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How Jazz Is Coping with COVID-19

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

A Jazz House Kids Zoom session with singers Dianne Reeves, Melissa Walker, Carmen Lundy, and Veronica Swift
A Jazz House Kids Zoom session with singers Dianne Reeves, Melissa Walker, Carmen Lundy, and Veronica Swift

Lockdown has also overlapped with jazz’s worldwide festival season. Most of 2020’s major fests have been canceled, but here too the web has been a kind of savior. The Montreux Jazz Festival digitized its massive archive of concert videos, streaming 50 of them online through the month of April. (The festival website promises to eventually host as many as 800 videos.) New Orleans radio station WWOZ created “Jazz Festing in Place,” two four-day weekends’ worth of live recordings from past editions of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Several other festivals, including the DC Jazz Festival and Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest, have tailored a narrower selection of concerts to stream.

However, at least two jazz festivals have gone forward, entirely online. Pianist Fabian Almazan owns his own record company, Biophilia, and had planned to host a 14-day festival of the environmentally conscious label’s artists at Jazz Gallery to coincide with Earth Day. Once that proved impossible, they moved to the web. Almazan figured out the technical component by “watching YouTube videos, having 10-year-olds explain to me how to do things.”

The other web-based festival was also an ambitious fundraiser for the jazz community. Vocalists Sirintip and Thana Alexa teamed with saxophonist Owen Broder to produce Live from Our Living Rooms, a seven-day program of free events—though viewers wer encouraged to donate to a GoFundMe that would be converted to need-based grants for artists in New York City. Each day featured a children’s performance, a master class, and two prime-time performances by major artists, including the three organizers but also such names as Bill Frisell, Chick Corea, Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano, and Almazan and Oh.

“They all donated their time and talent. A hundred percent,” Sirintip says. “We reached out to artists we knew personally in our circuit, and we were just overwhelmed by the artists who said yes.” Live from Our Living Rooms drew 22,000 unique accounts, logged over 140,000 views, and ultimately raised and awarded more than $56,000 in grants. It also forged what might be a longer-term partnership for Sirintip, Alexa, and Broder.

“I’ve never worked in a team like this before. I don’t think any of us have,” Alexa says. “Just this connection between the three of us, the experience was so incredible, and it feels like a friendship that will last a lifetime. We can’t wait to make music together.”

 

It’s unsurprising that so many of these workarounds feel like, and are discussed as, ad hoc solutions. Everyone is eager for the COVID quarantine to end, and for things to get back to normal. Online and other endeavors don’t generate the kind of revenue necessary to build a career, nor do they generate the same creative fulfillment that playing and improvising in groups does.

But the fact is that long-term plans are few right now. Nobody can prepare for a future that nobody can yet comprehend. “I have no guesses and no plans,” Iverson says, “and I can’t imagine how anyone could, really.”

“Even if there is a vaccine that comes out, and we slow the spread of the virus, how long is it going to take before people are ready to gather to see music again?” Alexa wonders. “How long before musicians are comfortable leaving their families and traveling for work? It could change the landscape of what we do significantly, for a while.”

If anything, projecting these anxieties and uncertainties onto the future is unfair. The present is just as anxious and uncertain. Douglas is keen to stress how far the crisis for jazz extends beyond musicians and club owners. “The bartenders who worked at jazz clubs, the people who work the door, booking agents, road managers, and journalists, we’re all affected by this,” he says. “It’s important to remember how huge it is.”

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As bleak as that picture is, though, neither Douglas nor anyone else is ready to surrender to despair. “We have to stay positive,” Linda Oh says. “Our responsibility as artists is to help people cope. I think what I admire most about musicians is, I really don’t know any who aren’t resourceful and proactive—you have to be in order to survive! And I’m really proud of the people in this industry.”

Marcus Roberts has perhaps the most idealistic outlook. “I’m thinking of this as an opportunity to figure out how we can all come together,” he says. “Forget about categorizations, let’s figure out how we can all rebuild this thing. We’re the ones who are really going to have to; maybe we can do it in a way that will show people a little more sense of togetherness.”

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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.