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A Look into the Starting Places of Jazz’s Greats

Music is for everyone, but is making music for everyone? This is a prominent question at the heart of our upcoming documentary, How to Make a Living in Jazz. As it’s not the conventional career path and there is little in the way of step by step guidance, we’re delving into the lives of young musicians in London to discover how they got into jazz, how they make their money and whether it is a viable career path.

So, how does one come into the jazz scene? Today, we’re taking a look into the starting places of jazz’s greats to find out.

Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus is considered one of the most important musicians in twentieth century but where did the bass player, pianist and composer get his start? Born on a military base in Arizona, 1922, his earliest introduction to music came through the church and one of the first names Mingus remembers from the days of radio was Duke Ellington. Playing double bass was never just a hobby for Mingus, who took formal lessons with Rheinshagen, New York Philharmonic principal bassist, and compositional lessons with legend, Lloyd Reese.

He first made his money touring with bands Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and Lionel Hampton before becoming one of the first and only bassists to record music, which quickly solidified his career and his living.

John Coltrane
John Coltrane, American saxophonist, is widely renowned for his mathematically perfect compositions and pioneering of the free jazz sound. His preference for the blues clearly came from his upbringing, being born in 1926 in North Carolina and living in Hamlet and High Point. Raised in a close-knit family, loss and music coincided for Coltrane, who had just begun learning the clarinet before losing his grandmother, father and aunt. Music, an escape, quickly became everything. Later, influenced by saxophonist Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, Coltrane’s heart was set on bebop.

Coltrane moved to Philadelphia in 1943 and immediately began making connections with other bebop players. After time in the Navy he used the G.I. Bill to take music classes after discharge, starting his profession with an apprenticeship from 1946-1955 which arguably kick-started his touring career, as he played his way up beside big bands such as Jimmy Smith’s group and Miles Davis’s band, and later struck success with contracts with big names such as Atlantic Records.

Ronnie Scott
The UK’s own, Ronnie Scott, is famous for his talent and his venues dedicated to the music he loved the most. Born in East London in 1927 to a musical family, his father the famous saxophonist Jock Scott, Ronnie started his music journey with a cornet from a junk shop before a soprano saxophone and then a tenor sax. Ronnie met many aspiring musicians in his local youth club which led to his first few gigs before travelling with drummer Tony Crombie to New York for the bebop movement, which he later brought back to London and became a linchpin of.

For Ronnie, it was his harmonically complex style which became the hallmark of his career. He made many bands throughout his music career but was famous alone, regardless, though The Jazz Couriers did a lot to extend his name. When they split in 1959, Ronnie set up the London jazz club, hosting names such as Ella Fitzgerald and Albert Ayler, making it the heart of London’s jazz community.

Despite the differences between the greats, such as not all having a musical family or background, few similarities ring true: connections and commitment to touring and recording and pushing your name are essential in making a living in jazz.

Times have changed but has the way into jazz? Find out in our upcoming documentary, How to Make a Living in Jazz, as London’s young but incredibly talented individuals tell us.