When jazz musicians aren’t live-streaming owing to coronavirus, they’re scrambling to rebook lost gigs

April 7, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

For decades in New York City, it was a given that world-class jazz could be found any night of the week in the West Village, Midtown, and Columbus Circle. But the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has worked its way down from arenas like Madison Square Garden to decades-old institutions with tiny capacities, like Blue Note, Jazz Standard, and the Village Vanguard.

Like artists of all stripes, jazz musicians are resourcefully taking to live-streaming, as on Live From Our Living Rooms, an online festival that ran from April 1 to 7, featuring heavyweights like keyboardist Chick Corea, guitarist Bill Frisell, and bassist Linda May Han Oh, and offering viewers the chance to donate directly online.

But when the webcam is switched off, many musicians are clamoring to make up for lost gigs, while clubs face an uncertain future.

‘Crickets in clubs’

“It’s going to be crickets in clubs for a few weeks,” Jim Snidero, an alto saxophonist active in New York since the 1980s, tells Fortune. “You might draw a parallel with 9/11. I was working at Birdland [Jazz Club] every Monday night after the attack, and for maybe two to three months it was virtually empty.” 

Jazz fans line up outside the Village Vanguard in New York City in 2015. The club is one of many affected by shutdowns prompted by the pandemic.
ack Vartoogian—Getty Images

Gianni Valenti, who owns the 70-year-old Birdland, is just one of countless business operators to get the multi-statewide order to close. “I had to cancel out all my artists for the last two weeks in March and all of April, which was very hard for me,” he tells Fortune. “It hurts me so much to walk in here to no music, no people, no artists.

“We pay extremely high rents, and landlords are sending out rent bills with no reductions,” Valenti continues. “We don’t have the income coming in to support our bills.”

“I have a two-week tour of Germany and Belgium scheduled to begin April 20—a lot of work,” Snidero says. “I was just talking with the band, [and we’re planning] on reaching out to all the venues…I’m worried.”

Rushing to rebook

Laila Biali, a Canadian jazz singer and pianist, was forced to cancel “three months of global tour dates” owing to COVID-19. “I spent the better part of a year setting all of that up,” she tells Fortune. “Within two or three days, [the virus] obliterated just about every gig I had on the books.”

Senri Oe, a Japanese pianist based in Brooklyn, was midway through a tour of his home country when the remaining five dates were canceled. 

“After [the infected cruise ship] Diamond Princess arrived in Yokohama harbor, the number of positive patients increased day by day, and the coronavirus was spreading rapidly all over Japan,” Oe tells Fortune. “They’re not as strict [there] as in New York City, but there’s still a lot of damage happening to the entertainment scene there, including jazz.”

“A lot of musicians are justifiably scrambling to make income for the next couple of months,” Lakecia Benjamin, a New York–based alto saxophonist, tells Fortune. “It seems like everyone is starting to move their shows to the fall.”

“It’s getting heated,” Michael Janisch, a London-based bassist, composer, and the owner of Whirlwind Recordings, tells Fortune. “Promoters are now inundated with requests to reschedule on top of their already huge workload of putting schedules together up to a year in advance.”

This chaos even extends to the oversaturated live-streaming market. “Everybody is clamoring to try and produce something that can be shared online,” Biali says. “It does create a certain degree of clamor and din that people then have to rise above.”

Saxophonist Joe Lovano participates in the live-streamed Live From Our Living Rooms festival, which served as a fundraiser for musicians whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.
Live From Our Living Rooms

An estate stays afloat

Miles Davis’s estate, which is run by the late trumpeter’s son, Erin Davis, and his nephew Vince Wilburn Jr., works on Davis-centric films like 2019’s Birth of the Cool. While most of their work is done over teleconferencing in the first place, they took a blow by way of South by Southwest’s cancellation.

“We [had] to cancel our annual showcase at SXSW,” Davis tells Fortune. “Very sad, but unfortunately very necessary.”

On a positive note, “We are very fortunate to have great television and streaming partners, including American Masters, BBC, and Netflix,” Wilburn tells Fortune. “Ironically, those partners have experienced greater ratings and streaming viewership due to the virus forcing people to spend more time at home.”

The jazz world on pause

As jazz club owners anxiously await a relief package from the Trump administration, and bookers and promoters eye empty slots in the summer and fall, musicians are taking the time to jam in their houses and apartments—and reflect.

“I’m disappointed because I was fully ready to perform, but I had to make the decision to help save lives,” Oe says. “I intend to create my new music and do brainstorming during this time.”

For Benjamin’s part, “I’m trying to find ways that I can get my music to people,” she says. “The whole world is going through a big trauma.”

“[When] I pause for a moment,” Janisch says, “I think all this aggravation that I’m feeling about my jobs is nothing compared to the real damage this virus is doing to society.”

Still, jazz, a genre that is historically suited to the atmosphere of small rooms, was arguably the last flicker of live music to be snuffed out as governments clamped down on crowd sizes.

“This looks and feels very different, but this is the way it is right now,” Biali says about the live-from-home shows, which may transfer the music through a speaker but can’t capture the feeling of a combo at full tilt. “Until further notice, this is how we’re going to do things.” 

“This is what the clubs are about. It’s the intimacy, it’s the connection,” Valenti says. “I think this is a lot more important than going to a big hall with 3,000 or 4,000 people. It doesn’t share the same heartfelt feeling.”

But when the stage lights at Birdland flare up again, “We hope you’ll come by and visit,” he says.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

What to watch on Hulu while social distancing
Hollywood showrunners assist the assistants amid coronavirus pandemic
—The coronavirus pandemic is changing broadcast and streaming TV as we know it
As the coronavirus forces people home, interest in streaming services is surging; so is piracy
MusiCares’s COVID-19 Relief Fund gets all-star help for donations, concerts
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