CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

How Jazz Is Coping with COVID-19

Musicians, institutions, club owners, and festival organizers try to carry on during the coronavirus lockdown

How jazz is coping with COVID-19
(Photo: Craig Morfitt)

As I write this, there are five cars driving in New York’s Columbus Circle.

It is a warm, clear evening in mid-May—and it’s rush hour. The very idea of such barrenness at this time, in one of the hotspots of midtown Manhattan, is absurd. Yet there it is, so quiet you can hear birds chirp, on my laptop screen. (I’m not in Columbus Circle either. I’m watching it from the safety of my living room, via the livecam that sits at the corner of Broadway and Eighth Avenue.)

This is New York in the COVID-19 pandemic: Quarantine is keeping eight million residents and uncountable would-be tourists at arm’s length. Stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders, as well as mandated business closures, are the rule everywhere; however, with New York devastated by COVID, the policies are particularly strict.

Mercifully, the trees that line the circle hide from online watchers what some of us, at least, see as the pandemic’s cruelest shuttering. Jazz at Lincoln Center, the world’s most important institution for the music’s performance, advocacy, and education, has been closed since March 12. Its three performance venues are dark; so are its lecture halls, offices, and public spaces. “Pausing those things was dramatic,” says Aaron Bisman, JALC’s director of brand, sales, and marketing. “We hated having to do it, but we had to.”

They’re not alone. Every jazz venue across the five boroughs, and across the rest of the country (if not the world), has shut down until further notice. This leaves the artists out of work.

“It’s months and months of cancellations,” says trumpeter Dave Douglas, taking stock of his calendar. “My bookings in October and November and December are still on the books as of now, but it’s hard to imagine they will be happening. And I’m one of the lucky ones. It’s so tragic for so many people.”

Douglas has a new album (Dizzy Atmosphere) to promote, which has become much harder. The same is true for saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who was forced to cancel a European tour in support of his trio recording Liberty. “A lot of us have projects that were aimed for this time period, and what do you do?” he says. “You put all this work into it and it’s hard to know what to do.”

Every live music venue of every kind is closed, of course; coronavirus doesn’t discriminate by genre. Jazz, however, while a worldwide music, is uniquely wedded to New York. It’s also uniquely wedded to live performance. Improvisation is its raison d’être—fans seek it out precisely because it will sound different every set. Artists need opportunities to work out their ideas in a live atmosphere, finding new ways to approach and expound on the same material.

Just as important, they need each other: people who speak the language and who can respond, in real time, to what their fellow artists say and do. “When I first fell in love with jazz, the conversation and interaction between musicians is what attracted me to the music,” says pianist Art Hirahara. “The first note that I play with a group of people after this is all over is going to be cathartic!”

There’s hope and determination in Hirahara’s words, and why not? Jazz is a survivor. It reached the peak of its popularity during some of the world’s darkest days, and it has endured through all the ups and downs that have come and gone since. It adapts. Even while they’re stuck at home, jazz musicians are exploring new ideas and resources for making music and reaching hungry audiences with it, just as they always have.

Still, there are also implied questions in the phrase “after this is all over.” When will that be? How will we get there? And what will the landscape look like when we do?

 

If it’s a tough time for Jazz at Lincoln Center, with its endowment and deep-pocketed donors, then it’s a disaster for New York’s smaller venues. One in Greenwich Village that all but embodies the small jazz club—it’s even named Smalls—is on life support, along with its sister club Mezzrow.

“Expenses are mounting,” says Spike Wilner, who owns both clubs. “I’ve been spending the last three, four weeks just trying to figure out what my options are. We’re under contract, and contracts stay, as my landlord told me the other day.”

Therein lies the problem. New York’s sky-high rental prices mean that merely maintaining the same address during the closures is a herculean task. Emergency loans and grants, like the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), are not as helpful as they seem.

“We have to spend 75 percent of our loan on payroll. The remaining money can be used toward rent and utilities,” explains Gianni Valenti, who owns the legendary Birdland Jazz Club (which last year celebrated its 70th birthday). “So while we’re closed, I have my entire staff on payroll, with no money coming in to use for rent, utilities, etc.”

Like Smalls, Birdland has a sister venue: Birdland Theater, a smaller room in the basement of the main club. Valenti is hoping to have better luck than Wilner in making a deal with his landlord. His concern, though, is that even after he’s able to reopen, audiences will be nervous. “I do not think that things will be the way they were, where folks come and have dinner, and converse with people and musicians the way they did in the past,” he says. “We’re gonna be quite restricted in the beginning, and it will loosen up as the months go on.”

It’s not only audiences who will be skittish about public gatherings. Stephens, who has a rare kidney disease, is immunocompromised as a result; even if some of his bookings survive, he won’t be rushing to fulfill them. “I personally won’t feel comfortable,” he says. “I’m very guarded about wanting to do anything in public at this point.”

“Can we survive? It’s tough to say,” Valenti says. “If people aren’t comfortable coming back in, how do I support a $50,000-a-week payroll between two clubs? I’ll have to lay them off again, or let some go and keep a skeleton staff. I’ve owned jazz clubs for 35 years, and I wonder what’s going to happen to me in six months.”

Wilner runs a nonprofit, the SmallsLIVE Foundation, part of whose mission is to subsidize Smalls and Mezzrow. It’s funded by tax-deductible donations; in April, none other than singer/songwriter Billy Joel donated $25,000 through his own foundation. Generous as he was, though, the realities of the market are that his gift only went so far. “There’s no free lunch,” Wilner says. “We’re in wait-and-see mode. I don’t know how long I can go before it becomes untenable for me to continue, and at that point I have to consider bankruptcy and just moving on. That might happen; I hope it won’t.”

These are only two venues out of hundreds in New York, which have varying degrees of stability and support. Yet Wilner’s and Valenti’s fears speak to a truth that few want to admit: Some of these clubs will surely be COVID casualties in their own right.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.