CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Jazz Clubs Are in Crisis

A key component of jazz education—and basic survival—is the bandstand, but these days you won’t find many to play on

The Village Vanguard
The Village Vanguard closed its doors due to the pandemic on March 16. Months later, they’re still closed. (photo: Alwinian)

During the summer, pianist Cyrus Chestnut led a quartet in a livestream concert inside an audience-less Keystone Korner Baltimore. He compared the experience to studio sessions, where he tries to bring a live feel to the music. “It is very different when you’re playing for the floors, the chairs, the forks, the napkins, and the empty bar,” he said, laughing. “Nevertheless, our mandate is the same even when you’re playing for the camera people or those who are streaming. We still have to send the music out with passion, precision, and power. And hopefully, when they finish listening to the music, they feel a little bit better than when they started.”

For many jazz venues, shuttered because of the pandemic, live streaming is the only option they have to keep the music playing. But streaming as a revenue source doesn’t make the venues’ owners feel much better; it pales in comparison to the cash earned from ticket sales, food, and drinks. Most clubs closed in March. Some reopened briefly, only to be shut down again.

A survey published in June by the National Independent Venue Association found that 90 percent of venue owners, promoters, and bookers will have to close permanently within the next few months without financial help from the government. The survey polled nearly 2,000 music professionals. Many club owners feel angry, frustrated, and bewildered because they’ve received conflicting information from state and local officials, they can’t rescue their businesses, and they don’t know when the restrictions placed on them will end.

“Can we improvise enough to somehow, someway survive this so we can live to share the music?” asked Todd Barkan, NEA Jazz Master and founder of Keystone Korner, which includes a bar, restaurant, and performance space. His club has gone through several rounds of closing and opening by government officials. “One minute the city is telling me I can have 25 percent capacity. The next minute the state is saying no indoor audiences for music, which cuts the heart out of my business. We have some outdoor dining and carryout, which is a pittance.” The club’s livestream concerts are $10 a ticket. After Barkan pays the musicians, soundman, and videographer, there isn’t much left. “We’re not making any money, we’re just doing it for the music,” he said.

Barkan’s long history in jazz includes an early-2000s stint as the program director at Dizzy’s, the intimate performance venue inside Jazz at Lincoln Center. “I was in New York for 9/11,” he said. “It wasn’t one-tenth as hard as this because it didn’t call into question the essential need for human contact and cultural exchange. This has assaulted the essence of civilization itself.”

New York’s Village Vanguard, one of jazz’s most storied venues, sprang from the imagination of Max Gordon in 1935 and was kept alive by his wife Lorraine; the couple’s daughter Deborah took the reins following her mother’s passing in 2018. “Now it’s in my lap hook, line, and sinker,” she said. “Sinker might be the operative word there.”

The club has been dark since March, and most of the Vanguard’s 25 staffers have been let go. Live concerts are streamed thanks to the efforts of Gordon’s remaining staff. A manager and the bartender now serve as cameramen and a server acts as a switcher, which allows the audience to see different views of the performance. Unfortunately, as with other clubs, streaming isn’t a money maker for the Vanguard. And even worse, revenue from online concerts doesn’t cover the cost of producing them.

Gordon isn’t all that interested in discussing the Vanguard’s financial outlook these days. “I don’t like to dwell on that too much. All I do is basically think about how much we can lose on a weekly basis,” she said with a laugh. “It’s getting better, I must say; everything is starting to point in the right direction.”

Considering that the club has been closed for months without meaningful revenue, Gordon is providing a public service in maintaining a robust performance schedule with elite jazz artists. Concerts are booked through the end of this year and most of 2021. “We’re committed to being the Vanguard,” she said. “We can’t just quit and go home with our tail between our legs. We have to do the best we can do. It never occurred to us to just close down.”

John Dimitriou, owner of Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle, is busy, but not with jazz. With help from the Paycheck Protection Program, he’s been able to retain members of his kitchen staff, who have prepared between 15,000 and 20,000 meals over the past three months for people in need. The project is spearheaded by the city’s Northwest Food Alliance and the Seattle Council of Churches, which send a few thousand meals a week to shelters and other organizations that are having a hard time. The way Dimitriou talks about it, the meal preparation almost sounds like an easy task; he’s far more frustrated by mixed messages about when his business can reopen.

Jazz Alley closed on March 13. Dimitriou was led to believe that he could go live on May 1, and again on June 1, and again on July 1. “Then they said no music whatsoever, so there went July,” he said.

Since the club closed, Dimitriou’s spent nearly $100,000 on upgrades to make the venue safer to patronize. Those upgrades include separating booths for social distancing, physical barriers between tables, and plexiglass that separates both the audience from the stage and individual band members. He’s also invested in nine global plasma ionization devices that shoot isotopes into the air to help remove impurities.  

“I’m very angry at our governor and our mayor for a lot of reasons,” Dimitriou said. But I look at them and think, if it was me, and I’d be responsible for making one person sick or losing one life, then maybe I’d be looking at it like they are. I’m very sympathetic toward them.” At press time, he remained hopeful that the club dates scheduled for October would take place.

The homepage for Preservation Hall in New Orleans has a prominent banner running at the top seeking donations for the 60 musicians who make up the Preservation Hall Musical Collective. The landmark venue has been closed since the pandemic, leaving dozens of musicians without a paycheck. Benjamin Jaffe, Preservation Hall’s creative director, sprang into action and collaborated with a fundraising campaign launched by the music streaming service Spotify.

The effort raised more than $250,000. This was achieved by a direct donation from Spotify and matching funds for music organizations involved in COVID-19 relief. Other concerns benefiting from the fundraiser included the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and MusiCares. “It was a successful campaign for us,” said Jaffe, who also plays tuba and bass with the band, “and it allowed us to support the musicians who make up the core of the Preservation Hall Collective.”

Jaffe feels that he was equipped to handle this crisis because he was battle-tested during Hurricane Katrina. “I learned a lot having lived through that experience, because we almost didn’t survive that for many reasons,” he said. “One of the reasons was, you don’t even really know how to prepare for something like that.” When the storm subsided, Jaffe started the Preservation Hall Foundation. He compares it to the rainy-day fund that experts say you should have in case of job loss and other life-changing events.

“It’s been running for more than 12 years now,” he said. “So, when COVID struck, we had a mechanism in place with donors and supporters and a way for us to tap resources, like grants, that other independent music venues don’t have.”