Boxoffice Insider: A New Era Of Jazz Innovators & Smooth Operators On The Road

Esperanza Spalding
Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images
– Esperanza Spalding
Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding’s live career continues to flourish.

Jazz is often called America’s music, the country’s original art form with roots that stretch back for more than a century. Through the years, it morphed into numerous musical directions with influences from cultures far and wide as it spanned the world. The mere mention of jazz evokes legends from past eras: Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday among many other greats. In today’s scene new names are staking out a claim for their own jazz glory.
One of the contemporary artists responsible for ushering in a new revival in the jazz world is saxophonist Kamasi Washington. The Los Angeles native landed on Pollstar’s box office charts in 2018 while touring North American theaters in support of Heaven And Earth, his sophomore album that debuted in June. He averaged 1,144 sold seats per show during a fall run in October and November that included performances at The Warfield in San Francisco, Chicago’s Riviera Theatre and Franklin Music Hall (formerly the Electric Factory) in Philadelphia.
Although Washington only released his major label debut The Epic just over three years ago (an album infamously denied a Grammy nom in what many considered a glaring oversight), he has been a presence in the L.A. jazz scene since the early 2000s, associated musically with such names as Flying Lotus, Run The Jewels and Kendrick Lamar.  

Kamasi Washington
Grant Lamos IV / Getty Images
– Kamasi Washington
Kamasi Washington, who is set to kick off his 2019 touring schedule at New York City’s Apollo Theater on Feb. 23, photographed in New York City on Aug. 25, 2015.
Washington is set to kick off his 2019 touring schedule with a headlining turn at New York City’s Apollo Theater on Feb. 23, followed by a string of dates in both Europe and South America in March.
One of the brightest stars in the genre is bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who scored the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2011, the first jazz artist to win the award. Since her first concert reported to Pollstar – an April 2007 event at Scott Recital Hall in Omaha, Neb. – she has racked up $3.7 million from 93,355 sold tickets at 122 headlining dates. Her top-grossing engagement on record is a two-night stint at the Apollo Theater in October 2012 with 2,620 sold seats and $138,912 earned.
Jazz is a genre that seems at home in the club environment, perhaps more so than most, based on a glance at typical box office reporting. Most of Spalding’s concerts have been set in smaller venues in North American markets. Her average attendance per show is 826 according to box office data from her 122 reported concerts.
Among the jazz artists who most often impact the Pollstar box office charts are well-known performers who fall in the jazz-pop, smooth jazz or crossover categories such as Harry Connick Jr., Norah Jones, Dave Koz and Diana Krall, generally with theatre tours.
Connick, a New Orleans native long known for his traditional pop/jazz/big band style, was on the road in U.S. markets during 2018 with shows booked in both the summer and fall. He averaged 2,740 sold tickets per show with an average gross of $237,923, based on 22 headlining concerts that were reported, generally the same ballpark for Connick during the past two decades.
Since the beginning of 1999, he has had 542 concerts reported to Pollstar, averaging 3,024 in attendance per show and an average gross of $170,937. Gross averages were higher for him last year than in his earlier years, but as with all long-term touring artists, variances in ticket pricing affects those averages. In 2018, Connick’s top ticket prices generally landed well over $100, yet in 1999 the ticket scale ranged from a $25 low up to about $50.
Norah Jones’ touring in 2018 included appearances at jazz festivals as well as headlining events in Europe during the spring and summer and a string of North American events in the fall. Her performances in 2018 highlighted music from her most recent studio album, 2016’s Day Breaks, as well as her award-winning catalogue. Drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christopher Thomas both supported her solo dates during the year. Box office reports for Jones last year show an average of 2,021 sold seats per show with a gross averaging just over $138,000.
Saxophonist Dave Koz is a staple on the road during the holiday season with his Dave Koz & Friends: A Smooth Jazz Christmas tour that began in 1997. Last year was the 21st edition of the annual trek and included Mindi Abair, Jonathan Butler, Keiko Matsui and newcomer Sheléa on the bill. One of the artist’s higher 2018 tour grosses was $143,229 from a Nov. 30 performance at Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. With 2,171 fans present, the Koz performance hit 82 percent capacity.
Diana Krall performed in 2018 in North and South American cities as part of her Turn Up the Quiet tour that began in the summer of 2017 and also included a trek in Europe that fall. Last year she averaged 1,962 sold seats per show with grosses topping $167 million on average from theater dates primarily in the U.S. Her top gross reported in North America, came at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville on Feb. 13-14 with a combined $329,960 earned from 3,395 tickets sold.