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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Living the Jazz Dream

Recently I was interviewed in the McGill Daily for an article about the jazz scene in Montreal.

I have heard several student comments and I'm glad that this article inspired a discussion about the reality of of succeeding in life as a jazz musician. I thought I would just expand and clarify some of the ideas I was quoted saying.

First of all, for some students the tone of the piece was somewhat apprehensive towards the issue of making money as a musician. I think most students are generally terrified at the idea of going out into the world and making a go of it. I would even go as far as to say that some of the allure of being an artists is to by-pass the societal pressure to earn a traditional living and eschew the value that society places on the accumulation of wealth as an indication of success. 

I know it was for me. As a youth who had numerous part time jobs growing up I really liked the idea of finally getting out of school and working for myself, setting my own schedule and accomplishing my own goals. I am very grateful to the various arts councils that supported me while I was getting my skills together in my 20's. I was also able to release a CD and tour with my band during this very formative period in my life. I am also really proud that I never had to play a wedding band or go on a ship to make ends meet. Gradually as I got to be a better player I found myself working more and more as a jazz pianist in Montreal.

Eventually I started teaching a little at McGill when I went back to do my Masters in 2003 which was a really important part of this post graduate training. I was very lucky to be able to get my teaching chops together while I did my masters degree and I owe a great deal of gratitude to the faculty at McGill for sending me that teaching work which I am still doing. 

Although I wasn't rich I felt that I had succeeded making a living as a jazz musician. I was playing with great players on a regular basis and continuing to grow and expand on my skills at the piano. But the general upward trend in my career development was about to hit a ceiling.

An important decision came after a couple years of touring with the young jazz vocal phenom Nikky Yanofsky. At first the gigs were sparse but gradually we were playing bigger and bigger venues. Eventually her disc was nominated for some Junos and we performed at Carnegie hall with Marvin Hamlisch conducting the New York Pops. For the first time in my life at the age of 30 I was making a decent income and even paying taxes! Gradually it dawned on me that I wanted to expand my family and that actually I had always really wanted to raise kids. All of a sudden the thought of having a child seemed to make all of this other stuff make sense. It became part of my musician's dream of success because if I could share my success with a family it would make that success even sweeter for me as well. Surprise, surprise, before you know it you're all grown up.

And then something happened to me that lead me to finally get off the fence and own the new dream of personal success. My son was born when I was 32. In a very short period of time my focus shifted from the shaping of a musical career to the shaping of a human life. Early in Max's life he experienced some health problems. They were minor but required surgery to fix. Our lives were thrown into chaos as my wife and I navigated the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that went along with this experience. All of a sudden it just didn't feel right to ditch my wife and baby son for weeks. And Nikky's schedule was beginning to become very demanding. 

I got fired. Actually nobody called me up to say that my services were no longer needed. When I informed Nikky's management that I was going through a rough time with my 3 month old baby the company just replaced me and that was that. All of a sudden I wasn't getting the call after I worked with them for 2 1/2 years I was just replaced quickly and quietly. 

Well that's the music biz. Sure it sucks to lose a job but what I gained from that experience was that I realized that my family would come first for the rest of my life and that not everybody I would work with would have that value. Despite portraying very publicly to the media Nikky's grounding in "family values" I know the truth about what those people are about and I cherish the path I've taking which has diverged from them.

So here's the point that I made in the article in the McGill daily. I couldn't have in a million years forseen the choices I would have to make in my future regarding my career. I couldn't have really known what I would have needed to let go of in order for me to stay true to myself. When I was 20 all I wanted was to be a jazz pianist. How that would fit into my life as a human being just wasn't on my mind. If I knew it was going to be a struggle and a challenge I certainly didn't understand the ways in which those struggles and challenges would manifest themselves.

So here's the point I make to my students: Follow your dreams but never let your dreams hold you back from living. When we grow and mature as human beings we need to allow our dreams to grow mature as well. Our dreams are a part of us. If stifled and rigidly kept in the same state as they were at a different point in our lives, our dreams may keep us from the path to success. 

What is your personal definition of success? 

Here's mine:


  1. Thanks for clarifying this, Josh. I appreciated your honesty in the interview and your honesty here. I think your advice applies to anyone, not only jazz musicians. I guess that's why it's worthwhile.

  2. This is a beautiful post, Josh! As a 40-something jazz musician I find that I, too, have learned that life is the most important thing, and that being a jazz musicians is just one part of my well-rounded live.

    Congrats for finding your balance!


  3. Bravo Josh. Well said (as always). Inspiration to us all (especially now that Jon McC Jr. is on the way!)

  4. Your playing and composing have always inspired me. But it's from watching you be a father and husband that I've drawn my ultimate inspiration.