The current covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the entire country, of course, and the jazz industry has felt it just as hard as anyone. First and foremost, it decimated the ranks of the music’s elder statesmen, people like Lee Konitz, Wallace Roney, Bucky Pizzarelli and Ellis Marsalis, in addition to dozens more who held leadership roles in the music scenes in their own cities, people active as patrons, producers, promoters and fans.
Writing for AllAboutJazz.com last April, Karl Ackerman offered a sobering preview of the carnage yet to come: “The jazz world is small but still a microcosm of society with interdependencies that run deep. For every shuttered performance venue there are promoters, agents, ticket sellers, bookkeepers, print shops, servers, bartenders, cleaners, outside suppliers, and so on. At the nucleus of this small world, are the musicians.” The pandemic has been heartbreaking, in broad strokes, plainly evident even to those not affected directly, but the pain has also resonated on the most intimate, atomized level. At this point, we have all felt at least some of the pain.
“The disease has presented unimaginable challenges,” continues Ackerman, “with few historic benchmarks and no easy solutions.” Pandemics have plagued the human race throughout our history. Perhaps the most well-known example of a pandemic in human history is the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century. Jazz music did not exist back then, of course, but there are some clues as to how the cultural scene was affected in that era. They were basically ruined, but the world’s emergence from that crisis led to the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and the beginning of explosive growth across the spectrum of arts and culture, which is a process that has never really ended.
The flu epidemic that swept the world in the aftermath of World War I began just as jazz music was first becoming known outside its homebase in New Orleans. The first official case was recorded by Army doctors in Kansas on March 4, 1918. This was, almost a year to the day (February 26, 1917) since the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step/Livery Stable Blues”, generally considered the first jazz record ever released. (There may have been others, but nothing survived long enough for anyone to make a copy. But people have been looking since the 1930s, and they always will.)
An article in the Regina Leader-Post (Canada) took a look at how their entertainment district handled the pandemic. As we’ve seen recently, a big controversy involved the seeming hypocrisy of closing some venues, while allowing others to stay open. “The Regina Theatre, seating 700 people, may be closed in the interests of the public health,” goes an editorial from 1918, “but the Auditorium Rink on the opposite corner seating anywhere up to 2,000 or 3,000 people at an evangelistic service cannot be interfered with although the danger is equally as great.” Eventually everything was closed in Regina, including churches and their city hall, which also proved par for the course in 2020.
But it wasn’t all so terrible for the business. Writing in the New York Times last May, William Robin said “Millions of Americans were sickened and 675,000 died in the 1918 pandemic, among at least 50 million deaths worldwide. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, the effects on musical culture in the United States ended up being relatively mild: merely a few weeks of delayed and canceled concerts. … The flu did not transform the American cultural scene, as the new coronavirus threatens to; when the outbreak eased, in 1919, musical life returned swiftly to normal.”
By the time the pandemic finally eased up in April 1920, hundreds of millions of people had been stricken all over the world, leaving a final death toll estimated between 15 million and 100 million people. The euphoria from having survived the war and the pandemic animated the spirit of the times as America entered the Roaring ‘20s, an era in which jazz played an essential role. One big winner in all this was the nascent phonograph industry, which offered music fans the chance to hear their favorite artists safely, and at their own convenience.
As things stand right now, the gradual reopening of society has had mixed results, with a second wave threatening to reverse whatever progress has been made. Live music has returned, to a reasonable extent, but it’s still iffy, and a lot of folks are not taking any chances. “I’m not playing any concerts. I’m not playing out at all,” says Dr. Longineu Parsons, a professor of music at FAMU and veteran trumpeter who has an album due out on BCMP later this year. “If I had to depend on my gigs to survive during this thing, I’d be homeless.”
“We had gigs coming that were the biggest I’ve ever had,” he says. “It’s not even about the number, so much as the scale of them. I won’t even try to count the gigs, because that would not be good for my attitude.” In some ways, it was kind of a good thing, as Parsons had been in a serious state of burnout, and the pandemic forced him to truly slow down for the first time in his life. “The pandemic is NOT a vacation,” he says. Exercise, rest and mediation, diet, all the rudiments of self-care have been vital to Parsons, as it has been for everyone. “It’s important to keep a positive attitude, because if you don’t that just makes everything else worse. We have to remember that not everything is in our control.”
“At least at Florida A&M, our president is a scientist. So we have the lowest instance of covid in the state system. That’s one more thing that makes it a pleasure to be here.” They had a couple of covid cases among their student band, but the school was rigorous about adhering to the established protocols, and that diligence worked out in their favor.
The jazz industry had put in several decades of meticulous work to rebuild the cultural and commercial cachet that it had begun to lose by the 1970s. So much of that momentum has been lost, in just a matter of months. Many musicians had moved up north to get established in the business, which they did, and now many have been forced to return to their places of origin. Sucks for them, but Parsons thinks that it could, in time, prove to be a positive thing.
“Maybe it’ll be like when that sailor got stabbed in Storyville,” he says, “and everyone was forced to leave there for a while, and that was a factor in the spread of the music.” This incident took place in 1917, not long before the flu pandemic took hold.
As noted before, the pandemic paired with the passage of time, which always prevails under normal conditions, to make 2020 the undisputed single-worst year for the jazz industry in its entire history. Nothing--not world war, nor Spanish flu, nor AIDS, nor the near-collapse of its commercial base in the 1970s, nor even the plague of heroin addiction--destroyed more lives and crippled more careers in so short a time as over this past year. The Jazz Journalists Association has compiled a thorough list, with links, numbering into the hundreds; it is exhaustive reading.
The losses, sadly, are not restricted solely to a human scale. That is the most important thing, of course, but the losses to industry infrastructure have been quite profound, as well. The underlying economics of the jazz business are precarious, even on a good day, and there have been no good days lately. Even Birdland, built specifically for Charlie Parker in 1949, is fighting for its life as we speak, and they are hardly alone. A number of notable jazz clubs closed their door in 2020, including the Blue Whale in LA, the Blue Llama in Ann Arbor, the Hepcat in Springfield, IL, Paris Blues in Harlem, Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, Le Piano in Rogers Park, El Chapultpec in Denver, the Prime Example in New Orleans and the legendary Jazz Standard in Manhattan.
Interestingly, even as so many live music venues have fought for their very existence over the past year, some are actually doing quite well. Take, for example, Breezy Jazz Club, which had been doing pretty good business since they opened on Adams Street in downtown Jacksonville (right next to Volstead) a few years ago. As the pandemic was peaking, owner Thea Jeffers was prepping for power moves. She pulled the trigger in December 2020, moving her club from downtown into the more upscale San Marco neighborhood. She took advantage of a dip in commercial real estate prices, jumping into an area that already features The Parlour at Grape and Grain, one of the city’s leading speakeasy-style bars, whose swanky, sizeable back room has anchored the local jazz scene for close to a decade.
There’s been some good news, though. Record labels are hanging tough, and a few (like Bold City Music Productions) have hit the scene anew. Jazz fans can claim significant credit in helping make 2020 the biggest sales year in history for vinyl records, which have ridden a steady upward trajectory for over a decade now. The music is made for audiophiles, and jazz has long been prime material for testing and demonstrating high-end audio products, which the cool art direction favors the large-format style of album jackets.
Another factor may be that the pandemic arguably leveled the playing field for diverse musical genres in the mainstream market. That is, other styles are getting a taste of commercial dynamics well-familiar to the jazz world, and in some cases (like the use of streaming audio, and membership gimmicks for patrons of key venues), the industry at large has taken some lessons from their peers in the jazz world in dealing with this uncertain future.
Broadway experts expect that entire infrastructure to remain on pause until sometime next year, and who knows what form it will take upon its return. Broadway is the repository of so much of the core source material for jazz--Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, etc.--and so many musicians make their living still in various crews and pit bands up there. The success of Broadway directly affects the jazz scene in New York, as well as the long-term continuity of the intellectual property and oral histories they both share.
The team here at Bold City Music Productions has also been affected, just like we all have. Our board includes several professional jazz musicians, as well as a professor of music and a journalist who specializes in music. All that business took a hit, as well as our artists. LPT, for example, was set to make its New York debut, until the pandemic forced the cancelation of those shows. Thankfully, because jazz is kind of a niche market, where generally small groups of musicians perform for generally small audiences, it has started to bounce back a little bit as cities began trying to reopen businesses. Other genres still lag behind, and the market for festival and large touring productions is unlikely to rebound until next summer, if we’re lucky.