Every Friday on this blog is “Makin’ it Happen Friday”, where I feature another musician who’s found a way to make a living playing music. I am constantly inspired by others, and hope to pass that inspiration on to you.Andrew Oliver is a pianist and composer from Portland, Oregon. Andrew spent his formative years there and then spent a few years studying and playing in New Orleans before being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Now back in Portland, he is busy composing for and performing in a number of bands, including the Andrew Oliver Sextet, Andrew Oliver Kora Band, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and The Bridgetown Sextet, among others. He also teaches piano and improvisation lessons and offers custom arranging, transcription, and composition services for small and large ensembles.
I’ve been impressed with Andrew’s compositions as well as the way he keeps multiple project going at one time. That’s almost a necessity for us folks slogging through the “musical middle-class”. And as you’ll see from his responses below, he is a very thoughtful and wise man!
OWM: How’d you get started in the music biz?
AO: I started playing piano when I was a kid, and switched to jazz after becoming fed up with playing classical music in high school. I went off to school in New Orleans, but came back to my hometown of Portland after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where I graduated from Portland State in 2007. I have been playing gigs since high school, but really it’s been in the couple of years since I finished school that I’ve really become both interested and involved in the business side of being a musician. I have a few bands of my own, which I’ve organized/managed/booked etc. for a few years, and I’ve released several self-produced albums as well, not that any of them have been wildly successful as of yet, but I’ve really enjoyed learning about marketing, promotion, booking, and what not from directing my own projects.
OWM: What 3 things have helped you the most in becoming a working musician?
AO: Interestingly, one of the first things that came to mind was: “getting away from jazz school.” I would hate to demean the great efforts of many of my fine professors and teachers throughout my college education, but one of the main things that made me realize the importance of self-promotion and ingenuity in becoming a working musician was getting away from the somewhat Utopian community of a jazz program, where everyone is checking out the hippest New York bands and playing together in many fantastic configurations with no regard for money. It’s a great atmosphere, but having some time away from it has made me very conscious of the vast differences between a jazz program and the jazz world as a whole.
Speaking of the jazz world, I suppose another important aspect of becoming a working musician has been the fantastic scene of players here in Portland. We have an amazing pool of musicians of all genres, who for the most part are very positive and supportive, not to mention great to hang out with. Being involved in a scene with a strong sense of community and with many people engaged in similar creative projects has gone a long way towards un-doing the sometimes depressing monetary reality of being a musician, and more specifically, being surrounded by people who are successful working musicians is certainly a strong source of inspiration.
Finally, at the risk of sounding cliche, youth and motivation have been of great assistance. I have always told myself that now, while I am still young, is the time to give this whole thing as good a try as I can, and later in life if it all fails I can step back on my French degree (which is clearly far more useful than a jazz degree). Seriously though, things are moving along on a very nice trajectory these days and I would like to hope that in 10 or 15 years my efforts of today will be paying off. I don’t plan on losing any motivation, but economic and social realities change with age, and I am lucky to be able to spend the time and money I do now on my music career.
OWM: What advice to you have for aspiring musicians?
AO: In some ways I feel like an aspiring musician myself, so this is an interesting question! Perseverance is obviously necessary, as with many careers the results of your labor are often very far down the road (though probably more in music than in some other careers). I was reading Toronto pianist Chris Donnelly’s blog this morning and he siad “Versatility is overrated.” I thought that was a good point to ponder – as time goes by, I am becoming more and more convinced that having your own sound, act, whatever it is, and sticking with it is more important in the long term than attempting to be able to do everything – this after much effort on my part to do a few too many things at once! And, on a similar note, I would also add that it’s important to be as objective as possible about the music you are producing – it’s easy to get caught up in one’s own mind or habits, and I believe that it’s very important to constantly re-evaluate why you are making music and let that inform what you do.
Thanks for your inspiring responses, Andrew! Lot’s of great advice there. We’re fortunate that you play in Seattle so often.