Be Your Own Jazz Impresario!
With many traditional Jazz venues closing, and other venues giving Jazz only a sliver of the performance dates, what can Jazz musicians do to become their own advocates and develop new opportunities? We talked with Jazz vocalist, Rebecca Hardiman, to get her take on being a Jazz entrepreneur. Send us your experiences and ideas for expanding the opportunities to hear live Jazz.
What’s your experience with making non-traditional gigs happen for yourself?
I’m happy to say that this March marks the four-year anniversary of Jazz performances every Friday evening in Langdon’s Grill at the Langdon Farms Golf Club. Back in 2013, Ray—my husband pianist—and I were able to persuade the restaurant manager to give us, and Jazz, a chance. We were convinced that Jazz could thrive, even way out in Aurora! Our persistence paid off because the engagement has been a success since the beginning, allowing us to grow our group and hire other Portland jazz musicians for the weekly gig.
And in May we’ll start our third year of “Jazz on the Patio” on Thursday nights from May through September at Aurora Colony Vineyards. Again, we convinced the owner that if you combine fine estate wine with live Jazz, people will come, and come again! It’s been so well received that they hired a chef and now serve dinner selections (my favorite is lasagna) to go along with the Thursday night performances.
What convinced the venue owner to give you a try–what was the essence of your pitch?
We knew that there was a large group of folks that lived in the nearby Charbonneau retirement community, as well as in Wilsonville, Aurora, Canby and Woodburn, that would enjoy hearing music from the Great American Jazz Song Book, but wouldn’t feel comfortable driving all the way to downtown Portland late at night to hear it. We brought that to the owner’s attention and challenged him to try it. We painted a vision for him of how we could help turn their Friday nights from almost empty, to a fun and interesting place to dine. We asked him to please let us give it a try, and we would prove it to him.
How did you convince the venue owner to take on the extra expense?
To ease into the extra cost we started out slowly, first having Ray just play solo piano for a couple of hours during dinner for a nominal fee, making it very affordable. Then, as it became clear that more folks were coming for dinner and the music, we added a bass player, keeping just a duo and adding a small amount to the price. We suggested that the owner think of it as just like adding another entree on the menu—it would just be another expense that returns a profit. We also pointed out that Langdon’s Grill could differentiate itself by featuring Jazz.
To make it easier for the owner, Ray and I offered to book the musicians so they didn’t have to hire a booking agent, or worry about coordinating musicians. We didn’t charge extra for that, but it was worth it to us because we could bring in good musicians that we knew and ensure a consistent income.
What kind of venues work best for jazz, and what conditions do you look for to help ensure success?
Langdon Farms proves that just about any venue can work if you keep it consistent, high quality, and work to fit the preferences and lifestyles of the audience.
For 20 years, Langdon Farms was known only as a top-notch public golf course with a snack shop where the golfers could get a hamburger and a beer after their day on the course—a daytime only affair. We proved that we could add a whole different twist to it, and from a business perspective, a new revenue source. Long after the Golfer’s had gone home the local residents would see Langdon Farms as a Friday night outing for dinner and Jazz. We keep the hours earlier than a typical Jazz club, since most of the folks in this area tend to wind up their night around 8:30 or 9:00 pm.
Aurora Colony Vineyards is another example of an unlikely venue for jazz. Typically, tasting rooms are only open during the day, like 12-5. By keeping the Aurora Colony tasting room open until 9 pm on Thursday nights, and billing “Jazz in the Tasting Room” in the fall, and “Jazz on the Patio” during the summer, they opened up a whole different experience for their customers!
When we proposed this to the owner, we suggested that they offer it consistently, add dinner options along with their wine, and give people a chance to get used to the routine of an “every Thursday night” event. This way it would catch on through word-of-mouth and have the chance to grow and become popular. Now, Aurora Colony Vineyards is not just a winery only open a few hours a day, but is getting known locally as a fun music spot. Our Thursday jazz gig was so successful that they decided to add a Friday “Dinner and Music” night with other styles of music like soft rock and pop classics.
Are there types of venues that you feel are untapped, either downtown or in the burbs or countryside?
I think places downtown that are untapped would include steak houses, or other nice restaurants like Huber’s, or The Chart House. Even if they just had solo piano, or a trio, I know that diners would enjoy live background music. Most places think music is a big hassle, or too loud, so they don’t even try it. But it doesn’t have to be that way—Jazz can be an important feature that adds to the ambience and the experience, and helps draw repeat customers.
I think there is a great untapped potential for Jazz in the suburbs, and smaller cities around the outskirts of Portland like Lake Oswego, where there are more people who are 50 and over and have extra income to spend on evenings out.
I would say to Jazz musicians, “Propose specific ideas to places that don’t already have music or may not be known for Jazz.” For example, we “cold called” the Hotel Monaco in downtown Portland and asked the event manager if she would consider just auditioning me and Ray for music in their lobby. We went down to the Hotel, played a few songs for her, and suggested that we could perform every Sunday evening for their happy hour. She hired us on the spot, and we’ve been there for two years. So sometimes it pays to be bold and just ask for what you want.
What did you do to help yourself be successful, e.g., self-marketing, email list, or….?
The biggest help to my career has been word-of-mouth support from Jazz musicians, especially Ron Steen. He liked my particular style of singing and began to spread the word to other musicians and restaurant owners. That helped me to get hired more places. Then I advertised those gigs on Facebook, in local newspaper activity sections, and with the Jazz Society of Oregon.
How much of your success is due to repeat patrons and personal relationships?
At Langdon Farms it’s 90% repeat patrons based on personal relationships. But at other places, I may simply get hired because they want good Jazz and don’t necessarily care if I bring in a crowd of followers. So it varies widely.
What key things would you recommend to other musicians to help them recreate your success, especially young musicians who don’t yet have a big following?
I try to be a high quality, classy Jazz singer. I don’t like gimmicks–trying to sing like someone else who is popular, or trying to get crowds by being sexy or “showy.” My view is if you have a talent for Jazz, then focus on improving your music, rather than trying to draw a crowd. Eventually, you will be known for the quality of your work, and that will get you respect with other musicians. That’s what people are drawn to.
I also recommend being proactive, for example, proposing specific gigs to places that would be a win/win. Ten places may say no, but if only one place says yes—Bingo—you might have earned yourself a four-year run!