Music For Tomorrow aims to sustain the creative economy by enabling job stability for jazz musicians across the country. MFT’s innovative platform gives people access to jazz music by booking musicians online within any budget for informal and formal occasions alike. MFT connects listeners to the musicians themselves, forging a relationship built on the common interest and understanding of what jazz and its extraordinary culture has to offer.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: How did you get involved with Music For Tomorrow?
LAUREN HENDERSON: Shortly after I released my debut album, Music For Tomorrow reached out to me about joining their website. Immediately after visiting the website, I was enthusiastic about their mission and all they are doing to help musicians and the community. I signed up quickly and was fortunate enough to develop great relationships with the Music For Tomorrow team.
JON BATISTE: I was a speaker on a conference called the Summit Series, and I met one of the co-founders. He asked me if I would help out with the organization and to sign-up to give the organization a little bit more clout and prestige since they would then have a New Orleans musician who’s along on the path of having a career to endorse it.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: Has Music For Tomorrow helped you and given you exposure?
LAUREN HENDERSON: I am incredibly grateful to Music For Tomorrow. I can honestly say that they are responsible for at least 50% of my performances and gigs, doubling my schedule. I have made some excellent connections through their booking service and had nothing but wonderful and professional experiences with their clientele. I have encouraged a lot of my friends and fellow musicians to join the site as I think musicians can only benefit from joining the organization. Without Music For Tomorrow, I would have missed out on some incredible performance experiences, exposure, connections and opportunities to collaborate with some of my favorite artists. The Music For Tomorrow team are so supportive and inspiring. Their team, along with my family and friends, have kept me positive, optimistic, and ambitious about my career as a musician.
JON BATISTE: I haven’t really done any gigs through Music For Tomorrow, but I do support them because I love what they’re doing. I think MFT is a great part of the movement of people who keep music and live performance alive. I do anything I can do to help them out. I have a lot of people who know a lot of things they can do to help and create a space in popular culture where the arts and jazz in particular can thrive. I’m from New Orleans, and I understand how tough it can be for a musician to make a living sometimes.
ANTHONY DEFEO: Our musicians love us because we’re helping them find meaningful work. People who use us really get what we’re about. While we don’t really have any competitors, it’s not a Gigmasters that is for-profit and needs to pay a staff. No one at MFT is getting paid, except for the musicians. 100% of revenue goes to the musicians. The money that we do make (from fundraisers), once we cover operational costs that are basically web hosting, goes directly back into New Orleans.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: How did the idea come about?
ANTHONY DEFEO: The past executive director, who is a very interesting character, started the charity. I learned from him, and he’s been a huge influence on me. I was laying on the beach in Miami one day, where I was the event coordinator for throwing parties for MFT, and he called me to say, “You’re going to be the next Executive Director.” And I said, “Absolutely not.” He told me to think about it and call him back. After a while, I realized that I really wanted to do it and I didn’t want to let the organization down. So in the beginning we took baby steps and we just kept building.
What I’m doing now is building teams in different cities. Last year we said we were going to do fifty gigs, and we did, and this year we’re aiming to do a hundred. We have about four thousand people on our mailing list too. We also do private events in people’s homes all across the country that helps spread awareness. We have a full marketing team, a full PR team, and a full technology team.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: And everybody is a volunteer?
ANTHONY DEFEO: Yep! It’s like twenty people, all volunteers, all around age thirty or below, and people who just love music and helping people.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: Is everyone a big jazz fan?
ANTHONY DEFEO: Actually, no! Some of our staff isn’t even into music — they just love helping people and musicians.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: What’s your take on the philanthropy scene for musicians? How has the New Orleans scene
changed since Katrina, a point that Music For Tomorrow emphasizes as its starting point for the need to get involved?
ANTHONY DEFEO: Yes, we were formed after Katrina; we did a big concert with American Express, and we said, “How can we help musicians?” So we started by raising money in different cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, New York, the Hamptons, New Orleans. Then we took another step back and said, “How can we make this non-profit more sustainable? How can we help more musicians simultaneously?”
We came up with this jobs program, musicfortomorrow.org, and the concept is basically Priceline.com for jazz musicians: name your own price, specify what you need, and you can book a band. You just put a date, time, and what genre you’re looking for, and when the musicians sign up they specify what type of gig they’re interested in.
JON BATISTE: After Katrina, the scene changed in that a lot of places weren’t active anymore and new places popped up, and a lot of the older musicians weren’t there anymore and new faces came in. It’s like evolution: things changed after being the same for a very long time. Anything that helps people find their footing after something like Katrina is great, which is why I liked Music For Tomorrow. But jazz has come back—it’s had a rejuvenation period — and there’s been a national interest in New Orleans because of the things that happened with Katrina.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: Do you think that charity that veers on the commercial is crossing party lines?
ANTHONY DEFEO: I don’t. I think we’re helping the genre to develop because it’s based on the blues. Love and heartbreak are constant themes in the music. I think that the exposure under the spotlight of popular culture is a good thing for the genre, giving new life and motivation to young and upcoming artists. It doesn’t dilute the music, it revives it as it continues to evolve as it always has and will.
A lot of people don’t know about New Orleans and its relationship to jazz, and they just associate the city with wanting to get drunk on Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, and New Orleans jazz culture is really something else. Guys like Irvin Mayfield and Winton Marsalis and Second Life — a lot of people, even in New York, don’t know about that. We hired some cool brass bands to do some commercial events for us, and you can actually find them on our site. You just don’t get that anywhere.
Starting this summer, we began a monthly event at a place called EVR (Ever). It’s a lounge on 39th and Sixth Avenue, a new place looking to try something different and bringing together a new clientele with live music. And we’ve partnered with them to book a different band every week.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: Jazz is perceived as an old-timey genre. Like classical music, it’s associated with an older demographic. What are the challenges of engaging a younger constituency? Who supports jazz these days, and are there any ideas about where you think jazz is going?
Lauren Henderson: Amazing people with excellent taste support jazz. I think people of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life support jazz. Hopefully it becomes more and more popular as people are educated and exposed to the art form. I have heard a lot of great fusion coming about. Perhaps a wider cast of fusion is what is on the rise.
JON BATISTE: It starts in the education. If you’re not taught about the arts, you’re not really brought to an understanding of what the arts offer and what it’s all about, where it comes from and why you should know about it. If you don’t have any understanding of that, then you don’t have a chance to ever develop a taste for it. It’s not gonna be in the mainstream or the popular culture for you to be exposed to. And it’s not that people don’t care about it. I think that a lot of the time young people just don’t know about it because it’s not really a part of what they’re brought up being exposed to.
I studied music in college, I went to Julliard, and I went to a few schools before then in New Orleans, but even before that I was exposed to jazz. I am from a large musical family and music had been a part of my life, listening to it and working in it since I was very young. Even not playing, just being around it with my family.
ANTHONY DEFEO: A lot of people don’t appreciate it, but there’s a lot we can learn from jazz — it has a longer history than we realize. It is, if not, more American than baseball, so we’re hoping to restore the great American art form.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: When I first learned that jazz began after the Civil War, when the out-of-work soldiers congregated in New Orleans and melted their weapons down into instruments, I realized that it was artisanal, the epitome of DYI, especially because it came out of this very painful situation.
ANTHONY DEFEO: Totally, and jazz struggles with that. It used to be this forbidden fruit, and now it’s evolved to another time. I take it for what it is and the art form will always sustain itself—bigger and better in this sense.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: What’s the state of jazz today? What do you think people are interested in?
JON BATISTE: Well, it’s hard to make a living playing an instrument in a culture where there’s not really as much of a place for it as there used to be. A lot of people listen to popular music, and they don’t use instruments as much as they do synthesizers or machines. So it’s hard to find work and make a living playing without having to do something else.
LAUREN HENDERSON: I think the jazz scene has seen various twists and turns and will continue to face new challenges and obstacles. Like anything, there are beautiful aspects along with there being room for improvement. I have developed some of my strongest and most meaningful relationships within the jazz community. In general, I have experienced a decent amount of support and encouragement. I have also experienced some disappointing situations where musicians have been taken advantage of, under-compensated, and treated inappropriately. With all of the social, financial, and personal challenges musicians face in the community, it is extremely helpful to have an outlet like Music For Tomorrow that does their best to understand musicians, support musicians and protect them.
ANTHONY DEFEO: There’s always nostalgia for the past. Even though the older demographic is dying out, there’s a lot of innovative, young and, exciting talent out there, like Christian Scott, Jean Batiste, who Larry Fink was talking to on set, and they were saying you just gotta stay at it [music] as a craft.
Even while we were waiting in the studio, the renown image maker Larry Fink [the photographer of this article] just sits down at the piano and starts going off, and then whips out the harmonica and starts playing blues. I didn’t know he was such an accomplished musician, so I asked him about it. He’s never studied or gone to school for music in his life, but he taught himself how to play the piano from listening. Same thing with the harmonica and the same thing with photography. And that’s like a lot of jazz musicians, and it shows the parallels between how Fink shoots and jazz music. There’s a lot of improvisation in both — it’s like swinging photography, ha!
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: So you have a range of musicians and styles on the site. Have you found that people have scoped them out beforehand?
ANTHONY DEFEO: That’s the beauty of our site — musicians put their Spotify, YouTube, and anything like that on their About Me page so you can see the bands, hear the bands, read user testimonials and look up upcoming gigs so you can see them beforehand.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: It’s funny that you call it the Priceline.com of jazz. I feel like it’s more like OkCupid!
ANTHONY DEFEO: Right! It’s a matchmaking service.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: What would be your advice to younger musicians who want to make it?
JON BATISTE: The best advice that you can give is to have faith, trust God, keep working and be yourself!