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There are many media reports about the hardships musicians are enduring in the COVID-19 pandemic, but who do most reporters talk to? Well-known musicians playing major venues with expansive tours that have been cancelled. Fine, I feel for them a bit, but jeez, what about the freelance musicians in the trenches who work the local establishments and performance spaces? The ones without agents, roadies, PR people, or managers?
Philly jazz on lockdown
Philly has a distinctive and historic jazz community that was smacked hard by the city lockdown, just as everyone was looking forward to Jazz Appreciation Month in April. Most musicians immediately jumped into action, commandeering social media to live-stream their performances and supplement the dramatic and sudden loss of income. The Candlelight Lounge live-streamed my gig for the Jazz Masters Series in Trenton, so I arrived with my microphone, three bottles of lavender hand sanitizer, a box of surgical gloves, and Clorox disinfecting wipes to make sure we survived the concert.
No audience—just the musicians, the videographer, and Bradley, the owner (who later sat in on saxophone). I envisioned virtual gigs for the duration of this crisis helping musicians and venues make some money to stay afloat while the virus hovered menacingly but impotently outside our ad hoc free-enterprise system. But, alas, it was not to be.
Things got so scary, with people of all ages dying of this contagion and social-distancing decrees getting stricter, that many musicians now are just doing short singles by themselves on Facebook or backing off performing all together. There is only one jazz musician I know who is saying hell with it, and live-streaming every Wednesday with his trio from home —guitarist Jimmy Bruno.
Taking the chance
Bruno, born in Philly, has been a local and international bad boy since he came off the road with giants such as drummer Buddy Rich and his notorious big band and orchestras backing Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Doc Severinsen. He played a long stint as an LA session musician with Tony Tedesco, but finally moved back home because he wasn’t playing enough jazz.
Since COVID-19 moved into town, Jimmy has been live-streaming from Bruno’s Bunker on Facebook every Wednesday at 8pm with bassist Dylan Taylor and drummer Mike DeMonte. For $5, you can catch the live set.
I asked Jimmy why he was taking a chance like this. He told me how diligently he was using Purell and sitting 6 feet away from his bandmates (thank his wife Peggy, a nurse, for insisting on that), because “I was going berserk not playing, plus this pays a bit better than a regular gig.”
“Live-streaming might be the one good thing coming out of this coronavirus,” he added.
Jazz Philadelphia, a clearinghouse for all things jazz in town, has been conducting virtual town halls of emerging musicians and jazz organizations in the area. President and bassist Gerald Veasley and executive director Heather Blakeslee told me they’re working with the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy to fill their Jazz Appreciation Month calendar of events (wiped clean by COVID-19), spotlighting information about the jazz legends living among us in coordination with WRTI and local news organizations. Jazz Philadelphia has also partnered with Jazz Near You to allow local jazz artists to upload their own content to appear on a community calendar, which you’ll be able to check out starting April 1.
But there is still the problem of our jazz musicians struggling financially.
Bassist Chico Huff messaged me, “We full-time freelance musicians have been completely wiped out by this. Full calendars, and sense of financial security, decimated. Gonna be a tough year."
In times like this
The Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project is already moving to record the experiences of local artists at this time. It’s asking professional Philly jazz musicians to make a short video for the Philly Jazz Archives, verbalizing their feelings about how COVID-19 is affecting them and their music. Participating artists get $50 for their testimony.
And a real heart-warmer came from postal worker Anthony Dean, who doubles as one of the finest jazz photographers anywhere, but he just happens to live and work in Philly. He is offering his exquisite photos of local artists for sale, and giving the money to the jazz musician in the photo. So far Dean has sold photos of drummer Rob Henderson, bassist Alex Claffy, composer George Burton, and saxophonist Larry McKenna.
When he received the proceeds from his photo, McKenna wrote a message for Dean on his Facebook page. “He realizes that our gigs have been cancelled, and we are basically unemployed right now. Being someone who really appreciates the music, he has decided to help out in the best way he can. Thank you, Tony. I’ll never forget it.”
Stay proud and stay safe
There is a terrific resource page for jazz musicians to get help during this crisis. But the city still needs a one-stop donation resource to collect funds for our artists in need.
In 1918, New Orleans officials closed almost everything and told residents to stay home during the pandemic dubbed the Spanish Flu. (An ad in the Times-Picayune suggested amusing yourself with your own “player piano” at home, at a cost of $425.) The people didn’t listen, and the death rate ended up being twice the national average, which included a few of Louis Armstrong’s family.
Jazz Appreciation Month starts on April 1, while the coronavirus is stalking our city. So celebrate our proud jazz heritage safely by learning more about the music, listening to the wonderful recordings of our stars (my previous BSR story has you covered), and helping our local musicians who depend so much on having a stage.
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