A tale of reluctant success
In the eyes of most Americans, Boise, Idaho seems to represent the very epicenter of rural blandness – like the community was never meant to be anything more than the punch line to a David Letterman monologue.
For noted jazz musician Curtis Stigers, the Idaho capital is something a little bit more important. Stigers grew up in Boise, and after two decades in the hustle-bustle world of the New York jazz scene, recently moved back to the Potato State. But don’t take it as any sign of Stiger’s retirement from the business.
“There were a number of things that went into our move, especially the fact that I have a three-and-a-half year old daughter,” Stigers says. “My wife and I had lived in New York a combined total of 36 years, but we’d spent the last eight or nine years in the suburbs. It was a lot of fun to live in New York City itself, but once you move out, you just can’t go back. Besides, I’m a skier and a mountain biker and I wanted my daughter to grow up in that kind of environment.”
Stigers, whose reputation as a triple-threat jazz musician – a talented sax player, a glowing vocalist and a busy songwriter – has made him one of the hottest jazz talents of the past 10 years, says that relocating to the Northwest serves him fine. And with a new CD (“You Inspire Me,” a collection of covers of material by Lennon and McCartney, Joe Jackson, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan) set for release next month, Stigers says he’s happy to continue to build his reputation with a few more shows on the West Coast than he’s been able to do in the past.
“Really, I’ve always traveled a lot anyway and I probably only had 10 paying gigs in New York when I lived there. Now it’s just a different plane ticket to get to shows – and I’m actually saving $100 each way because everybody here wants to give you a ride to the airport, instead of having to worry about cabs and such. I kind of like the shift from east to west, too S I’m looking forward to getting to Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle more.”
Stigers first emerged on the national music scene in the early 1990s with a couple of best-selling jazz-rock albums. He’s probably best known for his cover of Elvis Costello’s “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding” (itself a Nick Lowe tune), featured on the 30 million selling soundtrack to “The Bodyguard.” But while the success of that track and his first CD could have put him on the track to pop stardom, Stigers says he wasn’t happy with the direction his career was heading and decided to put on the brakes.
“I really spent the second half of the 1990s destroying my career and I’ve mostly had to start from the beginning, all over again. I’d had that first hit record and I was ready to move on to a second album, but it really wasn’t what I wanted. I could have had the career of tour buses and gigs opening up for Elton John, but I really wanted to be able to do what I wanted and not what the business said I should do.”
Stigers spent several years in self-appointed jazz limbo, playing festivals in Europe. He worked to release his final Arista album, “Brighter Days,” and while it featured Jackson Browne and the songwriting talents of Carole King and Jules Shear, Stigers says only his mother and about eight other people ever bought the record – and his mom got her copy for free.
Eventually, he was able to get the attention of jazz imprint Concord Records and land a deal that would allow him to focus more heavily on straight-ahead jazz. His first release was 2001’s “Baby Plays Around,” a collection of standards that he’d actually recorded for his old label in 1996 but they’d never felt like issuing themselves. His subsequent work, including his new CD, has brought him closer to his truer aspirations, although he admits that making it as a jazz player will never be easy.
“The fact of the matter is that the jazz business has always been bad. We’ve always been the red-headed stepchild of the music business, since the days in the 1940s when people stopped dancing to jazz. Musicians have to make their money on the road and playing festivals, and to that end, the expectations are lower – you’re just not expected to become rich and successful as a jazz player, except maybe when you’re dead. Even the record companies have tried really hard to turn jazz into a dead language, even though there’s plenty of great talent out there like Kurt Elling.”
Stigers says he’s happy to see the success of neo-jazz vocalist Norah Jones, who’s helped bring some attention back to the jazz world, although he’s aware of the behind-the-scenes moves in the record business that helped make her a household name.
“It’s hard to tell. I don’t think Norah Jones would have popped up if the taste-makers hadn’t jumped on her CD – I started hearing her CD on jazz stations two months before it was released. Now, unfortunately, I bet you’ll see 50 Norah Jones clones releasing CDs. At least she was original, even if she didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, and she was perfect for all those people who never buy anything but reissues of their old Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt albums.”
Stigers says he feels the same pressures but hopes that he’ll be able to achieve success his own way.
“I have to be realistic about it. Am I going to be successful because some schmuck in an office in Omaha has decided I will be? I hope not. You just do what you do and hopefully it works for you S you keep trying.”