How to establish yourself as a professional musician in a new city (part 4)

In parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I’ve been sharing some ways you can get work as a musician, particularly if you’ve recently relocated to a new city and haven’t established yourself yet.  One approach that can work very well is to simply do something that no one else wants to do. (But make sure it’s in your best interests and that no one is taking advantage of you.) In fact, this is how I got my first big gig when I was just starting out in New York City.

Even though I moved to New York in 1989, I spent a lot of time those first few years working out-of-town, either in nearby Connecticut, where I had lots of connections, or on tour with various musical groups. I did have a steady church organ/choir director jobs and played freelance jazz gigs, but I hadn’t hit the “big time” yet.

One day in 1992, I answered the phone to hear a nice man named Barry Levitt ask me if I would be interested in being his assistant for a musical theater production. It didn’t pay much and would require me to give up all other work for 10 weeks and make a daily 2-hour commute to New Jersey. The producers hoped to eventually bring the show to Broadway but there were no guarantees and that was a long way off. The show hadn’t even been created yet! Now having much else going on, I accepted Barry’s offer and we arranged a time to meet at his office. (As a bonus, I could still go to my church job since there were no Sunday morning rehearsals or performances.)

I was soon in Barry’s office; a converted dance studio on Manhattan’s lower West Side. We exchanged greetings and then proceeded to sit on the floor and sort through a huge pile of sheet music. The show was called Swinging On A Star and featured the lyrics of Johnny Burke, who penned the words to such classics as Misty, Here’s That Rainy Day, and of course, Swinging On A Star, for which he won an Oscar for best song.

Barry and I hit it off immediately and found we had a mutual interest in jazz. I found out much later that Barry had gone through a long list of established NYC pianists but none of them wanted to risk losing their in-town work by going out-of-town for 10 weeks for such a low salary. Barry didn’t know me at all, and I’m not sure who recommended me. But the show featured all songs from The Great American Songbook and some had a jazz flavor which suited me perfectly. (Not all pianists can play jazz and Broadway music equally well.) Barry, being a jazz player himself, later said he knew I was the right choice when I said I loved John Coltrane’s tune “Giant Steps.” This was a very unusual introduction to Broadway indeed!

The road to Broadway was a long, slow grind that took 3 years and 3 productions in 3 separate theaters (in 2 states). My duties as Associate Music Director included playing keyboards and conducting from the piano when Barry was off doing something else. I also did some orchestrations and even a dance arrangement when legendary dance arranger Peter Howard wasn’t at a late-night rehearsal in Connecticut.

We opened on Broadway in October, 1995. The show was wonderful and thrilling to play every night. Even so, it was a tough winter for most of the shows on Broadway and due to slow ticket sales, we closed 3 months later. Despite this, the show was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical.

So you see what I’m getting at here. Just because I answered the phone that day and took a job that no one else wanted, I helped create a Tony-nominated Broadway show and instantly established myself on the Broadway scene. After we closed, I just picked up the phone and called a few other keyboard players on Broadway and was soon subbing for shows like Smokey Joe’s Cafe and The Life. And more importantly, I gained a lifelong friend and mentor in Barry Levitt. You can check out Barry’s beautiful piano playing in this recording from the Swinging On A Star cast album (I’m on string synth).

So the next time your phone rings with a job offer that you have to “think about,” consider where it might lead to and if it feels right, “go for it.” After all, you never know where some things will eventually lead to.

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