How to start a career in the jazz industry

“Take every opportunity you can” manchester jazz festival’s festival assistant, Ash Doherty, tells us how she landed a job at the city’s longest running music festival, and offers some great advice to those wanting to start a career in the jazz industry…

“I’m Ash; an Irish-born and Leeds-bred musician, artist manager and festival assistant. Most of my time at the minute is occupied playing keyboards and managing my band Mamilah, and working as manchester jazz festival’s festival assistant.

I, like many working in music and the creative community, seem to freak out when people ask me the seemingly harmless question – ‘what do you do’. From well meaning neighbours to nosy family members, the fumbled responses I’ve offered to this question do NOTHING to express the passion and determination that makes a job in the music industry a reality, or the endless possibilities of said career. I’d like to rectify my part to play in this mess and shed a little light onto what I do, and how I got here.

I’ve joked before that I didn’t choose jazz – jazz chose me (this Emma-Jean Thackray performance on Worldwide FM really supplements this mood, pop her on). I grew up in a beautiful area of North-West Ireland and loved anything musical, leading me to a degree in Pop Keyboards at Leeds College of Music, which was my first real introduction to jazz. Fast forward three years and I graduated with a degree, a nu-soul/ jazz band and not a clue. Uncertain of my next steps I decided to do basically anything I could find and could fit into waking hours.

I balanced a restaurant job with volunteering with MAP Charity, Oxjam Music Festival and at festivals and events. This was where I had my first introduction to manchester jazz festival in 2018, where I volunteered as an artist liaison and performed on the mjf introduces stage with Mamilah. Alongside this I ran a blog, hosted events and managed/ performed in a range of bands, learning loads about the music and jazz industry as I got more and more immersed in it. I went on to teach keyboards and host music workshops, all the while tipping the scales on a waitressing job with paid and unpaid music work.

When the pandemic hit I needed to re-evaluate, and luckily landed a job with Music:Leeds/ Launchpad as their communications and marketing coordinator. This, combined with my previous music and volunteering experience meant that when manchester jazz festival advertised for a festival assistant position in December 2020, I had the skills and experience required for the job!

And now we return to the ‘so….what do you do’ question, and I PROMISE to not spiral or run away. As simple as it sounds – my job is to support the small, central team at mjf; Steve Mead (Artistic Director & CEO), Helen Goodman (General Manager & Talent Development Associate), Angela Kirk (Communications Director) and Toby Rathbone (Production & Partnerships Manager). This means I work across all departments, from marketing to production, finance to admin, and that no day is ever the same.

A typical day could include everything from;

  • Creating graphics, editing videos and searching for our best digital assets;
  • Managing our online presence, social media and email accounts;
  • Creating and running marketing campaigns;
  • Gathering and paying weekly invoices;
  • Coordinating calendars and booking in meetings;
  • Liaising with the artists on our Talent Development Programmes;
  • Working with the team on event logistics, planning and programming;
  • Assisting in the delivery of events;
  • Meeting with other organisations, partners and the board;
  • Spreadsheets, spreadsheets and more spreadsheets;
  • Helping with funding applications;

and so much more!

What I love about the job is that every day offers something new. I am constantly learning new things; from blue-sky ideas to tiny nuts and bolts jobs. I have the space to explore the music and events industry from loads of different angles and within the framework of a team. I enjoy the space and agency to make an impact on a small team and industry. Personal highlights since starting the job have been our two live events at Escape to Freight Island and with HOMEground MCR, working on a new podcast series, modernising and streamlining some of our operational systems and meeting the artists and wider industry professionals associated with the festival. As I don’t have a clear career ‘end goal’ this job has been a really supportive way to explore the jazz sector and events industry.

Over the past few years, there are a few things that I have learned and lived by which I hope can offer something valuable to you:

  1. Take every opportunity you can, even if you don’t think it’s for you. You never know what will come out of doing something, whether that is a new connection, insight into another side of the industry or new skills.
  2. Keep an eye on what other people are doing but NEVER compare yourself. It’s really important to be up to date with what is going on in the wider industry BUT do not let this turn into jealousy or comparison to someone else’s journey. (Check out the ‘Say What You Will’ video with James Blake and Finneas for more of this mood!)
  3. Continue to reflect on what you want, and if what you are doing is getting you there. This is going to be a life-long journey. Have the courage and conviction to follow your gut and do what is right for you.
  4. BE NICE. This should be a rule of thumb for life, but seriously, just be genuinely nice to everyone you meet – ever (I mean it).
  5. Focus on what you CAN do rather than what you CAN’T. I hate playing at jam sessions – that doesn’t make me less of a keys player. I know way more about the new UK jazz wave than I do about Bebop – that doesn’t make my appreciation of jazz any less valuable. Being who you are is relevant and important so focus on what you bring to the table rather than what you think is lacking.

As a final parting point – remember that your journey won’t make sense all of the time. It will be confusing or unclear as to how all the puzzle pieces fall together, but I’m learning to trust that they do – and they will for you too!”

Ash Doherty
August 2021