Is This Jazz? Work and Art: Pianist Nick Sanfillipo talks about the line between art and commerce

When you go to a restaurant and see musicians playing in the corner, you may think they’re only there to have fun. However, many of these musicians are getting paid to play there as part of a full-time career in music. To shine a light on the role working musicians play, I’ll be interviewing peers of mine about their experiences performing, how they balance their lives to make the music happen, and if they see a difference between playing for art’s sake or as a job.

For this first of three articles I talked to pianist Nick Sanfillipo. I’ve known Nick for many years and have always been inspired by his work ethic, relentless pursuit of his career and attitude about the journey.

Ben Shaw (Motif): How long have you been a full-time musician?

Nick Sanfillipo: Since I graduated college in 2008. It took a couple of years before I could really consider myself “full time” as I was building my name and reputation, and making contacts. 

BS: On a typical week, how often are you playing out and how many different ensembles do you consistently perform with?

NS: Every week is different, especially comparing winter and summer months in New England. Recently I’ve been averaging about five gigs a week, with three or four different groups. I have a Sunday church gig, a Wednesday jazz gig, Friday and Saturday nights with a wedding band that plays clubs in the off-season, plus random fill-in or pick-up gigs on other nights. 

BS: Do you supplement your income in ways other than live performance?

NS: I teach a handful of lessons, but realistically I do all aspects of what it is to be a professional musician: teaching, recording, chart writing, accompanying, etc. But performing is the majority of my work. 

BS: How much of your schedule is normally general business, or “wallpaper” gigs versus those you play for fun?

NS: Financially, the vast majority of my income is from general business gigs, usually weddings. We also do a fair amount of clubs in the Boston area in the off-season, though I wouldn’t call it wallpaper — we rock many of the best Boston bars until close!

Fun is really what you make of it. Many of my general business gigs are more well received — and in turn, I have more fun — than the more musically rewarding gigs because there are more people who want to rock out and party than sit down and enjoy artistic jazz. 

BS: What do you see as the difference between playing music as art versus as commerce?

NS: While music is art, once you start depending on this craft to pay bills, it becomes more than that. We’d all love our music to be loved, but we all need to eat, and I’ve grown okay with the fact that not everyone will like what I do. A lot of musicians don’t realize that many of the patrons in a venue are NOT there for the music. Maybe they like the food, maybe they know the bartender. We need to remember that as a hired musician our job is to entertain the patrons or at least not drive them off. If you’re selling out Madison Square Garden, you can play what you want, but even then you don’t want ticket sales to drop. It may be commerce, but it can also be art. 

BS: Does it bother you to have to play those gigs or do you see it as a necessary part of the job?

NS: It doesn’t bother me at all. All gigs can be artistic and you can learn and grow playing anything. Let’s say you have to teach “Mary Had a Little Lamb” every week to students. You could use the opportunity to strengthen your singing, ear training, work on intonation, phrasing, tonging, etc. There are always things to be taken from every situation.

BS: In what way has life as a full-time musician lived up to your expectations and what are some ways it’s different?

NS: When I was younger, I thought I was only going to play the “fun” gigs where I get to stretch out. Shortly into my career, I realized I couldn’t support myself just doing that so I branched out into more styles. By playing these gigs that pay better, it allowed me to do the gigs I still really want to do. Plus I’ve found that I don’t mind playing “pop” and learning how to play that material has strengthened my overall musical ability.

BS: What should people looking to get into a full-time music career know?

NS: Take the good with the bad. Not everyone will like what you do, but musicians have to do our best at all times to put out the highest quality product possible. Branch out of your comfort zone. The more well rounded of a musician you are, the more you’ll work! Learn EVERYTHING and don’t be too proud to learn, especially the pop stuff. 

Also, make as many friends as you can, you never know which one will hit it big and take you on the road! 

BS: What do you wish people knew when they see live music in a public place?

NS: Although the musician is getting paid for a job and needs to cater to the venue, patrons should be courteous and not come up in the middle of a song and start talking or requesting other songs. It’s tough enough to play without a stranger telling me their friend plays “wicked awesome guitahh.” When I’m on break, I’d love to hear all about it! Also, if I don’t know you, and it’s not a jam session, I’m almost certainly not going to let you sit in with the band.

For an unabridged version of this interview, please visit isthisjazz.tumblr.com

Ben Shaw is a local composer, performer, and writer. Find him at benjaminshawmusic.com

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