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Pandemic Entrepreneurship for Jazz Musicians

Seven keys to retooling careers in the age of the coronavirus

Ulysses Owens Jr.
Ulysses Owens Jr. (photo: Rayon Richards)

“The thing about the blues is it puts a groove on a bad situation.” —Wynton Marsalis

We can all agree that we are living in a moment in time that none of us have experienced before and that many of us never imagined. Living in a pandemic that has shut down the entire economy is not something that has occurred in the U.S.A. since 1918, when our nation experienced the so-called “Spanish flu.” With all of our technology and social media, all of the advances we’ve made leading up to 2020, nothing could have prepared us for the coronavirus. However, during these trying times, jazz musicians and creatives who have been affected by this pandemic must now think differently and develop tools to navigate unusual terrain.

First, I have to acknowledge the loss of some great pioneers within the jazz community and beyond like Ellis Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Lee Konitz, Bucky Pizzarelli, Henry Grimes, Bootsie Barnes, and so many others, unfortunately. As we are grieving the sudden loss, we are also lamenting the complete absence of work and the ability to cultivate a livelihood through our music, temporarily.

The first major tragedy that I lived through in New York City was September 11, 2001. I had been a New York resident for a mere three weeks, a new student at the Juilliard School as part of their inaugural jazz class. However, though the city and the world were affected by the terrorists’ attacks—traveling did become more difficult, and more security precautions were put in place—this did not eliminate our music and creative industry at large or our ability to make a living. We could still actively be jazz musicians and share our talent with the world.

The COVID-19 crisis has temporarily shattered our industry, as well as others like Broadway and virtually any performance art that relies on a large public audience. We are now limited to operating and consuming products from “essential” businesses and entities.

This pandemic has taught me so much. It has made me completely retool my approach to being a jazz musician and creative in society. Looking at how many of the economic stimulus and relief packages within the country don’t include any support for artistic entities, venues, artisans, or organizations is truly eye-opening. However, even though most creatives have been left out, I am a believer that when difficult times arise, we must create a new way and write a new script to adhere to.

An entrepreneur, angel investor, and friend of mine, James Harris, recently penned an article for Medium titled “The Rise of the Pandemic Entrepreneurs.” In it, he challenges entrepreneurs to think differently during this time. He also created the terms “Pandemic Entrepreneurship” and “Pan-Entrepreneur,” which define a person who organizes a business that takes on greater than normal financial risks during a pandemic.

Most musicians and creatives are entrepreneurs by design, given the level of risk we take daily to follow our passion for the arts and create a career from it. We are a business, and the most successful artists have mastered certain business principles to create sustainability and success with their craft.

Below I’ve created a list of what I call “7 Keys to Pan-Entrepreneurship for Jazz Musicians,” but it’s really for all creatives. These keys are things we need to consider as we find new ways to make a living while continuing to build our careers in the face of this crisis.

7 KEYS TO PANDEMIC ENTREPRENEURSHIP FOR JAZZ MUSICIANS

1. Make Music with A Purpose
For the artist, music is always essential, but for our audiences, I think we have to figure out how to create a more essential theme and connection to the world. Gone are the days of art for art’s sake, at least for the moment. It’s important for us to use our music to connect and heal, and not just create something that is personally gratifying.

2. Create Music Based in Reality
Much of our focus now must be on fully acknowledging our new reality. Is our music going to create a temporary escape from that reality, or help others to deal with it creatively?

3. Embrace and Accept the Virtual World
Because of the high risk of contracting the virus, Zoom meetings are the new normal, and online learning, even for brick-and-mortar institutions, is the primary teaching mode for at least another year, or until a vaccine is in place. As artists, we are not used to teaching and working virtually because so much of the power of our craft is experienced best in person. However, COVID-19 is making all of us focus on how to become more interactive and create an impactful virtual approach to our music and pedagogy—and as we’ve seen, many artists are inviting audiences into their homes and studios to keep them engaged.

4. Learn How to Pivot Creatively
This might be a moment for some to make use of skills they have in other industries to garner work. I have personally been working for a business and earning income assisting them, and it’s not a job that has any connection to music. However, it’s allowing me to make money so that in my off time I can continue to create art without the stress of lacking income.

5. Guard Your Mental Health
Even for those who aren’t directly affected by COVID-19, the level of death and trauma we are experiencing globally will require lots of therapy. Losing so many people in such a short period of time is incredibly unnatural and difficult for the human mind to comprehend. I found it challenging myself to get out of bed when I had no work, meetings, or anything artistic to look forward to. We must make sure we check our mental state daily because the stress of what’s happening now is serious—which is why it’s important that, in the midst of social distancing, we don’t lose our overall connection with others. Whether you connect with someone via Zoom, texts, FaceTime, phone calls, etc., it’s important to interact with those you love, even if it can’t be in person.

6. Develop a Pan-Entrepreneurial Mindset
Though I am not able to engage artistically in the ways that I used to, there are many other things that are now possible. Everyone in the entire world is home, so I’ve been using this opportunity to gain knowledge and insight from others about this new season, and using the quiet time to learn and acquire new skills that will be helpful to me as an educator, writer, and musician when activities resume. I used to lament often while touring that if I had more time, there’s so much I would do just to perfect my craft. Well, now I have the time. The mind is the most powerful tool anyone has, especially the creative, and I believe it’s time to spend more time flexing that muscle.

This new mindset will allow us to adapt to the new principles listed above and create a new path. It also means that, by accepting this new reality, we can find new entrepreneurial ways to thrive. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention; much of what we consider standard in society arrived at the beginning of a situation that caused us to change.

7. Adjust to Our New Normal
Many people are saying that they can’t wait to go back to a “normal” life. I believe that we are now so far from the “normal” life that we were accustomed to that what was once considered normal is no more. So let’s create a “new normal.” Let’s be anxious for nothing, and exercise patience as we wait on things to unfold in a positive direction.

As one of my favorite artists, H.E.R., sings, “I’m not okay,” and it’s okay to not be okay. We have to adjust to our new normal at our own pace, so give yourself permission to not be fine for a while. Embrace whatever season you are in during this time. But don’t remain in that negative space.

Wynton Marsalis has a weekly online series via Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he addresses issues with a large body of viewers. One particular week he addressed COVID-19 and offered some advice for jazz musicians and others watching. A few things he said stick with me:

“Reach for community.”

“Create your community based on your interests and concerns, not based on geography.”

“Give yourself a break from reality.”

“The blues is survival music.”

Every time I speak with friends and colleagues who are musicians, presenters, agents, managers, etc., we all collectively agree that we don’t know when this will end and when our chance to create again will begin. However, what has allowed me to keep my sanity is the fact that we are all united and fighting the same enemy.

People will always need to experience live music; therefore, we will always have a job. I have always been a person of faith, and just like many other tumultuous situations in life that I have been through, and that you have been through as well, we will get through this. That’s why Pandemic Entrepreneurship, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, is the way to survival that will sustain us until we are able to fully thrive again.

Originally Published

Ulysses Owens Jr.

Ulysses Owens Jr. is a drummer, composer, educator, author, and blogger. His most recent album is Songs of Freedom, released by Resilience Music Alliance in 2019. His book Jazz Brushes for the Modern Drummer: An Essential Guide to the Art of Timekeeping was published in May 2020 by Hal Leonard and will soon be followed by two more: Musings (Amazon, Fall 2020) and The Career Guide for Musicians: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success (Skyhorse/Simon & Schuster, January 2021).