Tag Archives: defiance

Virtual Visionaries Week 4: Freelance Musicians

About the Authors

Amy K Bormet is a pianist, vocalist, and composer, known for her fearless free-wheeling style and dedication to creating new music. To collaborate with and celebrate women musicians, she started the annual Washington Women in Jazz Festival in 2011, directing, financing, and performing in an annual festival and women-focused events throughout the year in the DC area.  As an advocate for and stakeholder in DC’s unique jazz scene, she co-hosts a weekly radio show on WPFW 89.3FM, Jazz Stories WPFW, featuring local interviews and music.

Marcus Elliot is a saxophonist, composer, improviser, and educator based in Detroit, Michigan. His compositions and improvisations have been described by the New York Times as “convincing and confident, evolved in touch and tone…”, and the Detroit Free Press has said, “Marcus Elliot represents next generation of jazz”. Elliot leads and co-leads many different Detroit based bands including the Marcus Elliot Trio, Marcus Elliot Quartet, Clockwork, Balance, Beyond Rebellious, and Lanula. He was a Fellow of the Geri Allen Gathering Orchestra. He co-founded the nonprofit Polyfold Musical Arts Collective. He is the one of the directors of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Ensembles. He recently earned his Master of Music degree at The University of Michigan. He is currently collaborating and touring with electronic artist Shigeto.

Michael Malis is a composer, pianist, and music educator based in Detroit MI. A multi-faceted musical artist, he performs as a jazz musician, composes for the concert stage, and contributes to multidisciplinary collaborations. His March 2020 release, Three Pieces for Piano, was praised by the Southeast Michigan Jazz Association (SEMJA) as “thrilling music, with shifting harmonic and rhythmic qualities that require prodigious precise technique and the kind of generic versatility that few pianists achieve” (May 2020 Issue.) As a composer, Malis has been commissioned by Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Detroit Composers’ Project, Virago, Hole in the Floor, and others. As a pianist, he has shared the stage with such luminaries as Marcus Belgrave, Jaribu Shahid, John Lindberg, William Hooker, A. Spencer Barefield, Tyshawn Sorey, Ken Filiano, J.D. Allen, Andrew Bishop, Dennis Coffey, and Marion Hayden.

From Amy K Bormet: “Community”

As a high school student, I moved to Washington DC to study jazz. When I first started to perform in public, the places I visited seemed charmingly anachronistic. I was enchanted by DC’s strong black culture and dropped by jam sessions, mostly in the summer when I wasn’t practicing Ellington and Bach for my juries. I traveled with my friend Herb Scott, who encouraged me to leave the comfort of practice rooms to meet some of the wild personalities and talents of our city. This community of people, and the wonderful stories they told, were much more real and engaging than my moldy DCPS textbooks. My musical mentors introduced me to the lives and music of our under-the-radar legends. Together we crafted stories, a communal mythology. I had confrontations and I felt uncomfortable, but every time I went out, I joined my voice to the sound of the community. 

When returning to DC from the University of Michigan every summer, I would reconnect—with open arms and music making—as I told stories of my new places. After graduating from Michigan, I moved back and started playing at a jam session three days a week. I transitioned to performing full time, taking every gig I came across with often disastrous results. I kept talking with as many people as possible and paying my dues. 

The undercurrent of power in DC channels the energy of so many of our musicians into organizing and advocating. I started Washington Women in Jazz, with an annual festival to celebrate and support the women of the DC jazz community. I host a weekly show for WPFW 89.3FM “Jazz and Justice” radio. My schoolmate and saxophonist Herb Scott started the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation (CHJF) to advocate for the economic and cultural development of the jazz community in the halls of congress. The CHJF hosts weekly jam sessions at Mr. Henry’s, a legendary DC spot where Roberta Flack performed while attending Howard University. I loved to be there, checking in with friends and new faces. We would all be together, talk about our plans, celebrate and mourn. 

Now I can only dream of that place, of playing with cymbals crashing and angular basslines, of shouting at each other in the back, sharing greasy fries, hugging and laughing together. The pandemic has forced us to recreate our community with sober intentions. Through the exhaustion, depression, and the brokenness we are still gluing bits of community into something. Despite the closed venues, postponed festivals, and canceled shows, our ecosystem is still functioning in DC virtually. Hosted by Aaron Myers, the board president of Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, we meet twice weekly and get to work at community triage. Musicians, venues, festival directors, radio programmers, music store owners, non-profits, and advocates meet in one “place.” The spontaneity is lost, but we have gained intention, honesty, and vulnerability. We share resources, funding, and grant opportunities. We invite guests from the music industry and government organizations to speak and share information. We create ideas for legislation, including candidate platforms for our concerns. We talk about ways to generate income for musicians, produce live streams, demand more royalties, and generate educational content to support our public schools. We listen to each other. This exchange of ideas is what gives me hope. 

Community is the people, not the place. We are revolutionizing and organizing our own spaces now, making them about us, centered on our collective experiences and concerns. Though it feels as if social media has become a battlespace for commercial transactions, arguments, and competition, we can reclaim the idea of virtual connection for real conversations that generate change and financial support for the arts. We must all work to create new structures and organizations in our society as we rip apart the outdated and useless commercial music industry built on exploitation. The true music community is built from artists, passionate advocates, and audiences. We must re-fund comprehensive arts programs in schools, parks, theaters, and new virtual spaces to rebuild a sustainable, healthy music ecosystem. Now is the time to continue our work, revitalize community, and make plans for our new gloriously unpredictable future together. 

From Marcus Elliot: “A Letter to my 20 Year Old Self”

Dear 20 year old Marcus, 

Whatsup man? I’m sure you are probably working on a Joe Henderson transcription or something like that, but I wanted to bother you for a moment and talk to you. I have some things I would like to share with you that I wish I would have known when I was 20. These are not laws or a “how to become successful” layout, these are just things that I have learned and I feel called to share with those that I love. One of those people being you, so listen up! 

Take care of yourself – You’re in a deep depression right now and I know you have never experienced anything like this before. Make your bed every day. This small change in your life will do wonders for you, trust me. Invest time and energy into your physical, emotional, mental, sexual, and spiritual health. Take small baby steps toward a healthier self every day and you will be in a much better place by next week. 

Take care of your relationships – Relationships are key to being a healthy person. I know that you have been sold this idea that you can do this alone, but you cannot. And even if you could, it will lead to a very sad and depressing existence. Think of your relationships as a garden that needs tending. 

Continue to grow your capacity for responsibility – Your capacity to handle hard things in your life will be your biggest asset as you get older. This does not mean go looking for things to do that are hard but you don’t care about. It means find the things you truly care about and take responsibility over how you will hold or pursue that thing. As a 20 year old, a lot of things are given to you, but soon this will change and you will need to hold yourself accountable. This is also why you need healthy relationships 🙂 

Be mindful of your money – Educate yourself on money. No one in school will show you how to navigate your personal finances. Don’t be bitter about this. The teachers can only prepare you for so much. You are entering into a completely new era that they really don’t understand, so it is important for you to educate yourself on finances and how to save/spend your money. Do what you need to do to rid yourself of your debts as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You will be surprised how many people have your back. But first, you must make those first steps on educating yourself on money. 

Continue to practice creating beauty – It is very easy to find things in your life and in this world that are wrong. You would be completely justified in believing that the world is a horrible place and there is no point in getting up in the morning. Although you can justify this way of thinking, it is only adding to the problem you are facing. Continue to bring forth beauty and order to your life. Avoid other people who are doing the opposite of this. 

Love is a skill/Grief is a skill – I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but you will learn how to practice love by learning how to grieve. You will come to find out that these two things are two sides of the same coin. There are going to be a lot of really hard and heavy things that will happen in your life. Do not brush them off or ignore them. Hold them in your heart and grieve them. Doing so will break your heart wide open, over and over. This is a very painful process, this is what makes you human. You will come to find that being a human is one of the most radical things you can do in the time that you are coming up in. 

Your Blackness is a bigger deal than you think it is – America is something else man. Learn about your people and your history. Learn the stories and learn the songs of the people you come from. Hold them close. You will need them in order to navigate through the sickness that is racism in America. That’s what they are there for. They are navigation tools as well as medicine. Be proud of who you are and where you come from. 

The music is a direct channel to the ancestors – Honor your gift by dedicating yourself to it. You have NO CLUE how this music has protected you and how it will continue to bless you. You are creating these sonic portals that are influenced by your dreams. By practicing music you are strengthening the path from your conscious to your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind is where they are. So listen and pay attention. 

Seriously, It’s not that serious – Please take the time to laugh at yourself and have fun. I know how much you love to be serious and how much you want to be taken seriously. That’s good but you need to chill bruh. You are going to miss out on a lot of joy and a lot of really great relationships if you continue the way you are. Your seriousness and your intensity aren’t going anywhere. you can put it down from time to time and enjoy yourself, seriously. 

Well, that’s about all I got for you for now. You are really in for a ride. These next ten years will be… well, you’ll see. 30 is great, and definitely something to look forward to. Keep your head up, stay open to life, and listen to your gut. You have a lot to be proud of and you have an entire community of peers, mentors, elders and ancestors who want to see you do well, even if you don’t realize it yet. Soon, you will be someone that will help others around you, so pay close attention to those that are helping you now so that you may model yourself after their actions. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. I will do my best to answer them the best I can. I love you Marcus, and I always will. 

Love, 30 year old Marcus

From Michael Malis: “Resilience”


I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately. For so many reasons, it seems to me that we should be talking about resilience more. To be resilient is to be sturdy; to be durable; to be resistant to attack; to have lasting appeal; to be adaptable; to be agile; to be thoughtful.

If our goal is to cultivate lifelong careers in music, the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to build our resilience. When we put everything through a lens of resilience, all sorts of decisions begin to snap into place.

For starters — the idea of making 100% of our money from music is not a very resilient framework. At the absolute least, we need to have a variety of skills within our musical practices in order to survive. Simply playing our instruments is not enough. With Covid-19 shutting down the economy, even orchestra musicians and concert soloists — the infinitesimally small group of people who are ostensibly paid only to play their instruments and nothing more — had to figure out how to livestream concerts, edit videos, mix audio, and teach Zoom lessons. 

The same is even truer for freelance musicians. I perform, compose, teach, and record. All of these come together to make up my living. When one of those things (performance) went away this year, I felt lucky that I still had other income streams to rely on. The work of being a musician absolutely requires a wide skillset.

Many people choose to cultivate skills external to music — administration work, web development, service industry work, landscaping, writing, or anything else. I applaud this. Our artistic practices are already complicated enough… why should we also feel the need to add the pressures of capitalism? We need to do whatever we must to survive, not just now, but for a long time to come. Being resilient sometimes means insulating ourselves against the world, which can be disproportionately cruel toward artists.

Furthermore, in order to thrive, our community of musicians needs people with a variety of skillsets. In the process of my working career, I’ve had to learn basic web development, admin work, video editing, and audio production — none of which I went to school for. I wish we had a web development co-op, or a video editing skill-share, or a webinar series focusing on administrative best practices. The more skills we each cultivate, the more we can vision ways of coming together to share those skills with each other. By doing so, we can transform our resilient individual selves into a resilient community.

So why is resiliency so important? 

Because being a musician is optimistic work. Or at least, it can be, if we allow it to be. So often our discourse focuses on the struggles of choosing an artistic life. Those struggles are all very real, but those struggles mostly aren’t created by the work itself. Rather, they’re often created by external forces imposed on the work — the pressure for the work to generate money, the pressure for the work to succeed in a capitalist marketplace, the pressure for the work to be brilliant or revolutionary or better than everyone else’s work. None of those pressures have anything to do with the work itself; they’re pressures that get imposed on the work from the outside.

Instead, the work of making music asks us to think deeply about our world — its triumphs, its failings, its victories, its injustices. The work of making music necessitates that we vision what our world could be. The work of making music asks us to dive deeply into our own personal depths, on a mission to unearth hidden treasures, bringing those treasures back to the surface to share with those around us. The work of making music demands that we be the best version of ourselves — the music doesn’t allow us to be anything less. The work of making music insists on personal growth, and the courage to follow our own hearts. The work of making music requires listening — to ourselves, to our instruments, and to our communities — and it requires us to respond to the needs that we hear. 

The work of making music is urgent, important, broad, visionary work. It presupposes a capacity for goodness in the world. It is deeply optimistic work.

So we need you to be resilient. We need you to be here for a long, long time, because the road ahead is not going to get any easier. Our work is vital, and although the economy might not deem it such, it is absolutely “essential.” If we think of it this way, resilience has to be a central tenant of our artistic practices. When we center resilience, the music will follow.

Want to hear more?

Join Amy, Marcus, and Michael this Thursday, June 18th at 6:30 PM via Zoom. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.