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4 Tips for Playing Jazz in a Small Town

Jazz is city music.  Some people claim you can hear the hustle and bustle of big city traffic in the sounds of bebop, which developed in New York amidst all the hubbub of city life.  Jazz thrives in large metropolitan areas; that’s where the music was born.  Big cities like New York, London, Chicago, and L.A. have lots of opportunities to experience culture, hear great music, and to experience an actual jazz scene.  However, lots of musicians have a passion for jazz but don’t live in a major metropolitan area.  What should you do if, like myself, you live in a smaller city or town?  How do you keep growing as a musician and keep the music alive?

Let me give you some background about why this important to me.  I live near Boise, ID.  Boise is the 98th largest city in the United States, and the third largest in the Northwest.  Boise has gotten a lot of national attention lately, ranking highly in several different polls.  I have met a number of people who think Boise is absolutely a huge city, such as people from some VERY small towns in other parts of Idaho or Eastern Oregon. I know many others who think Boise is tiny, including many people who moved to Idaho from Southern California.  To me, I pretty much live in a large town or a small city.  There are over 200,000 people in Boise, and over 600,000 people when you include the suburbs.  Not huge, not tiny.  Very medium.

I really do love living here, and we have some nice advantages, like low crime, reasonable (though increasing) traffic, access to some culture, and access to lots of outdoor recreation.  I grew up here, and it’s my home.  My love for jazz is pretty much the only thing that would ever make me want to leave this incredible area, so I have long felt a tension between my love of Boise, and my desire to be around a more dynamic jazz scene.  I actually did move to a bigger, better jazz scene at one point.  I lived in Kansas City for about 6 months in 2010, right around the time when I started Learn Jazz Standards, but home sometimes has a way of calling you back.

Boise has a small jazz scene.  The late, great pianist Gene Harris used to live in Boise, and now has a jazz festival named after him at Boise State University.  There are some nice venues around here that sometimes have live jazz, but we lack a bona fide jazz club.  It’s been a frustration for me.  We have some good players, and I tend to stay pretty well-connected to the limited jazz scene that we have here.  I get some nice gigs.  Still, I would like to be a part of a bigger and better scene again.

I suspect I am not alone.  I am sure there are MANY other people who make due as a jazz musician in their not-so-metropolitan home.  Here are some tips for making the most of your time living in a smaller town and still keeping your passion for the music alive.

1. Seek out the music.

Most towns have live music somewhere, although live jazz can be harder to find.  Seek out venues and meet and stay in touch with other jazz musicians.  When I moved to Kansas City (not a small town, and they have a relatively robust scene) I was given the advice “Don’t stay in, stay out.”  I did my best to be on the scene, and within three months of moving there I was working 3 or 4 nights a week as a jazz pianist.  I have heard that it often takes a year or more to connect with a scene in a new town, but I think there are some shortcuts, and one of those shortcuts is just making an effort to connect with the people in the scene on a consistent basis.

2. If there isn’t a scene, make one.

Find venues that will host live jazz or live jam sessions.  I like Brent’s advice about not playing for free, BUT I also know other musicians in smaller areas who host/play at some freebie jam sessions just to keep the music alive in their town.  I believe musicians should be paid whenever money is being exchanged, but I understand when people from smaller areas do things just to keep the music alive.

Be creative.  Host concerts.  Charge admission.  Bring in musicians from other cities if necessary as guest artists.  Get other people excited about the music, and try to develop not only the musicians, but also an audience.

3. Connect with other players.

Getting to know other players is a must.  I don’t like the concept of “networking.”  Just go out and be sociable!  Make friends.  Be cool to your fellow musicians.  The music doesn’t happen in a vacuum!  Invite others to play gigs with you, treat them well, and maybe invite people over to jam.

4.  Educate other players.

What if there aren’t enough jazz musicians around?  Train some!  There should be other musicians around who want to play jazz.  Help them out!  You can learn a lot through teaching, and giving back is an incredible thing to do.  Make a scene if there isn’t one!  People can change the culture of a town just by keeping upbeat and keeping the music alive.

What kinds of things do you do to keep the music alive in your city?  Share with us on our popular Facebook page!  Don’t forgot to like us on Facebook if you haven’t already to stay engaged with the conversation!

-Camden Hughes

Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


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