In the context of jazz, the question posed above has a special significance. But that wasn’t what I was thinking of as I asked it to myself while scanning the crowd at Fort Adams during this year’s Newport Jazz Festival. What I was thinking of was the requirement that all festival attendees had to meet before being allowed through the gates: either proof of vaccination for COVID-19 or a negative test taken within the last 72 hours. I had followed this new rule—I’ve been fully vaccinated since April—and so, presumably, had every one of the thousands of people gathered at the fort. Here was living proof that it could be done, that enough music fans were willing to opt in so they could experience live jazz once again after a long, sad absence.
Questions logically followed: Now that both the Newport Jazz and the preceding Newport Folk Festivals had shown it could be done, would this be the wave of the future? Would the live music industry as a whole be in or out on vaccination requirements?
Over the two weeks (as I write this) that have elapsed since Newport, we seem to be seeing an answer. SFJAZZ in San Francisco has now adopted a similar rule for its events. So has the Blue Note in New York, as well as its sister clubs in the U.S. and four other countries. And so, most significantly, has the global concert-presenting behemoth AEG Worldwide. The inconvenience of getting vaccinated and/or tested has been weighed against the value of live music, and the latter is proving to be more important. As it should be.
Frankly, it’s a relief that these changes are taking place, as the music business’ only real alternative—living and dying, figuratively and literally speaking, by the varying whims of national and state regulators—is not a formula for safety or success. For musicians and venues and all those individuals and groups whose work revolves around them, 2020 was a deep blow on every level: financial, practical, and emotional. No one who’s made it through this far wants to return to that time.
And then, of course, there are all those who didn’t make it through. Wallace Roney. Lee Konitz. Ellis Marsalis. Charley Pride. Trini Lopez. John Prine. The painful list goes on and on. To voluntarily let back into our lives the disease that killed these artists would deny the gravity of our loss and be a dishonor to their memories.
So, for the moment at least, the music business appears to be doing the right thing. What remains to be seen is whether everyone who loves music will follow suit. And that brings me to my last question, a pointed variation on the one I asked myself at Newport: Are you in or out?