Resilient Persistent Improvisers…Musicians in the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Charles Emmons
It’s a painful time for many of us. We can’t see loved ones graduate, weddings are out, family gatherings and reunions are a distant memory, and dancing in the streets is definitely out. In another time we might head out to our favorite musical haunt and be entertained by our favorite musician with a cool beverage. But those times are gone, and when they will come back is anybody’s guess.
Since March, and perhaps even before then, when we began our confrontation with the coronavirus, COVID-19, musical performances from cruise ships to festivals across the country have been cancelled, postponed into next year, or morphed into something somewhat unfamiliar, but quickly becoming the norm, the virtual performance. COVID-19 caught all of us off guard, especially now as we honor and celebrate Black Music Month – the month to recognize the musical accomplishments of African Americans.
In a culture driven by immediate gratification where our choices for entertainment have been abundant, we are looking for new outlets and modes to satisfy our need. Our local favorites have been closed because of the COVID-19 orders. Dazzle is closed, as is the Soiled Dove Underground, the Kasbah, as well as Live at Jack’s a favorite for local performers like Hazel Miller and Wil Alston.
In a near tearful announcement posted on Facebook on May 9, the day of the mayor’s re-opening of the city, Live@Jack’s owner Sandra Watts regretfully announced that Live@Jack’s would close. In her remarks she emphasized that they are a live music entertainment venue. With the stay at home mandates and pandemic orders they couldn’t support live music gatherings that were up close and personal that the venue had provided for 23 years.
“I really feel like how music is created and presented, may be changed forever because of this pandemic. I was heartbroken to hear of the closing of my go-to performance spot Live@Jack’s. And unfortunately, I don’t think they will be the only venue lost in the battle.” – Wil Alston
Shelton Bouknight, owner of the Aurora’s long standing Kasbah shared his views on the closing of his club ownership of more than two decades. “Unfortunately no one knows what the other side of the entertainment business is going to look like after this. What is for sure is that it will not look anything like what we use to know. Social distancing is here to stay. Even if you open, how do you regulate? Take every person’s temperature? Eliminate one half of your occupancy. I believe the old club and dance era are no more. The key will be to innovate and be a part of whatever the new social interaction will look like and be about it,” he said. “And as far as our restaurant arm Uncle Bo’s, there is not enough revenue in take out and pick up to cover the overhead to operate the business. How can you compete with the drive-thru and Grub Hubs of the world whose business models have been into play for years? Without a vaccine, most businesses are simply wishing on a star.
“I am not a pessimist and there will be a rebirth in the food and beverage industry, I just don’t know what it will look like. For me, after 23 years – it’s retirement time. I have a wonderful wife and some beautiful kids and grandkids. So, on the brighter side, I’m going to be alright.”
Adjustments and cancellations for Alston and other musicians have been hard to take. The weekend of May 16, the Five Points Jazz Festival was virtual. Alston performed at the 2019 festival, when nearly 100K attended, but this year organizers and online hosts (Tamara Banks, Amerykah Jones, Carlos Lando and Arturo Gomez) hosted virtual performers Ron Miles, The 5 Pointers, Ritmo Jazz Latino, JoFoke, the Ben Markley Big Band and the CCJA Jazz Arts Messengers, as well as stalwarts Hazel Miller and Dianne Reeves. In a message to the community Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said that the festival always tried to provide “accessible and inclusive art.”
Five Points being the Harlem of the West has a deep musical heritage, and during these times it is instructive to tap into it. The virtual festival also included remarks from one of Denver’s elders, Cleo Parker Robinson. The Five Points Jazz festival marked 20 years this year and Parker Robinson’s dance company will celebrate 50 years. These are true milestones in some trying times, yet Cleo retains optimism. “We come together through the magic of music,” she said. “We have to be jazz people … return to that essence, and be better improvisers.”
Music connects us, and this was evident when Hazel Miller performed “Quarantine Blues” and “COVID Blues” as well as “He’s Got The Whole World…In His Hands.” She commented that because of the times there is pressure to create new work – but at the same time, provided a healing message.
Others in the community are improvising as well. The Purnell Steen Quintet performed in a studio at Classic Pianos; first streamed May 21 on YouTube. Billed as a reunion concert, Steen and his band played classics like “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train.” “We just wanted to turn some frowns into smiles,” Steen said to his virtual audience. “We miss you and love you.”
There is nothing like live performance, which serves as solace and escapism all at the same time. As I viewed Steen’s performance on my Android device it wasn’t hard to drift off in the music. You have to make a decision to just listen, or listen and watch. There is an energy to a drum solo and an energy in improvisation rooted in the music. In informally surveying musicians that have graced the Denver scene, it was heartening to learn that they are still energized and ready to improvise. Here are some of their comments, to the following questions, on the impact of the pandemic.
What impact has COVID-19 had on your bookings and income; your growth and maturation as a musician? If you have been performing virtually, how has that been different without the interaction of the audience? How do you find solace in your music at this time since its other rewards … money, fame and career are somewhat fleeting?
The COVID-19 (I hate even speaking it or writing the name) has impacted me personally that all my gigs to date have been canceled or postponed/rescheduled into 2021. I feel we’re no closer to knowing when private parties, bars and clubs will be allowed to reopen as well as not knowing who will show up inside of a month. My outside gigs or events for the most part have been put on hold until there is some clarity as restrictions and so forth. As far as income goes I’ve gone from 60 to 0 in a very abrupt period of time and feels like the wind has been taken out my/our sail! Mind you, I do understand the severity of this Pandemic but there’s still the question of how and why? It’s that feeling that the live entertainment and artistic culture has been “thrown under the bus!” Had I not been in a position that softened the blow financially and taken advantage of every available resource this could have ruined me in that respect. I am a fulltime and lifetime musician/artist…this is and was my livelihood.
Like many of my peers, this has brought a lot of ponderance, reflection and discernment about life and how easily it can be squashed in one swoop. It has impressed on me the value of better future planning economically. I have never taken what God has blessed me to do for granted without gratitude expressed in prayer for my gifts and endurance in this trade every single day. My love for my fellow brothers and sisters in this business, including those venues that I have been allowed to grace their stage, has deepened and saddened me.
I have been doing some virtual performing privately, shortly after the shutdown and it gives me some relative satisfaction and what I need as an artist. But it in no way close replaces a live electrified audience. I have not come to terms in my soul and spirit to date to perform live, if the entertainment opened this weekend. This pandemic has personally dampened that for how long – I don’t know. I’ve spoken with others and there’s a sense of despair and still disbelief in their spirit and soul as well. One of my band mates has already decided not to perform live again until 2021 maybe! Who knows what other artist are feeling at this moment, and mind you not out of fear, but because of the dampened spirit it has brought.
I find much solace when I am practicing, singing and playing alone songs I don’t or haven’t performed with the full band and tearing up on occasion because of the impact the songs have in my soul and spirit. One day I was driving on a warm sunny day heading west and could see the mountain peaks and God’s glory…and then this. I’m quickly reminded by the mask of the driver next to me is wearing and I feel sick to my stomach. It’s then, I’m again reminded how fleeting fame and money can be.
I avoid the news and media as much as possible as I always have, and more so these days. There is never a full day without bad news and this disease plastered in every uttered sentence, word and discussion. I stay in close contact with my family and positive thinking friends. I sing and perform whenever my heart gets too heavy and immerse myself with eyes closed in the vision of stage performing and my bands tearing it up. I have always been a solitary person and I would socialize at my leisure so on one hand I deal with this pretty well. Other days I get angry feeling confined when I need to get out. I’ve learned very well to live in the moment so I amuse, treat, love and give of myself the best to others and again myself.
My improvisation in all this is I make me happy in whatever wholesome and positive way that gets the job done and me to the next hour as I remind myself, “this is not my war” and don’t give up your daydream!”
Ron Ivory – www.ronivory.com
Though I make it a policy to not put all of my eggs in one basket, COVID-19 has definitely affected both my bookings and my income. And, hence, it has affected my touring band’s income as well.
It has not affected my growth as a musician. I feel that one can grow in various ways besides performing in a live setting. Being home has allowed me to write new songs, challenged my ability to think out of the box, and practice my instruments. So there have been some benefits.
Performing virtually is very different. The outcome of my live shows heavily depends on the energy of my audiences. Without that energy, I have to “mentally pretend” that they are there. However, I have enjoyed doing virtual concerts, and seeing the strong viewership online. It keeps me in touch with my supporters, and they appreciate the music and the effort.
The pandemic has pushed me to improvise in a variety of ways. I have become more advanced in the technological and streaming aspect of the Internet. I had to make improvements to my home studio to accommodate being able to effectively perform virtual shows from home. So that has been a plus. Always learning!
Gerald Albright – www.geraldalbright.com
Fortunately, I hadn’t yet scheduled out my performance goals for the year yet, so the impact on bookings and income has been mild for me compared to others. But it did cause me to delay the current studio album I was working on and forced me to pivot and put out a smaller digital project (called “The COVID Chronicles”) that speaks to the times we find ourselves in.
I really feel like how music is created and presented may be changed forever because of this pandemic. I was heartbroken to hear of the closing of my go-to performance spot Live@Jack’s. And unfortunately, I don’t think they will be the only venue to be lost in the battle.
However, during this time “at home,” I’ve gotten a lot of song writing done and like many other artists I’ve been exploring new ways to use technology to record and perform.
I haven’t done any virtual performances yet, but I have utilized and pushed past recorded performances as content for my website and social media sites, and for virtual stages like the one Dazzle Jazz is providing for artists.
I like to work alone when I’m writing and creating as it helps me capture and frame what I see and feel around me. But there is absolutely nothing like the energy you get from sharing songs with an audience and seeing and feeling their reaction to it.
Music has always been therapy or sanctuary and not so much about the money or fame. Although, making a little money from my music would not suck! LOL!
One of the ways I’ve had to improvise in this crazy new environment is in how I interact with my recording studio partner. I’m doing more of the things at home that I use to do in the studio and so much more of our communication is done via text, email, and video chats.
Wil Alston – www.wilsgroove.com
The impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating loss to my performance calendar. My year was filled with band gigs and musical theatre performances that have all been canceled and a few postponed to next year. It’s very discouraging and heartbreaking.
This virus hasn’t deterred me by any means. I miss performing immensely but, I listen to music and sing everyday working on different projects. My goal is to work, study, and push myself to be better at my gift God has graciously given me.
There is nothing like performing in front of a live audience! The lights, sound, applause, pure emotion, laughter, happiness and the joy, I miss it all!! During this pandemic, I have enjoyed performing songs virtually. This experience has allowed me to still be creative while receiving responses from others. However, I miss the adrenaline rush and showering of love from audiences and the infectious smiles.
I’ve been performing since the age of three…and professionally for a little over 30 years. Like a lot of performers, I’ve never experienced this complete shutdown of a whole performing arts profession. It has been challenging trying to adjust to this new normal. But, I have faith in the creative community that we will find new ways to push forward.
Music has always been special to me but now, I rely on its strength, comfort and inspiration now more than ever to get me through those rough days.
Mary Louise Lee
First Lady, City and County of Denver
Since March 12, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected my emotional, musical, and mental passage. I can’t pretend that not being able to visit my mom in a nursing care facility has not affected my mental stability, and my heart desires to run and see her since she entered mid-March. I can’t pretend to explain the void of not performing for over six years monthly with the John Akal Ultra Phonic 20 Piece Jazz Orchestra, as their solo vocalist; and I can’t pretend that not performing with my Trio HeartStrings monthly for the past few years has not taken a toll on my emotional and musical state of mind.
Even though there are monies attached to these performances, what I am affected by most is that my heart and my inner soul aches for my mom by not being able to visit her, and not being able to share my musical gifts live, and feel the acceptance from my many diverse audiences.
It will be a blessing when we all can gather again and enjoy the music, and find healing in gathering together and experiencing the gifts of these musicians. In the meantime search for and enjoy the various virtual performances and stay safe.
I know this is a temporary life-changing event, but we must continue to stay blessed, safe, and healthy. I love you and may God bless us all!
Linda Theus-Lee – www.lindatheuslee.com