The DIY Ethos and Thoughts for the Future

When I was 25, I had a few realizations that continue to guide my musical life two decades later. In order to find your voice as a musician you have to take risks. You have to pursue your music with energy, passion and a healthy disregard for the status quo. And it really helps to surround yourself with like-minded artists who share those ideals. These thoughts inspired me to form the Jazz Composers Collective — a non-profit, musician-run organization dedicated to new music. In the summer of 1992, I, along with pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonists Ted Nash and John Schroeder and later saxophonist Michael Blake and trumpeter Ron Horton, set out to provide ourselves and other musicians with opportunities to develop and present our music on our own terms and, at the same time, build new audiences for jazz. It was a fairly simple mandate based on collaboration and self-empowerment. At the heart of this effort was a desire to carve out one corner of our musical lives in which we could be idealistic.

The Collective’s annual concert series, which was a mainstay of NYC’s creative music scene from 1992 until 2005, featured the work of 50 composers, the participation of over 250 musicians and the premiere of more than 300 new works. It was a tremendous outpouring of creative energy that resulted in over 40 albums, countless national and international tours, residencies at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), an annual festival at the Jazz Standard club in NYC, collaborations with the 80-piece Jazz Sinfonica orchestra in Brazil, partnerships with the U.S. State Department, as well as lasting friendships and lots of great memories.

Fall, 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of our first concert. We celebrated by reprising the Jazz Composers Collective Festival.  Over the course of 6 nights at the Jazz Standard we presented 11 bands led by  founding members of the Collective.

Preparing for the festival got me thinking about the early years, before the Collective. Back then, I was itching to get my music career going but frustrated by the lack of opportunities to do so. There were some clubs where I might land a weekday set with my band, but too few to sustain any kind of momentum. I had been organizing a weekly session in the basement of a music school where I was teaching.  The price of entry was an original piece of music. Someone might bring in a fully realized score, another a deck of cards and a concept. Those were some very experimental sessions. And I loved them.

As a kid I listened to rock, ska, punk, blues and whatever else felt raw and had an edge. When I eventually discovered jazz as a teenager, I was drawn in by musicians who, to my ears, had a renegade spirit — Ornette, Mingus, Monk. These musicians taught me that jazz could and should be dangerous.

The sessions at the school allowed us to experiment without fear. We could bring in a crazy idea with the assurance that everyone would work hard on it. Sometimes the ideas would lead nowhere or fail epically. We’d just laugh and move on to the next one. Gradually, some really amazing music started to emerge. We had begun to find our voices as composers.

After a year or so we decided to bring it all out of the basement. We rented a hall and presented our first concert in October 1992. We drafted a mission statement and published our first newsletter, which contained articles written by the composers about their music and process. We put together a business plan, a fundraising strategy, incorporated and filed for non-profit status. In 1996 we moved our series over to the performance space at the New School University’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, where we remained until we decided to dissolve the Collective in 2005. By then, we felt we had fulfilled the Collective’s mission.

As I look back at what we accomplished and think about the current state of the music industry I think the DIY ethos is more relevant than ever. Many artists, out of necessity, must now be their own record labels, managers, lawyers and promoters. And we all do better when we collaborate, share information and build strong communities around the music we love.