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4 Ways To Make A Living As A Jazz Musician

           The idea of building a career in music has often been met with skepticism from the working class.  Many have been conditioned to believe that acquiring success in the field of music is for the “lucky few;” those who score the coveted record deal, the hit-single artist that greedily dominates radio airplay, the favored individuals lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Some parents cringe when their teenage kid says they want to become a professional musician, secretly hoping that they’ll reconsider a more “realistic” or profitable occupation.

I’ll never forget one particular summer night at a gig I had in between my high school and college years.  There was an older woman who frequented the restaurant, a traditionalist to her core.  During the break I casually mentioned to her that I was planning on attending college in the fall, to which she replied with an endearing smile: “That’s a great decision! You can always just play music on the side for fun.” (I should mention that I decided not to tell her what I intended to major in after that.)  But how could I blame her sentiments?  Her husband was a seasoned musician, forced back into a dreaded day job after the “glory days”, jaded by years of underpaying gigs and instability.  “It’s just not like how it used to be, kid.  In the good ol’ days we were working every night.”

In the jazz realm, opportunities to make a living may seem scarce.  After all, jazz is no longer a mainstream form of music, as it was in the early 1900’s.  It’s certainly recognized and often respected by the general public, but it isn’t trending in the way pop, rock, and R&B are.  Those who represent jazz’s elite, the most talented, successful artists are but a handful.  Their impressive artistry and shear determination have set them apart from the rest, filling up the limited slots available in jazz fame, leaving little space for other musicians to join their esteemed ranks.

By now I’m sure you’re confused about what I’m trying to get at (I thought this guy was going to tell me how to make a living, not why I can’t!).  My aim of course is not to discourage you from pursuing a jazz career, but rather inspire you to believe that you can! Yes times are different, and yes, we have to continually adapt to an evolving market, but jazz is still a vibrant art form ready to be used for your business sake.  There are also gigs available that some other genres may not be eligible for.  Rock bands aren’t getting hired for hotel lobby gigs! Don’t listen to mainstream society’s objections to your career of choice. Chances are, if you’re already headed down the jazz path, you’re not much of a conformist anyway!

There are many ways to make a living in jazz.  Musicians need to be entrepreneurs, creative, inventive, and willing to think outside the box.  It’s not necessary to list them all, however I find that there are 4 main categories that all musicians, not just in jazz, utilize for sources of revenue.  It may often be necessary to focus on more than one category, as one in it of itself may not completely satisfy your financial needs.  Pick a few that you find best suit you, and focus on them.  No one ever said it’s easy to become a professional musician; if it were, everyone would be doing it! Some of these you may consider obvious, others will be new to you.  But for the sake of listing your options,  here are some great ways that you can start building your career in jazz:


          A majority of jazz musicians would claim that they would prefer to spend most of their time playing live music.  Playing their instruments for audiences has always been their greatest thrill, and therefore, the more gigs the better.  Of course, it’s not always realistic to depend on gigging for your primary source of income, but combined with some of these other categories, gigging can be a great supplement to your income and will always continue to be a growing part of your career.  Here are some different kinds of gigs you can acquire:

  • Casuals. I consider casual gigs to be anything from playing restaurants and bars, private parties, to art galleries.  These are some of the most common types of gigs around and often are characterized by playing the role of background music or added entertainment.  These can be acquired by making connections with other local musicians, or hustling them yourself.  Make phone calls, set up meetings, and follow up with emails. Don’t be afraid to promote yourself!
  • Club Dates. These gigs are most often where you get to present a specific band or project at a jazz club or music venue.  Customers of these venues go specifically to listen to music, so often original compositions and arrangements are part of the set list.  Work on getting a solid group together, cut a record, and sell your project to these venues.
  • Touring. This is an engagement of a series of club dates and/or casuals that take place at multiple different clubs in multiple different cities or regions.  If you are successful in booking a good tour, you can potentially walk away with a decent profit.  Tours often require the promotion of a new project or record and a decent press kit to back it up.
  • Recording Sessions. I’ve heard from some sources recently, that session work is not as prevalent as it used to be. Regardless, this kind of work does still exist.  Session work could include recording for film, hit artists, or a variety of other productions.  The genre being recorded may not always be jazz, but it’s important to be versatile if you want to be a session player.

2. Education

          This is an important category to consider pursuing.  Music education is a huge market and there are many students eager to learn how to play.  Not only can teaching music be a good source of income, it is also an honorable profession; one that passes this important art on to generations to come. It’s a “pay it forward” kind of a job! Here are some different kinds of teaching gigs to consider:

  • Primary/Secondary school education. For those who admired their elementary or high school band teacher, this is the job for you!  You’ll likely be teaching the jazz band, marching band, and some basic music classes.  You will not always be teaching jazz specifically, but your background in it will give you a strong foundation.  You will need to get an Education degree in college to apply for this kind of job.
  • College Professor.  This education gig places you in the “school of music”, teaching other individuals who are pursuing a career in jazz as well.  As a music professor, you’ll teach courses on subjects you specialize in such as Jazz Theory, Ear Training, Piano, Composing or Arranging.  This gig allows you to focus on jazz studies, as apposed to the high school band teacher.  Becoming a professor will most often require a Master’s degree.  You will need to split your time honing your craft and pursuing academia.
  • Private lessons. Whether you get into a private lessons studio, teach from a music store, or build up your own home studio, teaching private lessons can be a great source of income.  Getting your own students doesn’t require a degree, just some marketing on your end.  It can be helpful to have a music degree to score a job at private lessons studio, but it’s usually not a requirement.  Send out resume’s, put up ads, and promote your lessons with reasonable prices and good marketing.
  • Online lessons. Technology has opened up a lot of doors for musicians.  Online education is a huge market, and services such as Skype or Google Hangout make teaching long-distance easy.  If you’re on the road, or just simply want to reach out to potential students outside your region, teaching private lessons online is a good way to go.  Additionally, subscription based services have become quite popular.  This usually consists of a series of pre-recorded lessons that are purchased with a monthly or yearly subscription. (see
  • Master classes.   Getting hired to give master classes often requires some fame or notable expertise.  These can take place anywhere from colleges, to local jazz societies.  Master classes can be given via the Internet as well. 

3. Composing and Arranging

          You will need to dedicate a lot of your energy and focus to composing and arranging in order to establish yourself in this arena.  If you are passionate about this, you’ll have no problem doing so.  Composing and arranging works hand in hand with the college professor who specializes in this field; teaching by day, writing by night.  Notable composers and arrangers in modern jazz include Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, John Clayton, Jim McNeely, and Mike Holober.  Work can come from composing for music books, conducting jazz orchestras, commissions, royalties, and master classes, among others.  Developing this skill can be very helpful in supporting your education career.

4. Music Business/Merchandise

          This category can be really broad.  There are so many ways you can use your entrepreneurial skills to generate income through music business.  Some could be ambitious investments such as opening up a jazz venue, a record label or private lessons studio.  Others could be less of a commitment such as selling your merchandise, or starting a web business.  Whatever the endeavor may be, selling some sort of product to help supplement your career and push it forward is a great idea.  I can’t hit them all, so I’ll list just a few:

  • Record sales and merch.  I won’t sugar coat this.  The arrival of the Internet has changed the effectiveness of record sales.  With piracy, and services such as Spotify, record sales have plummeted to an all time low.  Where as in the past record sales could be a dependable source of income, this is no longer the case.  Coming out with an album however is still a wise decision.  It’s like an exalted business card and with it comes opportunities such as gigs and tours.  However, you can still make some money from putting your record on iTunes, Amazon, your website, and also selling them at your gigs for a little pocket cash (hey every little bit helps!). It never hurts to have other merchandise to sell as well that may support your gigging career.
  • Books/E-Books. Publishing music books and E-books can be a great way to supplement your income, and also can give you more credibility as an educator.  Students are thirsty for knowledge and books are one way to give it to them.  If you have quality material to offer, consider writing a music book.
  • Jazz education websites/blogs. I just had to mention this one!  Articles (such as this), lessons, and other educational materials can be presented on websites or blogs.  There are a number of different ways to generate an income from a business such as this, but some include private advertisement, product sales, and subscription services.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

The Problem With Teaching The Blues Scale

The Truth About Getting A Jazz Degree

The Jazz Mindset

3 Reasons Why You Need To Stop Playing Gigs For Free


Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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