Like a lot of people right now, I’m grieving the loss of one of New York’s most popular jazz clubs, the Jazz Standard, which announced on December 2 that it would not be reopening in the basement location it had occupied for 23 years on East 27th Street, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and deadlocked rent negotiations with its landlord. Not only did I see many a great gig in that room, but my wife and I held our wedding rehearsal dinner in the restaurant upstairs (before it was taken over by Danny Meyer’s barbecue palace Blue Smoke).
And yet, as I scanned various social media in the days following this sad news, I realized that I wasn’t nearly as devastated by it as many of my friends and colleagues seemed to be. Lying underneath their expressions of mourning, I thought I detected an even deeper disappointment: that life wouldn’t be returning to the way it was before COVID.
Can I understand this? Absolutely. We all feel grief when someone or something we love dies. Still, it was clear by early summer that our world had crossed a major threshold in March, and that there would be no going back. Disappointment gets us nowhere. We have to move on.
What does this mean for jazz? As our Year in Review list shows, people sure didn’t stop making or releasing music in 2020. And today’s musicians have access to a tool more effective, arguably, than any other in history at getting that music into listeners’ ears: the internet. The devil, of course, is in the details, and matters of fair compensation and audience expectation must be addressed. But I have little doubt that they can be if we share a commitment to change and the willingness to do something jazz musicians know all about—improvising.
For example: The Jazz Standard may be gone, but the dedicated people who made it what it was haven’t suddenly disappeared. In a year or two, some or all of them—or others inspired by their work—may have the chance to create a new home for jazz. What do we want that home to look like? Sound like? Feel like? It’s not too early to start experimenting with answers to those questions. Building back better, to use a much-touted recent phrase, isn’t just possible; it’s necessary.