How to be a great jazz musician

To celebrate this year’s London Jazz Festival we asked many of the scene’s key players and influencers for their advice on how to make it as a jazz musician in 2014...

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 18 Nov 2014
  • min read
‘Making it’ in the music business is no easy matter.

So when looking for advice, it can be best to go to those who have been there, done it and got the t-shirt.

With this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival now upon us, we went and quizzed a range of songwriters, players and promoters from the world of jazz for their top tips on how new and emerging artists working in the genre can sustain themselves and their music.

With the likes of Mercury Prize nominated Kit Downes and Led Bib’s Mark Holub contributing, our advice ranges from the best ways to explore your sound to being nice to bar staff at venues. Check out their words of wisdom…

Arun Ghosh

Music is a language, a means of communication; be aware of what you want to say and who you are saying it to. Music is a means of expression so express yourself and your feelings about the world around you.

Practice as much as you can and enjoy it. Be in control of your technical skill, but make sure your instrument and style is your own. Listen to the masters; transcribe and analyse what they are doing, learn from them. Not the notes they play, but the spirit behind those notes. Remember to sound like you, think like you, be like you.

Compose your own music. Read poetry, listen to the birds, the sea, the city, the sounds of nature. Party and have fun. Dance to the music, listen to it turned up loud, get into a heightened state. Remember that feeling, reach for it on stage. Work with dancers and visual artists, watch cartoons and right new scores to them.

Don't think of yourself as a jazz musician. Think of yourself as a musician, an artist. Listen to jazz throughout the ages, Gregorian Chant, West African desert blues, Jewish folk songs, Gamelan, dub and beyond. Our world of music is at the pinnacle of all human creation. It is a gift to us from those who have gone before, and who still move and resonate among us. Embrace that and be a part of it.

Visit Arun's website to find out more about the clarinettist.

Neil Cowley

This is rather tongue in cheek, but it worked for me. The thing that kick started the Neil Cowley Trio was lunatic levels of self-investment. From the recording process, (a week at Peter Gabriel's Real World) to starting my own label and all the ensuing promotion. I found it to be the best motivation for bypassing my innate ability to procrastinate and faff. There’s nothing like a self imposed deficit to get you out of bed in the morning!


Kit Downes

Be creative and flexible with how you visualise, and then go about making, your career - see it as one more opportunity to be creative. There is not set way to be a musician - it's a very wide brief - and by working towards it, your goal can be whatever you want. Be open to new things, and willing to take a few risks, and you can make a career that is perfectly suited to the music you enjoy playing.

Also be very honest with yourself about what kind of music you enjoy making and playing. It sounds odd, but it can be a hard thing to work out. Remain curious! And keep asking yourself "why am I doing this, and who am I doing it for" - for me, the answers are always changing.

Clarissa Carlyon (The Vortex)

Don't be a diva. Treat everyone you meet in the course of your work as a valuable, important human being worthy of your time and care. Appreciate verbally the things that people do for you. That way everyone will want to help you and your music. Also, remember that the "minion" behind the bar or on the phone could be next year's festival programmer deciding whether or not you get a gig.




Mark Holub

Trust yourself. There are always going to be certain sounds that interest you more than others … so follow them! Playing music you like will develop your voice.

Work with people you like. This goes for musicians of course, but also agents, managers and venues. In a business where you are likely to not be earning much money, working with people you like and like to spend time with makes the world a pleasant place to be. It's quite surprising that even in an industry where cash isn't exactly flowing, there are quite a few people within it who don't have your best interests at heart.

Try to follow things through. When you make a recording, don't just think it's done when you are done with the actual sound. How are you going to make the recording available to people? How are people going to know about it? The same goes for running a band, once the music is sounding good, how do you get gigs, how do you get journalists to gigs, etc etc.

Remember why you do it. Being able to play jazz and related musics for a living is a great privilege, one which we sometimes forget to appreciate because the reality can be driving up and down the M1 at three in the morning for a door money gig.

Ian Shaw

Jazz, that much maligned and famously underfunded art form, is also a fabulous, fun and community-based musical adventure. It, unlike indie, folk or more disposable pop, embraces a broad church of highly spiritual and spirited musics (soul, blues, gospel, hip-hop, r'n'b). Preparation, geniality and sheer determination is what is required from the onset. Equip yourself with a love of making music and a steely resolve not to fail in any situation and eventually your voice will be heard.


Chris Sharkey

Listen, absorb, never imitate, start a band, start another band, form a collective and put on gigs with your friends, talk to musicians you love, go and see live music every week, expensive instruments and equipment will not make you a better musician,

You should play with others as much as you practise alone - listen to music as much as you play with others and practice alone combined. When you have found your sound (by the way you probably already have, it's like your fingerprint) all equipment will naturally become an extension of that sound. Then follow your ear. Listen to music when you are ready to hear it and don't let anyone make you feel bad for not liking or understanding something.

Feel free to disregard all of this if it doesn't suit you. Be brave and take risks, if we're not prepared to fail we'll never do anything new

Miles Davis, Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tony Williams and Thelonius Monk are the best at being themselves so don't try to be them. You are the best in the world at being you so start enjoying that

Be social, be curious, be open, learn to write funding applications, learn to pack light while travelling, learn patience - touring is 95 percent waiting and five percent music.

The EFG London Jazz Festival is running in various venues across London. Read our recent interviews with Guy Barker and Ian Shaw and check out more information on this year's line up.