No Tipping Allowed: Mario Guarneri Is Betting on Jazz in the Neighborhoods

Jeff Kaliss on November 16, 2017
Mario Guarneri

There’s an advantage in starting out on your musical and moral paths early in life. Some 60 years ago, when he was in elementary school in Berkeley, Mario Guarneri found a horn, left by a cousin in a basement, and started picking out tunes on his own. His father, a barber by trade and a traditional jazz musician in his heart, encouraged this exploration, as did his mother, who’d made her debut as a concert pianist at the Claremont Hotel in 1932.

At about this same time, young Mario questioned his father, Fred, about the large sign posted in his College Avenue barbershop: No Tipping Allowed. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m a union member, I’m a professional, and I don’t need tips.’ I didn’t really come to understand that till I was in that situation myself.”

Guarneri had moved back to Northern California after a double major in trumpet performance and education at USC, a master’s at Juilliard, a stint playing classical, jazz, and studio gigs in New York, and a 13-year engagement with the Los Angeles Philharmonic while also teaching at UCLA and CalArts. He wanted to get back to jazz and, after setting up a casual gig in a bookstore venue near his home in Fairfax, he began by putting out a tip jar “just because it made the owner feel better.” Recollecting his father’s example, he realized “the whole idea of the tip jar was incredibly demeaning, and that we had to change the model.”

Guarneri got rid of the jar, started paying the band out of his own pocket, and four years ago founded the Jazz in the Neighborhood (JITN) organization, to advocate for better compensation and working conditions for jazz players. JITN will launch its new Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund for jazz musicians with a performance by the Grant Levin Trio at Bird & Beckett Books and Records in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood on Nov. 19.

The Grant Levin Trio in the Bird & Beckett bookstore:

Taking a break in a practice room at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he teaches Improvisational Techniques for [classical] Performers, and trumpet, Guarneri shows how the Fund will work. “First of all, it will be a guarantee, and it should be at least 150 bucks per musician for each show, and a little extra for the leader. So you don’t have to show up and see how many people are going to show and how much money will be left in the tip jar; you get the check before the gig. We’ll find venues that are already guaranteeing some money, and they’ll have to have certain qualifications: They have to be a place where people actually go to listen to the music (not just a live Muzak thing), they have to make a commitment to making the working conditions decent, and they have to advertise the show. Then they’ll pay 60 percent of what our scale is, and JITN will contribute a check for 40 percent. What they’ll get from us is our email list, our membership (350 members), and our Facebook presence, promoting them as, ‘these are the good guys, so support them, because they’re paying their musicians a guaranteed salary.’” Musicians and fans can apply for membership, essentially a supportive role, at the JITN website.

Over its first four years, JITN has lived up to its name by maintaining an itinerant series of gigs and providing its own guarantee to participating musicians. “There was one a month, then two, and by the end of this year, we’ll have maybe 140 events. We started different series in different places. Some worked, some didn’t. We did one at a Mill Valley church, a church in Berkeley, and we now have three venues that are consistent: the Piedmont Center for the Arts, San Francisco’s Community Music Center, and Copperfield’s Books [in San Rafael]. We do some one-offs, and we’re always looking for new venues.”

The Berp attached with the mouthpiece in place for buzzing

The JITN solicits donations at its gigs, “90 percent of which goes back to programming.” The organization also benefits from grants from Zellerbach and other sources. And a considerable portion of its expenses are met by proceeds from Guarneri’s invention, the brass extension and resistance piece, or Berp. The plastic device, designed by Guarneri with input from Santa Clarita mouthpiece maker Bob Reeves, is positioned onto the open end of a trumpet’s (or other brass instrument’s) mouthpiece receiver, with separate holes allowing the player to buzz either into the device, which offers adjustable air resistance, or into the instrument itself. “It’s a diagnostic tool,” its inventor explains, “and it lets you hear what the air in the embouchure is doing, before it gets into the instrument. It’s ear training, like a drummer playing pads. At first it was not making money, but now it’s doing better, enough to keep me from doing dumb gigs.” And it’s providing enough income to help support his mission with the JITN.

Guarneri demonstrates the Berp in the video below.

Guarneri has himself never much wanted for work and wages, partly because of his standing in both jazz and classical enterprises. By way of illustration, he says, “I could take my horn out now and give you a reasonable facsimile of the Mahler Five, and also play ‘Donna Lee,’” [a bebop standard composed by Miles Davis and recorded by Charlie “Bird” Parker].

While at Juilliard, Guarneri moonlighted at Latin clubs, subbed at Radio City Music Hall, and participated in jazz sessions. Before and during his tenure with the L.A. Philharmonic, he also performed with the orchestra’s brass quintet and jazz quintet and with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, started his own Guarneri Jazz Quartet, and was in demand at the studios, where he memorably provided the haunting trumpet solo (composed by Nino Rota) in the opening scenes of The Godfather Part III. He also started a group for contemporary music and commissioned and recorded music by Morton Subotnick (on the Nonesuch label).

Relocating north, Guarneri “got some extra work” at the San Francisco Opera, Symphony, and Ballet, before joining the Conservatory. At the same time, he re-formed his Guarneri Jazz Quartet, created another jazz group dubbed TBD (trumpet, bass, and drums), and, once he hit 65, was able to collect retirement money from both the L.A. Philharmonic and UCLA, as well as residuals from his work on some 300 films. “Bless the union for all those contracts,” he muses. After establishing his gig at the Fairfax bookstore, Guarneri “started to turn down extra jobs from the Opera and Symphony,” in order to focus on jazz.

“If you’re not in one of the big three orchestras up here — Ballet, Opera, Symphony — then I think it’s probably more difficult [for Bay Area classical musicians] than in L.A., where there’s always that chance you might get a call as a freelancer to do a movie for four days, which would make you a ton of money, relatively,” Guarneri points out. “In New York, I’d imagine it’s the same thing — there’s a whole bunch of shows.” He makes mention of the Neighborhood Performance Project, which follows “pretty much the same model” as JITN in presenting chamber music in neighborhood venues, but seems not to have committed to a parallel bettering of working conditions for independent classical players.

Mario Guarneri

Guarneri recounts a recent conversation with Dominique Pelletey, former executive director of the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music (SFFCM, recently rebranded as InterMusic) and now the business and development advisor to JITN. “It was about the difference between small group players: classical chamber players versus jazz players. And I said, ‘When I was in the L.A. Brass Quintet, we did concerts, we did records, we did a tour of Europe, and we rehearsed every week, sometimes two or three times a week. But we didn’t have to go out and play to make our art, we just prepared concerts and played them.’ Jazz players [by contrast] need to play all the time, that’s where the art happens, in the performance. If someone calls you and asks if you wanna play, you say, ‘Yeah!’ You don’t ask how much. But you might ask who’s playing bass.”

JITN received a grant from the SFFCM that will fund a concert in February 2018, at the Community Music Center, by three young musicians from JITN’s Emerging Artists program. “We also ask all the professionals on our roster, including those at schools, to recommend young people,” says Guarneri. “Those who have made it onto our list are guaranteed at least two appearances alongside professionals during the year. And we offer the musicians 100 bucks to coach them for an hour or two before their concert.”

The Bird & Beckett bookstore, which will host the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund benefit later this month, has advocated financial respect for musicians since owner Eric Whittington first started hosting live jazz there, in 1999. “Eric has been a great inspiration for my program,” says Guarneri, “because he’s been doing the right thing for a long time, even when he couldn’t afford it.” Whittington expanded his showcasing of jazz and other musics up from just Fridays to at least half-a-dozen offerings a week, and more recently has been able to offer performers a guarantee. To increase the amount to the $90 stipulated by the Fund “will be a stretch for me,” says Whittington, “but it’s a stretch I’m willing to make.

“And if I can step up, the audience can step up, and the philanthropists can step up, then there’s going to be higher quality music in the cafes and clubs and so on,” Whittington continues. “People have been trained to think that music is free, that the musicians are doing it for their [own] pleasure, that somehow they’ll be paid, and it’s nice to throw them a couple of bucks as a gesture. But it’s more than that. If you’re going out for an evening of food and drink, and you want to stop in and hear some music, you ought to put a pretty high priority on the musicians. Because they’re the most direct person-to-person exchange going on in your whole evening.” Whittington discussed the Fund with Grant Levin, the jazz pianist who’ll be leading the trio at the fundraiser, and found that “he’s very gratified to know that people are taking the income level seriously.”

A film about the Jazz in the Neighborhood mentoring program:

Guarneri is encouraged by the grassroots-level support he gets from many musicians and some venue owners, but he regrets the lack of support from high-profile movers and shakers. “The problem with institutions like Lincoln Center and SFJAZZ,” he believes, “is that, like the classical institutions, you go to the shrine, you hear the concerts (if you can afford them), and it’s a social occasion — and that’s it. There’s nothing underneath it, no foundation. I’ve talked to some institutions about guaranteeing money for performances, and people have gotten really pissed off at me for even bringing it up. But I realize it has nothing to do with me.”

It will be partly up to the leaders of jazz groups, Guarneri points out, to get the message of fair treatment out to venue owners. “I would never tell anyone not to take a gig,” no matter how inadequate the compensation, he says, “but I’m hoping there’s enough people out there who, if you give them the opportunity to do the right thing, will do it. And I think this is a model that could work anywhere.”