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Mention to Jay Busch that he seems to be scuffling for gigs, and he'll laugh. "It goes with the job description. It's like the ingredient list on a food package. "Scuffle' is near the top of the list of ingredients for a working musician." He pauses, and then adds, ""Remuneration' comes near the bottom of the list."
Busch doesn't mention money bitterly, but with a kind of matter-of-fact humor that's kept him plugging away in the Valley's music scene since arriving here from Detroit in 1981. Although he has wide-ranging tastes in music, jazz tops his list, and as Busch will tell you, no one around here plays jazz for the money.
For more than a decade, Busch headed Viva Jazz, one of the Valley's standard-bearers for the genre. The band was a Best of Phoenix winner three years running in the late '80s and early '90s. In 1996, the drummer branched out with a rhythm-and-blues band called Blues Nirvana, which has evolved into his current Jay Busch Band, Rock and Soul Revue. He's played with virtually all of the city's musical elite: Dennis Rowland, Ike Cole, Hans Olson, Charles Lewis, Dave Cook, Diana Lee, Dom Moio, Keith Greko and Chuck Marohnic, to name just a few. In addition, he teaches music courses at ASU East and runs J.B. Productions, an event management and production company.
"On the surface, it seems like such an empty cultural scene here, but underneath things are happening. Enough so that I've got a life in music, and a mortgage," he says, laughing.
However, Busch is increasingly concerned about the shrinking number of opportunities for local jazzniks to draw paychecks in the Valley. The local scene is in the midst of an especially bad drought since drummer Dave Cook's weekly jam session, a staple for a decade, was shelved recently. The number of venues offering regular gigs for Valley-based jazz and rhythm-and-blues-oriented performers appears to be at an all-time low.
"For working bands in town, this is the worst season in 15 years," Busch says. Jazz may be a tough sell, but he thinks there are other reasons for the music's tenuous hold on the club scene. "Club owners need to do their job and musicians need to do theirs. If they work together, they can build the scene." The problem, he says, is that many club owners don't respect the musicians. "When they book you, they expect you to bring 400 of your closest friends to the gig, instead of doing their own marketing homework to build the audience."
"The music business is the least businesslike business there is," adds Busch. Many musicians complain about the business, but few create opportunities for themselves and others the way Busch does. Too upbeat to brood over setbacks, Busch would rather make an end run around a brick wall than to slam into it. So he produces his own events, something he's been doing since 1982, when he staged an anti-hunger benefit at the original Chuy's.
In the early '90s, one of the smarter moves he made was to start booking jazz into Kerr Cultural Center in Scottsdale, an intimate hall that offered the perfect setting for players to showcase their music in a concert format. Because of their special-event status, the concerts have been good in drawing a variety of guest performers -- providing an opportunity for horn ensemble work and arrangements that the usual duo or single player lounge gigs don't allow. It's the kind of atmosphere that lets players stretch out without having to take requests. It was a great concept musically. Financially, Busch says, it broke even.
Busch looks back most fondly, though, on the Jazz Rhythm and Groove parties he put on at the Rhythm Room. "When I looked back, I realized the Jazz Rhythm and Groove parties were some of the most fun events I played, so why not bring them back?" So, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, he's reviving the concept with a gig this week, and hopes that more will follow. Rhythm Room and blues-scene stalwart Bob Corritore, who books the club, possesses the kind of scene-building prowess that could be a model for jazz clubs, and Busch is quick to thank him for the opportunity to return.
At 45, Busch's dark hair is peppered with gray, but his choirboy face doesn't reveal his age, and a youthful mischief animates his eyes. "I've reached the point where I don't feel like I've got a job anymore," he says. "Instead, I have projects to be a part of. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of quiet time doing puzzles and building models, and that's what my career is like now, a big puzzle that I'm putting together." The puzzle started coming together at age 12, when music first caught his ear. As a high school senior, he played in a rock band called Mac Dagger. At the University of Michigan, he studied the arts and was part of a modern dance troupe. He points to his parents' influence for his diverse interests: "My mother had a background in education and dance, and my father had a background in business." His drive, however, comes from another source. "My brother died in a car accident in 1973. That was a wake-up call. I remember asking myself right then, "What's the difference between an 80-year-old and an 18-year-old?' The only answer that made sense was the quality of life you create for yourself between those ages."