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Careers in the right beat: US jazz musicians' typical and non‐typical trajectories

Charles Kirschbaum (Centro Universitario da FEI, São Paolo, Brazil)

Career Development International

ISSN: 1362-0436

Article publication date: 3 April 2007




Recent research has shed light on career trajectories outside enclosed organizations and linked individual careers to career fields. This article seeks to explore how individuals' trajectories are affected by structural changes in career fields.


By exploring several jazz musicians' biographies, a typical trajectory is built. In contrast with this typical trajectory, alternative successful trajectories are investigated.


The typical trajectory entails a successful introduction of a musician into a field, followed by increasing recognition among peers at jam sessions, stream of engagements and among critics. Consecration of one's public persona occurs in tandem with the institutionalization of one's personal style. These higher levels of “symbolic capital” grant continuous streams of engagements, which in turn are translated into higher levels of economic capital. As a musician achieves a dominant position in a field, inertial forces typecast him, impeding innovation, which leaves room for upcoming younger artists. This model is contrasted with deviant careers that proved to be successful due to structural changes in the field. As the legitimacy sources were no longer tightly coupled, musicians were able to undertake choices not prescribed by successful predecessors. The way individuals behave when facing field uncertainty reveals the enduring values underlying the employment and conversion of resources.

Research limitations/implications

This research is based on qualitative research on jazz musicians' bios. Future research might further explore interpretative schemata applied by musicians facing career choices.

Practical implications

Practitioners might find controversial and conflictive sources of legitimacy opportunities for taking up alternative career paths. Conversely, structural changes might help analysts to assess endurable patterns of individual strategic choices.


The logics of jazz musicians' trajectories are assumed to be analogous to other industry careers. This analogy adds value to the study of careers in two ways: first, it contributes to understanding career patterns outside formal organizations; and second, it permits a multi‐level analysis, where both individual trajectories and the field dynamics are interwoven.



Kirschbaum, C. (2007), "Careers in the right beat: US jazz musicians' typical and non‐typical trajectories", Career Development International, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 187-201.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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