take time; you’re gonna hit a lot of walls, especially if you’re trailblazing, and that’s not a reason to become complacent.”
Reggie Bowens offers a counterpoint to Tukes. “Of course preparation is key, but we do still have to be open-minded and flexible,” he says. “I remember a professor at Howard told us, ‘If you want to be a band director, be open to the idea of being a choir director. You never know what you’re going to be needed for.’”
Garrett Wingfield’s advice is in some ways the opposite, but on scrutiny works in harmony with Tukes’ and Bowens’ words. “You just have to be persistent with your own projects and your own music, and you have to buy into it and believe in it,” he says. “Even if it’s not making any money, if it’s not doing what you want it to do—just keep doing it.
“Otherwise, you did all this for what?”