Tucked away in a basement bar in San Francisco, a crowd watches Aspen Jordan, silent and still, perched on a barstool on a stage near enough to the audience that they can touch its edge. Then the swish of a cymbal and the plunk of an upright bass vibrate through the room. Jordan adds her voice to the mix, and the crowd becomes transfixed. Her tones are effortlessly silky, classically entrancing, as she sings “The Masquerade Is Over.” The song, written in 1938, was made popular by jazz greats like Etta James and Nancy Wilson. Now Jordan, 26, is putting her own mark on it.
By day, Jordan works an office job in San Francisco to pay the bills. By night, she is living her career as a jazz singer and songwriter. Job and career, she explains, are two different things.
Musical “mentors”: Etta James, Princess Jasmine, and Betty Rizzo
Before she starts work in the morning, Jordan makes coffee and slips on her headphones. She has to get this listening time in before she goes to the office. “I can’t listen to music in the background [at work],” she says. “I get too distracted. I always listen too intently to the lyrics. Lyrics are the thing that makes music important to me. There is so much thought and care that goes into the precision of lyrics in jazz music that isn’t necessarily there in other genres.”
What’s on the playlist? Etta James, Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington … they’ve shaped the history of jazz; they’re Jordan’s musical “mentors;” and they all reach out to her through the headphones.
But her earliest inspirations were animated singers, like Princess Jasmine from “Aladdin” and Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog.” “I know every Disney princess song by heart,” Jordan says. “My mom was a singer, and we were always singing together.” A favorite memory: mother-daughter singalongs while driving around her hometown of Seattle.
From those childhood days, Jordan knew she wanted to be a singer, but she didn’t start with jazz right away. She began her vocal career by performing in musical theater productions with Broadway Bound, a children’s theater in Seattle. Some of her favorite roles were Betty Rizzo in “Grease” and Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls.”
But jazz had a growing appeal to Jordan as she got older — and lived through more gray and rainy Seattle days. She was drawn to the aesthetic, the look, the feel, and the emotion of it, along with the history and the other female musicians that paved the way. She first sang jazz at age 13 with her middle school jazz band, and she went on to join her high school jazz choir at Garfield High School, where heads started to turn as she sang. Thoughts of being the next Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, or any other pop music diva disappeared — she was stuck on jazz. “When people have an emotional response to your music,” she says, “it makes it hard to stop.”
“When people have an emotional response to your music, it makes it hard to stop.”Tweet
— Aspen Jordan
To New York and back
Jordan graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with a degree in literary studies. She then packed up and moved to New York City to sing full time. She composed songs and went out on performance tours, in addition to singing gigs in the city. “To have it be lucrative,” she says, “you have to be playing all the time. You’re constantly in a different place and almost never in your own bed. It just didn’t work for me.”
And she couldn’t just focus on her singing. She also had to focus on running the tours: keeping checklists for equipment and sheet music, pulling together contracts, scraping together rent. When she had a bad rehearsal or an audience that didn’t care, she found the disappointment hard to shake off.
Jordan decided to move back West. “I love the laid-back vibe here in San Francisco, with its art scene, the history of Fillmore Street, all the jazz cats that have been here for decades,” she says. “It’s just my kinda town.”
But like New York City, San Francisco isn’t known for its affordability. Jordan wants to be an artist on her own terms, so that means supporting herself financially as a receptionist at a finance firm. She lets the day job feed her in a literal sense, but “I sing jazz because it feeds my soul,” she says.
“I sing jazz because it feeds my soul.”Tweet
— Aspen Jordan
Not quite a starving artist
Her day job brings in a steady paycheck, but Jordan has a particular financial code that she follows to support her career ambitions in jazz music.
Pay for the things that are important to you, and cut down on the things that aren’t. Jordan wouldn’t say she’ll never drink a $7 latte again, but she does have to budget for things that other young professionals in San Francisco don’t. She buys or rents equipment such as amplifiers and microphones, music stands, and sheet music. She also has essentially two wardrobes: her work looks and her jazz looks, so she budgets a lot of money for clothes. “Before a set, it takes me at least an hour to pick out an outfit,” she says. Performing is about telling a story, and clothes are a part of that.
So what gets cut? You won’t find Jordan with a flashy car or decked-out apartment. “You can’t have it all,” she says, “Often, that means I’m with a brown bag lunch when everyone else is going out.”
Define yourself by your art, not your day job. When she meets new people, Jordan introduces herself as a jazz singer. This constant reminder, like a mantra, grounds her not only in the joys of being on stage, but also in the need to be financially lean. “Going out to happy hour with coworkers might seem like a normal thing for someone with my kind of day job to do, but as a jazz singer, I have other goals and responsibilities to work for,” she says.
Make a plan, and make the numbers work. Jordan keeps a monthly budget and tracks her weekly expenses. She isn’t apologetic about having a day job, and doesn’t think any creative should be if they have a commercial gig to pay the bills. “Financial success doesn’t mean selling out,” says Jordan. “It means opening up the space to feed your creative soul.”
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