Almost Famous, Almost Broke: How Does a Jazz Musician Make It in New York Now?

Linda Oh, Riverside Park, June 2016
Linda Oh, Riverside Park, June 2016
David Urbanke

Linda Oh plays the bass. Acoustic and electric, in trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets led by some of the best musicians in contemporary jazz. She's 31, was born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, is of Chinese descent, and has lived in New York City, still the epicenter of jazz, for the past twelve years. In that time, through hard work, pluck (sorry), and great skill, her reputation has steadily grown, and she's quietly become a star in jazz circles. She has sat in on countless recording sessions, gigs all around town at venues small — where they pass around a tin can — and large, and increasingly tours the country and the world. Linda Oh is a sideman, or rather, a sidewoman. She is, you might say, almost famous.

Like many sidemen, Oh is also an aspiring bandleader. But if jazz is a notoriously tough sell, bass players are even tougher. Essential as the instrument is to time and rhythm, and as voluptuous its presence on the bandstand, it often fades into the background. Rarely do bassists' profiles scale to that of the larger-than-life Charles Mingus, perhaps the greatest composer in the jazz idiom besides Duke Ellington, or William Parker, out of the avant-garde school, or Ron Carter — or, these days, Esperanza Spalding, who can pack in an audience for a week-long engagement at a New York club. If mere mortal bass players want to lead, they get a night here, a night there.

In the three years, off and on, that I followed Oh around town — to watch her ply her craft and earn a living, and to observe who, if anyone, was bothering to listen — she's led groups at a storefront church on Bleecker Street; at SubCulture in Noho; and at 55 Bar in the West Village, where she will lead her band again on July 18. (She will also play with avant-funk master Craig Harris at the Rendall Presbyterian Church in Harlem on July 26.)

Along the way it became clear that jazz, thanks to Oh and the hundreds of young musicians like her around the city, is as vital as ever — artistically, anyway, if not economically. It may be, depending on your perspective and whom you ask, undergoing a renaissance in miniature.

"I think there are a lot of inventive things happening within the jazz scene," says Oh. "I think it's a beautiful thing so many musicians are branching out and crossing so-called genre boundaries in expressing their individual voices...but also honoring the tradition of the roots of the music."

Guitarist Matt Stevens, who often plays with Oh and is also on Spalding's latest album, echoes that feeling. "This current time period feels like I imagine it felt in the Sixties, early Seventies, when people were hungry to expand and be involved in different things," he says. "Nothing's off-limits artistically. You can draw from, and be influenced by, anything."

Musicians like Oh — musicians' musicians — don't care that their work isn't a mass phenomenon; they're the anti–Taylor Swifts, the un-Beliebers. In that way, they're countercultural, as were their forebears during Charlie Parker's and Dizzy Gillespie's bebop revolution uptown at Minton's in the Forties, or the Ornette Coleman–led free movement unleashed at the Five Spot in Cooper Square in 1959, or the post-Coltrane howls at Studio Rivbea during the loft era, in the decrepit streets of 1970s Soho. That heat and currency appears to be swirling around the jazz world once again.

"I feel that the resurgence is centered around the fact that it's like a hip underdog thing," Stevens says. "It does help when huge records like [Kendrick Lamar's] To Pimp a Butterfly tip their hat in that direction, and these things start proliferating in the popular culture outside of just the jazz publications."

"In some ways, it's a perfect storm that has come at the right moment where enough people have gotten hip to it," says Brice Rosenbloom, senior music director at Le Poisson Rouge, formerly the Village Gate, and a founder and producer of the fourteen-year-old Winter Jazzfest, which has grown every year in terms of venues, artists, and audience. He attributes this storm to the attention around fusionist Kamasi Washington and the West Coast scene he's a part of, as well as to the recent biopics on Miles Davis and Chet Baker.

"It's crazy living in New York," says James Francies, a talented twenty-year-old Houston native studying at the New School. "Everyone is here. There will be nights where you can go see Pharoah Sanders in one club, then go see Chris Potter a few blocks away. Or you can see Harold Mabern at Smoke, then go see Brad Mehldau at the Vanguard. To me, that's insane."

Francies has already played with Questlove on The Tonight Show and has done some arrangements for trendsetter Robert Glasper, one of his "Houston big brothers." In April 2015 he invited Oh, whom he met when he was fifteen at the Skidmore Jazz Institute in Saratoga Springs, to make up one leg of his eponymous trio as it played the opening of "Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks" at the Brooklyn Museum. "In my mind, she is the epitome of the perfect bass player," he says. "She can read anything, amazing composer, the nicest person, great soloist, and has great instincts. She can play a piece of music the first time and sound like she wrote it."

Oh, like many of her generation, is reluctant even to use the word jazz. "At the risk of oversimplifying," she says, "it is, essentially, for me, creative improvised music that has its roots in black American music."

Others are still troubled by how jazz (or shall we say "jazz, for lack of a better term") presents itself.

"One of my pet peeves," says Rio Sakairi, the artistic director of the Jazz Gallery, the forward-thinking not-for-profit space, "is when organizations say, 'Jazz: America's greatest art form.' My reaction is always like, 'Are you saying this because you don't want people to listen to it?' Because that sounds really goofy and not very attractive....I'm thinking, 'Why are you putting out this really goofy, douche-y image of jazz?' I'm puzzled by that."

Oh at 55 Bar in June
Oh at 55 Bar in June
David Urbanke

On a Friday night in March, Linda is leading her own quintet, the cleverly named Linda Oh 5, at the unfortunately named Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the smallest of the three spaces that make up Jazz at Lincoln Center, which makes its home not at Lincoln Center but in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. It's 7:30, the first of two sets, and the place is nearly full. A good sign. The view is amazing — except for the Trump International Hotel, which is virtually within spitting distance — the food is pricey and Southern (as it often is at jazz clubs), and the cover charge is hefty, at $40 (more than that of even the Village Vanguard, the Madison Square Garden of jazz).

Oh's band is the picture of diversity: Drummer Justin Brown rocks an Afro worthy of a Miles Davis band circa 1973; tenor saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Ben Wendel are, respectively, a dreadlocked Northern Californian and a Canadian who looks straight out of the Midwest; and Oh's boyfriend, the Cuban-born, Miami-raised pianist Fabian Almazan, appears both studious (he wears glasses and seems especially attuned to his bandmates) and glamorous (he wears his hair in a man-bun, like an international soccer star). They are all youngish stars in their own right.

Jazz may have always been miles ahead of the rest of American society when it came to racial diversity, but these aren't your parents' (or grandparents') hard-living boppers in smoky, sepia-toned dives on West 52nd Street, dressed like CEOs and raising hell like rock stars (before rock existed). Today's thirtysomething jazz musician is nerdier, friendly, largely oblivious to fashion concerns (especially the men, almost painfully so). They look like they might eat organic — if they could afford it.

I didn't want to ask Oh about her personal life, but I sense she's not exactly doing smack. She enjoys a little well-placed profanity (usually when the tape recorder is off), and although I look for tics — as writers do — I can't find any. I rarely saw her get mad at anyone or complain about anything. Not about having to agree to play in an all-Asian female rhythm section early in her career for forty bucks a night; not about other issues regarding race or gender (which have both helped and hindered, she says); not about my endless and no doubt annoying questioning. Yet she's not a smarmy political climber, either. The one time I did see her annoyed was at Harlem Stage last year, where we saw the singer José James pay tribute to Billie Holiday. We shared our tiny table with two clods; one resembled Wallace Shawn and stood out from the fashionable crowd for his Notre Dame "Touchdown Jesus" T-shirt. During James's encore, "Strange Fruit," his cellphone went off. It was the only time I saw rage in Oh's eyes. Music, for her, can be played with, reinterpreted, deconstructed, but never disrespected.

Linda, who, it should be noted, is always smartly dressed, is in all-black for her Dizzy's show, and, with the exception of a piece by Charlie Haden — the late hall-of-fame bassist — she plays only her own compositions. She starts nearly every number boldly, with at least a few measures of her alone plucking out a thick bassline. This is my gig, she's declaring, as she must. This is my night.

When Oh speaks to the audience — to announce the personnel, the songs, and occasionally their provenance ("Yoda" is named after her wise older sister; "Speech Impediment" was inspired by a TED Talk) — she does so quietly, in an Aussie accent. She's serious, warm, and gracious. She's a musician, but she's not going to do a song-and-dance for you. She doesn't do shtick.

She prefers instead to let her musicianship — extraordinary, with impeccable technique, articulation, and groove — speak for her. "No matter how demanding or tricky a bassline, ostinato, or passage might be, she is able to play it with extreme fluidity, meaning I never hear any 'stress' or 'stiffness' when she plays," says drummer and bandleader E.J. Strickland, with whom Oh plays regularly, often at the Danny Meyer–owned Jazz Standard. "And whether she is playing the role of an accompanist or soloist, she seems like she's able to execute whatever comes to her mind perfectly. A lot of musicians have great ideas in their head but aren't necessarily able to execute those ideas on their instrument because they don't have the technique to do so. Not with her, though."

The crowd at Dizzy's is older, polite, and sedate bordering on comatose. Many seem to be members of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which maintains a stunningly fine program despite its establishment vibe. (It was the target of a protest last year by the group Jazz Women and Girls Advocates, which, because the orchestra has never had a permanent female member in its 28 years, called for blind auditions and public job postings.) Oh has played JALC before, last May, at the Appel Room, with the Joe Lovano–Dave Douglas Quintet, in a tribute to Wayne Shorter. That night she took a solo during a Lovano piece called "Weatherman": Douglas stood to the side, watching intently with his arms folded, as her hands danced up and down the neck; Joey Baron, the drummer, looked on in disbelief. Oh got a rousing ovation, as she does again tonight — eventually.

Here, this venue, even more than Carnegie Hall, is the mountaintop of jazz. Success is assured. Right?

From left: Oh on electric bass; Fabian Almazan, keyboards; Greg Ward, alto saxEXPAND
From left: Oh on electric bass; Fabian Almazan, keyboards; Greg Ward, alto sax
David Urbanke

Before her Brooklyn Museum gig with Francies last year, I met Oh in Harlem to witness just what it takes for her simply to show up: to watch her schlep her bass, the unwieldiest of instruments, from her apartment — on a hill, in a second-floor walk-up, no less — down to the subway, then cross the platform to change lines. On the train, Oh, who is only about five-four, has to maneuver the instrument onto the crowded car — gently, lest she get the New York glare (she does anyway). For some gigs, she also straps her electric bass onto her back. She truly has taken the road hardest traveled.

Museums often provide jazz musicians with a welcoming environment, if substandard acoustics. Oh enjoys playing them, she tells me; in the past year or so she's played the Metropolitan, the Rubin, the Wexner Center in Ohio, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Last March she was in her sidewoman role again, this time at the Met Breuer — formerly the Whitney — for its grand opening, or reopening. She's playing alongside Vijay Iyer, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow who is the 2015–16 artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum and has a month-long engagement here; he has invited some of the finest musicians in the city to play with him in different settings and configurations. With Oh and Iyer (and the excellent Patricia Brennan on vibraphone) is the novelist Teju Cole, who is reading from his essay "Blind Spot," which accompanies a slideshow of his own still photography. Cole takes the audience from Goa to Nairobi to Congo to Zurich to New York to Birmingham, Alabama, where he cites Coltrane and his moving composition "Alabama."

It's a glorious collaboration: Cole's words, and his pauses, have an urgency; the music, all improvised, churns forward from a virtual hush to fortissimo. Oh plays with her eyes closed, lost in the sound, oblivious to the people gracelessly entering and leaving the small room during the thirty-minute performance. This is just one of the petty indignities of her work.

Jazz musicians invented the term gig. So you'd think they would have home-field advantage in the gig economy. It doesn't quite work that way. Oh has had some nice runs — earlier this spring she toured Asia with Pat Metheny — but, she says, when she does earn well, the money goes right back into the work, like a recording session.

Oh has released three CDs of her own, two of them on Greenleaf Music, the superb label started by Douglas. She is working on her next. And when — if — it comes out, it won't be about sales, but about increasing her profile. "It's an investment," Oh says. "You don't think of it as how many CDs are sold. It's a bigger-picture thing: Will that CD get you a bigger gig at a venue, and does that make you money? Or is that CD going to lead to some exposure?"

Exposure is great, and Oh's has only increased, but is this any way to make a living?

"It depends on what people define as a living," she says. In her experience, a sideman can make $100–$200 a night for a regular gig, depending. (Others told me $50 a night is not uncommon.) But if you're the leader, you have to see to it that your musicians are paid, even if you get nothing — even if you lose money on the deal. "What I define as a living is not what other people, who earn six figures, do. I have health insurance, but it's the lowest tier you can get, and I'm still reluctant to even have it." She laughs. "I don't have enough money to buy anything. If I choose to have kids, I don't know how much money I'd have for college. It's enough to live and be happy and get by...but it's something I'm really going to have to think about. So much money I save gets invested back in the work.

"My family mentality, the Chinese thing, is very strong in that you don't want to burden your parents," Oh continues. "I still have a bit of guilt that as a Chinese kid you're supposed to send money home, but I'm not in a position to do that."

Her saxophonist Stephens, 37, a Berklee College of Music grad who's lived in New York since 2004, agrees. "The pay is not sustainable. I don't know how people are doing it," he says. "People in their thirties, forties, fifties have roommates still because they're still not able to make a decent living."

Stephens has released six albums as a leader; he's had health issues over the past few years but, after a kidney transplant last October, is better now. "It's kind of a shame what's happening to the financial stability of musicians," he says, "their ability to survive in society and even eat a decent, healthy meal. The other part is that there seems to be some shame even admitting that to other musicians, but you go to their house and it becomes obvious."

Stephens lives in subsidized housing in Paterson, New Jersey. "That's the only way I'm able to survive," he says. "If I had to pay rent in New York City anywhere, even with roommates, which I wouldn't want to do, I'd probably just say forget it and move to the Bay Area back home where I know I could live a lot easier. Musically I wouldn't be nearly as gratified, which is really the reason why I'm here."

The bassist Bryan Copeland, who has collaborated with Oh's boyfriend, Almazan, came to New York from Austin, Texas, and has a similar take. "It was always a dream of mine to live up here," says Copeland, who used to reside in Astoria but has since moved to Westchester with his wife ("the stable one in the family"). "I mean, it's tough, you know, but I knew that coming in. Everyone knows when you move to New York it's going to be competitive and the gigs don't really pay a lot here."

In Austin, says Copeland, life was easier, the cost of living cheaper, and the pay better for musicians. Copeland is no apprentice. He has played at the Jazz Gallery, 55 Bar, Cornelia Street Cafe, and Winter Jazzfest, and he has a new album due in the fall. "There are definitely days when I think, 'Man, what am I doing?' " he says, but "I can't imagine living differently. The level of musicianship here is just off the charts. And there's this intensity and focus that I've never experienced outside New York. There's so much of a purpose when they play. I think it comes from people just being kind of desperate."

The week before I watched Oh play Dizzy's, she was in the Brooklyn Recording Studio, which she'd rented out, preparing the upcoming 2016 album. She doesn't have a contract yet for this record, nor any advance money, but she's making it anyway. She will pay the members of her quartet — Wendel and Brown again, and Stevens, the guitarist — out of her own pocket.

It has been forever thus in New York, of course, from the abstract expressionists to the avant-garde filmmakers around the Anthology Film Archives, from the punk rockers to the proto–hip-hoppers.

Then again, when you have prodigious talent, sometimes things just work out. Oh and Almazan just received two substantial grants each: the Aaron Copland Fund and the Jerome Foundation Fellowship. And hey, ya never know — since 2010, four jazz musicians have pulled in MacArthur "genius" awards.

In the meantime, you do what you have to do. Like many musicians, Oh helps keep strings on her bass by teaching — in her case, at the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied herself.

Teaching may count as another gig, but it's certainly not a glamorous one. For Oh it happens in a tiny, dusty room with a frayed carpet filled mainly by a grand piano. There is barely space for two upright basses. Her students are young, pre-college, and serious. When I sat in last spring, they conversed quietly — this is not the hysteria of the film Whiplash — about triplets, the C minor seventh, where to place eighth notes, and "walking at 96 beats a minute."

Over the course of a lesson, Oh might hum, scat, play some piano (of which she has more than a working knowledge), or pull out her metronome (drummers and bassists are Swiss-like in their obsession with time). Each one-on-one class she teaches ends up being a condensed history of jazz: She'll reference Johnny Hodges, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Nina Simone, Oliver Nelson, Christian McBride. And she always drops Ray Brown, one of her heroes on bass. One student tells her he was called out in another class for being "rhythmically ambiguous." Then, about his playing, he confesses to Oh: "I feel time is getting lost." She nods slowly, like a shrink.

If elite jazz programs are thriving around the country (the New England Conservatory and Berklee, both in Boston, are among the best known, with Juilliard, the Manhattan School, and the New School as the local beacons), not all close observers think that's healthy. It's not unlike the "MFA vs. NYC" debate in creative writing. "It's very expensive to go to school," says the Jazz Gallery's Sakairi, "but it seems it's the main way to make a career in jazz. It's created this socioeconomic divide." Even Oh admits, "I'm afraid it'll end up being only the kids with money.

"I'm pretty up-front and honest," Oh says when I ask whether she ever feels she's selling a bill of goods when she's teaching. "Which is why I drill them so much to be honest with themselves: I don't want them to ever be in the position where they regret where they are.

"I think my job is to prepare them if they want to become professional, and when it's time, I'll tell them my honest opinion as to whether or not they should pursue it," she says. But even if her students don't make it to Lincoln Center, Oh says she wants them to at least take something away from their studies, to find some reward that translates to real life. Things like "how to problem-solve, how to work on the fly, how to be quick," as she puts it. "It's about resilience, some sort of strength, personal identity. This is why I think the music is important, whether or not these kids do it as a profession. I deal with discipline, I deal with identity, I deal with resourcefulness."

Back at the Brooklyn Recording Studio, it's been a long, enervating day, and as the afternoon turns into night, you can feel the energy lagging. But Oh, the bassist, the engine of the band — and today, the leader — drives the session forward. They're on the fourth take of an Oh original. It's a difficult piece in two parts, with shifting time signatures and a mournful opening, with Wendel's tenor sax and Stevens's guitar in conversation with each other, followed by a gathering intensity in the second part of the diptych. In the previous three takes, Oh had stopped the players before they embarked on part two, but this time they've finally reached that kind of musical tele-pathy that I'm jealous of, and Oh signals them to continue. Brown, on drums, is like a man possessed — he's doing so much with the polyrhythms it's hard to keep up — then the tempo shifts again, to something entirely slower. Wendel ends the piece on a lingering, melancholy note. They all look around, the silence deafening. Linda Oh, electric bass in her lap, throws her right fist in the air. A long day of work is complete.


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