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50 YEARS

How Jazz Is Coping with COVID-19

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

The Village Vanguard
The Village Vanguard closed its doors due to the pandemic on March 16. Months later, they’re still closed to the public—but livestream weekend performances from the club started in June. (photo: Alwinian)

Faced with this grim present and future reality, artists are fighting tooth and nail. Not just to survive (though that’s no small part of it), but to make meaningful music and connect with people. Even, if circumstances permit, to keep doing so professionally.

Some are better positioned for this than others. Douglas, for example, still has some composing commissions on his docket. So does pianist Ethan Iverson, who’s developing a classical portfolio along with his jazz work.

Saxophonist Alexa Tarantino (whose tour with Cécile McLorin Salvant ended mid-soundcheck in Oakland) and pianist Steven Feifke are able to do some freelance sideperson work from their home in Harlem. “We have a home recording setup,” Feifke explains. “Not ideal, but it does the trick, and everybody’s making do with the situation.”

“Steven will record an accompaniment for a vocalist, and I’ll do things like horn parts,” Tarantino adds. “So it’s definitely on the lighter end, but it’s work, and both of us have been able to stay pretty productive.”

Pianist Dan Tepfer even managed, to his own happy surprise, to hold on to some gigs: “I had three solo concerts that I was supposed to [play], and they actually decided to still pay me for the gigs and have me livestream them from home. These were big institutions that have the means to do this, but even they were under no obligation, so I really appreciate that they did that. Even though I’ve lost a lot of work, so far those have really helped.”

Tepfer’s concerts are indicative of the major COVID-era trend: Jazz, like so much of life, has moved to the internet. Livestream concerts, prerecorded performances, interviews, and panel groups have exploded. Some are free and open to the public. Vocalist Melissa Walker is president of the Montclair, New Jersey-based educational organization Jazz House Kids, and has initiated (with her husband, bassist Christian McBride) a weekly listening session on social media that they film at their home—an extension of their well-known “listening parties” series, which is aimed at broader community outreach rather than at students.

Iverson, on the other hand, posts short videos to Twitter of his homespun arrangements of TV theme songs. “It’s absolutely a lark,” Iverson says. “We all know how bad it is, and we don’t need Ethan Iverson to tell us how serious things are out there. I think one of the purposes of jazz is to spread joy, raise a smile.”

Others are monetizing their streams. Tarantino and Feifke currently perform a themed “Quarantine Concert” every Sunday evening through an online crowdfunding platform, CrowdCast. Access to each concert costs an affordable $5, but they also offer a tiered sponsorship program that allows people to donate more (and receive added perks, including a personalized video for gold sponsors); donations go to the Jazz Foundation of America, whose COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund is helping players cover basic living expenses during the pandemic.

Pianist Fred Hersch at first gave daily “Tune of the Day” solo performances on Facebook Live. In May, however, he transitioned to recording weekly mini-concerts, which he made available through another online platform, Patreon, designed for paying members only. “Doing this gives me a reason to shower, gives me just a little bit of an anchor,” Hersch says. “And the comments that I get are just worth the price of gold … It’s kind of a win-win, I think.”

Saxophonist Brian Krock, who leads both the 18-piece Big Heart Machine and the quintet Liddle, is also building up a Patreon account, filling it with exclusive audio and video content. But where Hersch and Tarantino and Feifke still see their livestreams as short-term stopgaps, Krock is executing a longer-term strategy. He was inspired by drummer Dan Weiss, who already had a successful Patreon well before the novel coronavirus; the saxophonist sees a path to viability well after it.

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“The thing that’s a blessing and a curse about being a freelance musician is that you never feel very much security in your job,” Krock says. “I could never say for certain that this time next year I’ll have a source of income. You think, ‘This could all go under at any moment, so I need to be prepared and work twice as hard as I would in a normal job.’ And I’m very impressed with everybody’s ingenuity at this time. So I hope this will turn into a long-term thing.

“But I also hope this will just go back to normal, and soon. It’s been very hard for all of us.”

 

The artists aren’t the only ones taking jazz online. Academia’s turn toward distance learning naturally includes school jazz programs. Stephens has online sessions for both William Paterson University and Manhattan School of Music. Douglas is juggling three classes at the New School; bassist Linda Oh is teaching at Berklee by way of her Harlem apartment. Pianist Marcus Roberts is quarantining in Tallahassee, where he just finished his semester at Florida State University.

Melissa Walker and Jazz House Kids have a partnership to deliver the music program for a charter school in Montclair. They’ve kept on doing so under pandemic conditions, by way of Google Classroom. “We have an instructor in there each and every day of the week, delivering music to 80 students grades five through eight,” Walker says. “We’re really happy to see their commitment to delivering the arts.”

Venues are getting in on the action too, where they can. In May the Blue Note Jazz Club began sponsoring Blue Note at Home, a series of livestream concerts—two or three a day. For those with a larger appetite, they also created a Patreon that allows funders to access the video archive from the club’s 39-year history. The Jazz Gallery doesn’t have quite as ambitious an online offering, but it does curate a weekly summit called “The Lockdown Sessions,” in which four artists each prerecord a 15-minute session to be played back-to-back on Saturday evenings.

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Jazz at Lincoln Center has long been ahead of the curve in creating web content—and they’ve managed to continue with both education and performance. Its Swing U classes have gone entirely online and are held three times a week, as are master classes with various members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. They’ve also initiated a weekly program, The Well-Rounded Musician, hosted by Tarantino. Every Wednesday morning, a JALC performance from the institution’s massive archive is posted to their YouTube page; every Thursday evening, JALC’s Dizzy’s Club sponsors a livestream performance by an artist from their home. Everything is free.

“We have these 12 principles that Wynton [Marsalis, JALC’s managing and artistic director] wrote almost a decade ago,” says Todd Stoll, vice president for education. “One of them is provide everything for everyone, all the time. Regardless of your level of sophistication, provide access. Providing access many times can generate goodwill, revenue, whatever you want down the road. Positive outcomes that you can’t even imagine.”

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.