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Loss and Grief in the Jazz Community

From the coronavirus pandemic to the storming of the Capitol, the events of the past 12 months have left the jazz community—like the rest of the world—mired in deep pain. How can we cope with it all?

Jimmy Greene
“Good morning heartache, sit down”: Jimmy Greene (photo: Anna Webber)

After he lost his six-year-old daughter Ana in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, saxophonist Jimmy Greene didn’t find himself turning to any music in particular to find solace from the unfathomable loss. Yet his life to that point had involved familiarizing himself with thousands of pieces of music, and many of those inevitably echoed in his mind. One familiar standard took on a special new resonance in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“Early on in the grief process I found a lot of parallels to what I was going through in ‘Good Morning Heartache,’” Greene recalled recently. “The last line of the song is ‘Good morning heartache, sit down.’ I know the feeling of accepting the heartache. It’s not about pretending it’s gone, but about making space for this awful feeling that you have. You come to realize that it’s not going anywhere, but you accept that it is what it is and you have to deal with it. That’s right on the money as far as how I feel dealing with the ongoing grief from losing my daughter.”

While hardly comparable to the loss of a loved one, the burdens and sacrifices necessitated by the COVID-19 lockdown have evoked feelings of loss in many of us. Within the jazz community the pandemic has taken a significant human toll; among the more than 380,000 Americans lost to the virus (at the time of this writing) can be counted several of the music’s luminaries, including Ellis Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Bucky Pizzarelli, Henry Grimes, and Lee Konitz.

But there is also the ongoing impact on income and opportunities, and the seismic disruption of normal life, to contend with. The music industry, like so many corners of the American economy, faces a dauntingly uncertain future, with travel curtailed, clubs and venues shuttered, and the very possibility of convening indoors remaining a tenuous proposition for months if not years to come. As we all adjust to life confined largely to our own four walls or stifled behind masks, we necessarily find ourselves inviting the heartache in to sit down for the duration of this “new normal.”

During a recent conversation, vocalist Kurt Elling compared the process of resuming performances in livestream form to emerging from the five stages of grief. “You’ve got to deny it and hope it goes away,” he described. “Then you pretend it’s not happening, and then you’ve got to get angry about it. Then you’ve got to drink too much and finally you get to a place where if it’s going to be like this, then let’s get on with it.”

It’s not an inapt comparison. In a story published during the early stages of the lockdown called “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” the Harvard Business Review interviewed grief expert David Kessler, who co-wrote On Grief and Grieving with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. “[W]e’re feeling a number of different griefs,” Kessler explained. “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different… The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Greene himself recognizes the similarities, though his experiences also afford him a unique, hard-won perspective. “This pandemic is jarring,” he said. “It’s difficult, it’s challenging, it’s really turned our life upside down. No one could have fathomed this. But I look at my wife and my son and we’re healthy, we’re alive, and we know that as much as we’ve sacrificed and lost during this time, we have each other. There’s a lot to be thankful for right there.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.