There was a time, not so long ago, that the words Jazz and business were virtually antithetical. In order to be a purist, one had to eschew the commercial aspects of one's talent. The times they are a-changin', though, and my subject for this article is proving that it is possible to retain one's integrity and make a living, too.
Brooklyn-based composer-pianist John Bickerton has found a way to pursue his first love without having to succumb to the starving artist syndrome. His royalty-free music has gained in popularity over the past few years, and I asked him about this phenomenon.
"It's a huge market now," he explained, "something like stock photography. Here magazines that need photos go to huge libraries of already-taken material. Well, stock music is similar, wherein there's prerecorded music in various styles that can be used to enhance, say, a video or documentary."
Obviously, there's much hassle involved in trying to obtain a Beatles tune, for instance, where licensing fees and other issues abound. "I found out that I was doing a lot of demos for broadcast and had all this music just lying around," Bickerton continues. "So I decided to release it as a royalty-free disc. It's all stuff I've composed, very commercial, and it sells well to such organizations as schools, multimedia groups, and suchlike."
On the other hand, Bickerton's creative juices can be tasted on his self-produced 1997 recording, Drinking from the Golden Cup (available through the Jazz Now Direct CD Store). This was released on his own label, Loud Neighbors Music, and reviewed in the July 1998 issue of Jazz Now. All the compositions are his, and he is supported by like-minded individuals: bassist Ben Allison and drummer Tim Horner (who also plays a little wood flute on the CD).
I suggested to Bickerton that in recent years there has been a trend for younger musicians to find more creative ways of having their music heard. Rather than complaining that "nobody wants to listen to Jazz," they're following many and varied musical paths.
"I think that's the only way you can survive," he replied. "That, or do a day job, which I did for ten years. I worked on Wall Street for an insurance company. It paid really well, and it taught me a lot, particularly about financing."
Bickerton was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 1959 and began studying piano when he was six. He attended Carnegie-Mellon and Boston Universities, during which time he explored not only classical music but also the frontiers of the avant-garde movement, including the work of John Cage. Bickerton notes that one of his most influential teachers was the Spanish composer Leonardo Balada, who taught him to compose aleatory music, a music that introduces the elements of chance with respect to pitch and duration.
He later learned much from pianist JoAnne Brackeen, whom he considers an excellent teacher. "She had a way of building my confidence," he recalls, "and at the same time challenging me to greater achievement."
At the age of seventeen, Bickerton organized his first Jazz quartet, and during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, he played with and composed for many quartets and trios around New York. He feels that the three years he spent leading the resident group at the now-defunct club Caliban on Manhattan's East Side provided him with invaluable experience. He later played with such notables as Junior Cook, Jack Walrath, Valery Ponomarev, Eddie Henderson, Pete Yellin, Calvin Hill, Booker T., and Rashid Bakr, the drummer who had galvanized one of Cecil Taylor's revolutionary ensembles.
Most recently, Bickerton has been taking his own trio (which varies in personnel) into such experimental venues as the Knitting Factory and the Cornelia Street Café. Asked if he has ventured out of the New York scene, he told me, "This is still such a grassroots thing; we're still trying to get people used to what we're doing. I think I find it perhaps a little more difficult here in New York because it's such a huge center. You're competing all the time with so many well-known people. Of course, it's wonderful being in New York, but as an emerging artist it is harder to get your piece of the pie."
I wondered whether he would consider taking his show on the road. At first he thought that wouldn't be possible because there's hardly a network of new music venues. I suggested that he might finance his own tour, in much the same way as he found the money to produce his CD, and at the same time find out what the climate is like out there for his music.
"Well," he enthused, "that's a great idea, simply getting a tour together and not worrying about making any kind of profit-at first. I will have a new recording out on the British Leo Records with drummer Rashid Bakr and bassist Matthew Heyner and could use that as a promo tool. I'm also scheduled for a CD on CIMP, which should be happening this summer. Leo Feigen, the owner of Leo Records, is a great promoter throughout Europe. Jazz is definitely more appreciated over there. In this country, it's more of a commodity that has its national spokesman, Wynton Marsalis-if you need a sound byte for Jazz, go to Wynton. Like that's the only Jazz musician in America."
Bickerton made the foregoing statement without any rancor-just a fervent desire to have his music heard by a wider audience. He has stated that his search for artistic expression has been a complex, many-layered journey. His creative process is characterized alternately by experimentation and passionate release. He often finds inspiration, he says, in visual artists, whose "ferocious search for what is unique in art" he admires, and he is always moved by a handful of inspired Jazz improvisers. His avowed influences in that area are Ornette Coleman, Geri Allen, Andrew Hill, and Keith Jarrett.
Bickerton began his Loud Neighbors Music originally as a publishing company in 1993 following his composition of the theme music for Blue Pearl Productions' Hispanic Americans: The New Frontier, an eight-part documentary which aired nationally on the Fox network in 1994 and again on ABC in 1995. These days, Loud Neighbors is also a successful record label and production company. John has composed numerous film scores, including one for Christine Swanson's award-winning Two Seasons, which received prizes at both the Acapulco and Sundance Festivals.
A truly versatile artist, Bickerton has found a way to stay true to his ideals while at the same time offering unique musical services to others. New recordings forthcoming from his company in the near future include one by the group Random Orbit, a drum and bass endeavor entitled Alchemy, and Indian musician Jiddu's blend of vocal music and Jazz ensembles, called Devi.
Bickerton feels that "you make good music by loving it," and this is obvious in his beautifully realized Drinking from the Golden Cup album. There is in it a sense of deep understanding of the art in which he has chosen to express himself, coupled with a playfulness that keeps him exploring ever-new territories and going beyond stylistically imposed boundaries.