No genre has been immune from the pandemic’s quarantines and economic devastation. Jazz, however, is uniquely defined by its live performances. Not only are its shares of radio airplay and record sales minuscule, it’s an improvised music: inclined toward long tunes that never sound the same twice. It’s also inclined toward fans being up close with the improvising musicians.
“This music is so special because it’s entirely of and about the moment,” says Jamie Sandel, managing director of CapitalBop, a D.C. jazz advocacy organization. “Because it involves human beings to get together in the room and interact, and it has all these variables — the tunes, the people, the goings-on that affect them — that are different every time.”
Some of the District’s highest-profile jazz happenings take place at the Kennedy Center, which, unlike the city’s other performance spaces, receives support from the federal government. Local spaces, and the local musicians who fill them, are far less secure: At least three venues that hosted jazz — Twins, Sotto and Eighteenth Street Lounge — have closed permanently.
In July, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signed legislation that allocated $100 million in relief for small venues in the District. “But there was a caveat,” says Harry Schnipper, owner of the storied D.C. jazz club Blues Alley. “The $100 million would not be released until Phase 3 of the reopening went into effect. Well, guess what didn’t happen?”
Before July was over, Schnipper was forced to let his senior staff go.
“This thing is really rough,” says Rev. Brian Hamilton, pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington. After Blues Alley, the church’s weekly Friday “jazz night” gatherings make it the District’s longest-lived venue. “It’s going take years, maybe decades, to right-size this thing. It’s brutal.”
Its concerts curtailed, Westminster established a GoFundMe account, which has so far distributed over $25,000 in funds to musicians. But the players are not Hamilton’s only concern.
“We get calls constantly from folk who wonder when we’re going to start again, many of them being older folk who are most at risk,” Hamilton says. “Jazz at Westminster has been part of their life, part of their culture.”
Rather than gigging, then, musicians have searched out whatever alternatives they can find. Several have applied for and received grants targeted specifically to musicians. Some have become drivers for Uber or Grubhub. “We’re just trying to do the best that we can to keep our lights on, our gas on, our rents or mortgages paid,” says Abadey.
The drummer is a professor at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Many other musicians have likewise focused on teaching, whether through schools and universities or in private lessons. For tenor saxophonist Elijah Balbed, the crisis opened a door in that regard.
“It facilitated the way to my having my own private lesson studio,” he says. “I had been not as into that in the previous years, but recently have gotten more into education in general, and I thought, ‘Now’s the time to take my private lessons seriously.’ ”
Still others have turned to live-streaming performances, which have become ubiquitous throughout the musical landscape during the coronavirus. Some are successful. Yet Zoom concerts have proved a meager substitute. The arm’s-length connection to audiences aside, even live streams that charge admission don’t bring in much. The pervasiveness of streaming concerts also means that competition is heavy. (Schnipper ran a Blues Alley live stream for a few months, then suspended it for these and other reasons.)
The D.C. Jazz Festival, which postponed its annual June event to September, subsequently converted its delayed festival to a live-streamed program. The performances, including the DCJF’s regular JazzPrix band competition (which Balbed and his quartet won), were successful and put much-needed cash in the pockets of musicians.
However, says executive director Sunny Sumter, the festival is not in a position to make plans for next year’s event, either in physical or virtual form. “We decided that we have to pause after this and see what happens in D.C.,” she says. “What happens in the festival world, period. So we are in the meantime looking at new business models of how we digitize our content in this new world.”
One otherwise-closed venue, however, has turned live streams into a consistent silver lining. Mr. Henry’s, a pub on Capitol Hill with a long history of music (singer-songwriter Roberta Flack was discovered there in 1968), has maintained a schedule of four streaming concerts a week featuring artists who had been regulars on its physical bandstand.
Balbed has been a frequent participant. So has Gunn, who developed a one-woman show for the occasion. “I think they are the glue that holds this community together,” she says.
Alto saxophonist Herb Scott, jazz artist in residence at Mr. Henry’s, appears every Wednesday on the live stream. Scott is also the executive director of the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for jazz through both production — Wednesdays at Mr. Henry’s were usually given over to a CHJF-sponsored jam session — and maintaining relationships with legislators both local and national.
Musicians and other stakeholders point to CHJF and its staffers, Scott and board chairman Aaron Myers, as important leaders of the community during the pandemic, suggesting a shift toward Capitol Hill as the heart of the D.C. jazz scene.
“We’re just trying to keep it going, man,” Scott says. “Whatever we can do to keep the scene together.”
Among Scott and Myers’s initiatives is a twice-weekly Zoom call with stakeholders in the jazz community. “Those phone calls started to expand and involve a wide variety of people,” Scott says. “We had council members give us updates. We had health officials. We had a sergeant from the MPD give us an update on the laws behind live-streaming, performing outdoors, indoors, on private property. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee [D-Tex.] gave us an update on her end.”
In addition, say musicians, the calls have been helpful in trying to find a way forward for D.C. jazz. “We’re putting our minds together to figure out what can be our long-term plan,” says Mateen. “Trying to figure out the new rules. How much we can use a studio to do streaming performances, how we can do outdoor concerts and private concerts, establish small jazz festivals that could be ongoing and still serve the same purpose.”
Outdoor and private concerts have taken on great significance. Scott recently put on a rooftop concert with a limited audience and strict distancing guidelines. It was successful enough that he is already planning another.
Michael Philips, who before the pandemic booked the monthly jazz performances at Takoma Station, is running a project that he calls YardWork. Every Saturday, he books bands to crisscross the city, performing short concerts in residential yards. (Mateen notes that the start of these concerts in August marked his first paying gig since March.) The response has been rapturous.
“[I feel] like Johnny Appleseed,” Philips says. “I was really shocked at how much joy people get out of this. The outpouring is amazing … so life-affirming.” There is even talk of the concerts continuing after lockdown is lifted, though Philips suspects the demand will fade at that point.
Others aren’t so sure. Bassist Luke Stewart, a co-founder of CapitalBop and its avant music editor, sees the pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild D.C.’s jazz infrastructure from the ground up.
“It’s already starting to happen,” he says. “I’ve been a part of some amazing outdoor shows, guerilla-style shows in parks, or just walking through neighborhoods. DIY art and organizing is coming back, and it’s beautiful. Some venues, institutions and hierarchies probably should close, and probably shouldn’t come back. I’m excited and inspired about the creative ideas that will be available instead.”
Abadey, on the other hand, cautions that the way forward is simply unclear. “It’s not going to go back to the way it was, like we knew it,” he says. “It has been stated that we are in a ‘new normal,’ but I see it as a new reality.
“I’m optimistic that things will advance to a better place, but I’m also thinking that this is something that we have to go through. And what’s on the other side, and how long it’s going to take to rectify, no one really knows.”
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