The Truth About Playing Jazz In Restaurants

Paul Brady – Jazz Musician

Jazz musicians tend to seek gigs at fine dining restaurants, wine and cocktail bars, hotel lounges, and places where the swinging sophistication of jazz standards might go over better than, say, at a pub or dive bar. And often proprietors of these establishments seek to present live jazz to offer something different than the restaurant across the street. While this all sounds like musicians and restaurant owners understand each other, with rare exceptions, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Performing jazz at restaurants has always been one of the ways mortal working jazz musicians make their livings. And it’s not uncommon to witness a musician you just saw up on stage at a major concert hall or festival on their third set of standards at a restaurant the next night.

This is not unusual, demeaning, or insulting to all musicians. It can be a rewarding experience to play at restaurants knowing you’re making one’s night out a little livelier. And often part of your pay will be a free meal and drinks — naturally a plus if the restaurant’s cuisine and beverage list is to your liking.

But restaurant gigs come and go like Billy Martin’s career as manager of the New York Yankees. Usually the reason is economics: the restaurant may have agreed to pay the musicians a flat rate, meanwhile the place is empty and the bar tender is wondering why the musicians are going home with $100 in each of their pockets, and the gig ends short-lived.

If the restaurant in question can barely keep their doors open, live music is not the solution, especially if the budget is only big enough for a solo pianist, guitarist, or maybe a duo (usually the case these days). In my experience — almost 10 years of playing gigs in restaurants in Chicago, Detroit, and New York City — live jazz will not bring in enough customers to make a significant enough increase in sales to merit what the musicians deserve to be paid.

A note to restaurant owners: don’t hire a live jazz group to bring in more patrons. A small jazz group (soloist, duo, or trio) at a restaurant is limited in what they can do, and thus will not draw like a full band at a club. If your band is small, than know that all you can expect is the music to enhance the ambiance of your eating and drinking atmosphere, which is great. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part it will function only to add class to your joint.

A note to musicians: don’t make promises you can’t keep. I’ve seen musicians tell restaurant owners that they have a following and will bring in lots of customers. That might be true for the first week or two when family and friends will support, but not likely after that with much regularity, and now Joe-restaurant owner is wondering what he’s paying you for.

To avoid this, musicians, politely inform restaurant owners that live jazz will add to the uniqueness of the, hopefully, already great restaurant, and that you will do everything you can to help promote using Facebook, Twitter, email blasts. But be up front about how they shouldn’t count on you to bring in more customers as if you’re performing a concert. And in my experience, restaurant owners are cool with that, and appreciate the honesty. They may then decide that live music is not for them, but at least if they do give you the gig they can’t be disappointed when after a couple months the novelty of live music inevitably cools off.

Because usually it takes longer than what the length of the average live-jazz-at-a-restaurant-life-span is for it to pay off. Remember, restaurant owners, live jazz at your place won’t bring in people like Sinatra did at the Sands, but combined with good food and a well made martini, it will give it that cool, Sinatra-esque vibe.

5 Responses to “The Truth About Playing Jazz In Restaurants”

  1. Jason Parker says:

    Great post! I have been preaching this for years as well, and long ago learned to manage the bookers’ expectations as soon as he/she started to ask about how many people we could bring in. It’s only a win/win when both parties know upfront what their responsibilities are, and putting the responsibility of filling a restaurant on the musicians is not only short sighted, but speaks volumes about the restaurants ability to cultivate their own clientele.

    Jason Parker

  2. John Anderson says:

    I agree, great post! Musicians should be sensitive to the sound level acceptable in the restaurant and time of the evening. The best bet is to start fairly low and increase volume as the night goes on.
    from Wilmington NC,
    John Anderson

  3. TRS says:

    The moral of the story is: stop promising restaurants, clubs, bars, and other music venues more than you can give them. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Stop creating a standard for restaurant owners that musicians have to not only bring a crowd, but do their own PR, pay for their own printing, and advertise the venue with very little or no cost to the venue. The restaurants that do poorly are the ones that think musicians are a good cheap way to advertise… It’s NOT. Advertise your restaurant with your marketing budget and create a fine ambiance for your customers.

    There are a lot of factors that go into making a restaurant successful. The musicians can only help create an entertaining atmosphere. They can’t make the food taste better. They can’t make your servers work faster or efficiently. If nobody wants to come to your restaurant, it is only the fault of the musician when a restaurant owner books a band that can “bring people in” because they have 5000 facebook friends and the regular customers left because they didn’t feel catered to properly or because the music was loud or just plain awful.

  4. [...] On the restaurant jazz gig, by the guitarist Paul Brady. Not new, but a valuable perspective from someone who actually plays them to put together a living. [...]

  5. [...] On the restaurant jazz gig, by the guitarist Paul Brady. Not new, but a valuable perspective from someone who actually plays them to put together a living. [...]

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