On February 21, 2007 I had the chance to sit down with local jazz guitarist JJ Soriano to discuss the local jazz & classical music scene. After the interview, I also had the opportunity to jam with the man himself, and learn from his expertise.
How many gigs, on average, do you play in a week?
Not a lot right now; maybe once every two weeks or so. I’m experiencing a lot of cutbacks right now. I used to get a lot of gigs from a guy who did wedding and cocktail gigs but he doesn’t pay the same rates anymore. I also used to get gigs from college, but now it’s down to zero, which is unfortunate because I’m in a performance program. It seems kind of funny that a performance program would pull the performance aspect of it.
Right now the only gigs that I can get are the “real world” gigs. I still play every month at the Pic Niq, but it’s sort of back to reality right now. I’m not playing a lot of gigs because I don’t take volunteer gigs.
Name some of the venues you’ve played in.
I’m not sure where to start. Um… Pridis, Cochrane Ranch, Cochrane Golf Club, the Sheraton, Eau Claire, Palister Hotel, the Beat Niq, Epcor Centre, the Pic Niq, Webster Art Gallery, Calgary Art Gallery, the Hiatt, Carriage House Inn, different venues at Mount Royal, the Winton… Lots of different venues. It’s different every time.
What is the largest audience you’ve played to?
Not a lot. Not in jazz, anyway. Usually we play cocktail gigs [where there are a lot of people] so you’re not really the focus. So I’m not sure if you would consider that an audience. But most gigs it’s usually 150 people or less.
How much time do you spend promoting, marketing, and booking yourself?
I’m fortunate in that I don’t need to do a lot of that. We usually get hired by someone so typically I’m not the one doing the promoting. My drummer Spencer [Cheyne] calls, gets the date, makes the arrangements, etc. In the jazz community it’s all about connecting with other musicians, going to jam sessions, and attending other people’s gigs. One day they might even invite you and have you sit in.
What are your thoughts on the Calgary jazz scene?
It’s definitely getting bigger. In the past six months I’ve seen some good musicians move in. I mean, it’s growing but it’s evolving more so.
There are two venues for jam sessions that I attend and they both have different crowds and a different set of players. It’s interesting because the two crowds are usually separated. More recently some of these people have started to mingle. At first I thought the jazz scene was small, but it’s not. I still see new faces frequently. It’s a busy scene and the good players play about two to three nights a week. You don’t get a huge crowd with jazz.
What are your thoughts on the Calgary music scene?
I can’t really speak for other scenes, because I’m not really exposed to that. From what I’ve seen in the classical & jazz scene, it’s growing. And the level of performance is up, too. Some of our local artists could match or top other experienced artists from New York. Many are amazed by the level of musicianship in this city.
What are some of your goals and ambitions as a musician?
I have lots of goals. I guess my dream is to not have a day job, and make a living at it. I would have my own band, and I would still play side gigs, but the dream would be to play full-time. I would rehearse with the band in the morning, set up during the day, or travel to the next town and set up, and play at night.
One of my dreams would be to cross the Christian/secular market and reach out to those who don’t know Him, and encourage those who do. And maybe twice a year I would do conferences or workshops for kids that are less fortunate, and share God with them.
I don’t really want to be boxed in as any type of band at the end of the day. I want God to place me where I can serve Him best. Why should I just play it safe and be in my comfort zone?
What do you see in the future for yourself?
I can dream, but I can’t see the future. If anything, I see myself still following God. And even if it means leaving music I want to do that. I can only really see a week ahead, and beyond that I’m not sure. I had all these plans, dreams, aspirations, and God tells me “just finish your Diploma, and that’s it.” This is going to be much more “real world” than I expected. I can’t see myself doing anything other than following God.
What are some things you do consistently to market and promote yourself?
For now, since I’m in school, it’s not a big issue. I don’t do a lot of booking but I try to get out to jams and treat musicians well. It’s a good idea to exercise etiquette in all situations. If you get hired, be on time and perform well. Allow for suggestions and criticism.
Having the right attitude is huge. Having a self-important attitude won’t get you anywhere and it’s key to remember that. Do what you can to please your client. Personally, I don’t have a big fan base and I’m not really at the point to record a CD. But when you get to that point, you can promote by radio too.
In your opinion, how important is it to make new contacts?
It’s very important. It’s also important to maintain a good relationship with other musicians and previous clients. Exercising etiquette is very important. I’m a quiet guy; I only talk when I need to.
Don’t hold any bitterness or grudges either. I’ve worked with musicians who don’t conduct themselves professionally, but since I’m Christian I think it’s important to give them second chances. So it’s all about being able to release any bitterness you may have.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get established in the Calgary jazz scene?
In a nutshell, it’s a lot of networking. Tell your clients what to expect and promise your client profit based on the price you quoted. Go to other people’s performances and jams and you’ll get asked to sit in. If you have to volunteer a gig, go for it. Always take the right attitude. What helped me is being in school because I got a lot of referrals.
If someone decided that they wanted to do what you’re doing, where would be a good place to start?
It all depends on the resources available to you. Do you have a repertoire? How many contacts do you have? How much experience do you have? Do you know of any other musicians you could play with? I’ve been studying music for a good chunk of my life so I have lots of contacts. I’ve established a lot of connections through other musicians and students of music. And, as I mentioned before, go to jam sessions and your friend’s gigs.
What are some basic things every musician can do to promote themselves regardless of what type of music they play?
It’s all about maintaining and establishing relationships with other musicians and your clients. It’s also good to build a reputation of being a good player, or hard worker, or someone with a lot of passion for it.
On the other hand, you need to be discerning too. Be cool, and don’t oversell yourself. There was a guitarist that played all the time at the Beatniq and he started to get a bad reputation. Everybody would come in and see that he was playing and they went, “oh no, not again.” He disappeared for awhile and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. About a month later he came back. People were leery. But this time he blew everyone away. So if you can demonstrate that you’re a hard worker and you have a passion for it, it’s possible to redeem yourself too.
Musicians often have to wear two hats; there’s the promotion side of it, and the performance side of it. How do you strike a balance between the two?
It’s a process. When you first start promoting, you should have posters; send messages to people, like a newsletter, get an article in a magazine… Do stuff like that. Don’t forget that performance in itself is a form of promotion. That’s about it. Once you have a bigger fan base you can advertise on the radio. At that point you probably have a CD, and the radio station can play your songs and plug your upcoming shows.
But just make sure your first performance draws people instead of repel them. Sometimes it feels like you have to wear two hats, but it is part of your career; one is not excluded from the other. Once you get bigger you have CDs and products and merchandise, and you’ll play charities and things depending on the scene, and that’s good promotion too.
But the bottom line is that you’re not going to promote unless you’re performing. If you’re famous, people come to you, so that’s a different situation entirely. Oh, and websites are good for promotion too.
Thanks for your time, JJ.