Jazz Clubs, Festivals Search For Hope Amid A Slowly Opening Economy (DownBeat, July 2020)

Smalls Jazz Club, NYC. The club began live-streaming shows, with no audience physically present, on June 1.

Jazz is “the least socially distanced art form,” says Spike Wilner, pianist and proprietor of two of my favorite jazz clubs, Smalls and Mezzrow. It is an art form “that requires people to interact intimately…, one best served in a crowded, cramped, basement full of people breathing, talking, listening.”

How are jazz club owners and festival producers coping with the shutdown caused by the pandemic, and what might the future hold? To get some answers, I spoke with club managers and festival producers in the U.S. and U.K. The results were published in DownBeat’s July 2020 issue. An expanded version is below.

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Compared to the other casualties of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, it barely registers in media coverage and the public consciousness.

Yet the sudden, worldwide shuttering of jazz clubs and other venues for live music in mid-March constituted the most devastating blow to jazz in its history, strangling the livelihood of musicians and, in many cases, threatening their ability to survive in the profession.

If the indefinite closures left musicians staggering, the cancellation of most spring and summer jazz festivals was the coup de grace. No one is certain when, or even if, things will ever return to normal.

As Spike Wilner, jazz pianist and proprietor of the iconic New York clubs Smalls and Mezzrow, put it in a recent newsletter to the clubs’ fans, “What will become of the least socially distanced art form?  One that requires people to interact intimately? One that is best served in a crowded, cramped, basement full of people breathing, talking, listening?”

The shutdown darkened grand concert venues, like New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center and London’s Ronnie Scott’s, and little hole-in-the-walls alike. So many spring and summer jazz festivals have been cancelled – including majors like Newport, Montreal, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival – that it’s easier to cite those that have not (yet) been cancelled, e.g., the Monterey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, both still scheduled for September, as of press time.

Jazz musicians have shown considerable resilience, with many taking to social media platforms to stream live performances from their living rooms, teaching and collaborating online, while some attemptto secure unemployment benefits for freelancers, mandated by the federal CARES Act, but only spottily implemented by states.

Meanwhile, club owners in the U.S. and abroad are, like all small businesses, fighting to survive and pay their rent and other monthly bills in the face of a sudden and complete stoppage of revenues.

In April, more than 800 independent concert presenters, in an effort to prevent their possible extinction, banded together to form The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). “Independent venues were among the first to close as COVID-19 spread across the country, and unfortunately, are also likely to be among the last to reopen,” the group stated in a press release. The group is lobbying Congress for specific funding programs to assist them for the duration.

Temporary moratoriums on evictions in some U.S. states, including California and New York, have helped some venues buy time, although without relieving them of their rent obligations over the long term.

Catalina Popescu, owner of Catalina’s Jazz Club in Los Angeles, has been operating since 1986. She shut down March 15 and laid off her 25 staff members. “It’s been very painful,” she said. “We’re OK for the time being. Nobody can force you to pay rent. [The landlords] send me an email every so often, but they can’t do anything about it… I fought for this business for 34 years, to stay open, to make it successful, to be a great place for people to listen to music and for musicians to perform. I hope we’ll be able to reopen.”

The situation is similar in London, where Simon Cooke, general manager of Ronnie Scott’s said, “We have nearly 100 on the payroll. All but six are furloughed. We’re hoping the government’s scheme will keep everybody happy.” The U.K. is providing 80 percent funding to small businesses who maintain payroll.

“We’re very established, almost a national institution, been around 60 years, a fondness in the community.  Everything we do is massively supported. We have about 3,500 paid members, who are very supportive; most renew annually.  I think we’ll be alright.  If it’s a very long layoff, it may be a slow restart.  I’ve been looking after the place 12 years. When I started, the business wasn’t in great shape.  We built it up, to the point that we’re full 98 percent of our shows.  If we have to do that again, that’s what we’ll do. At least we know how – we did it once.”  

In late March, Smalls’ Wilner told me, “Right now, I’m waiting to see if Smalls will exist in another month or so.” At the time, the venue and its sister club, Mezzrow, both of which are located on the same block in high-rent Greenwich Village, had rent payments of $20,000 apiece coming due. “I think I’ll be able to get through April, but after that, I don’t know.”

Then, on April 15, he posted on Facebook, “This club is coming back – we are not done!”  What changed?  “We got a PPP loan,” Wilner said in late April, referring to the federal program that is providing low-interest loans to small businesses, loans that, under conditions that are still unclear, may be fully or partially forgiven. “That will help us secure Smalls for the next 4-5 months, until we can get things going again. With Mezzrow, I’m not sure what’s going to happen yet.”

The week before, Wilner completed the transformation of Smalls and Mezzrow into a nonprofit arts foundation, a project that had been in the works for two years. The SmallsLIVE Foundation (www.smallslive.com) subsidizes the expense of operating the clubs, assisting musicians, and sponsoring jazz education programs. In return for a donation of as little as $10, supporters can access a prodigious archive of performances from both clubs, which has grown to over 17,000 recordings since Wilner began taping performances in 2007.  Royalties are distributed to the more than 3,500 musicians whose performances are included in the archive, based on the number of their streams.

One of the first major donors to the new foundation was rock icon Billy Joel. Wilner described Joel’s $25,000 donation as “a shot in the arm.”

“My goal is to open Smalls first, as soon as [the city] lets us run bars,” Wilner said. “What I’d like to do is raise money to live-stream from the club and start a club schedule again. I would only do live streaming if I can pay the musicians for their performances. I think that could happen. My goal is to keep the clubs afloat [until then].”

Wilner began live-streaming shows from Smalls on June 1. Only performers, a sound engineer, and a few staff are present.  The shows have attracted hundreds of viewers from around the world. The shows can be viewed for free on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smallslive/. Another New York jazz mecca, The Village Vanguard, announced it will begin live-streaming on June 13 at https://villagevanguard.com/live-stream/.

In mid-April, Jay Sweet, Executive Producer of the Newport Festivals Foundation (NFF), which produces both the Jazz and Folk Festivals, was consulting daily with the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo. “Her focus is on keeping people alive,” he said at the time. “We’re on a state property (Fort Adams State Park); it’s 100 percent Rhode Island’s decision…. We would never jeopardize the safety of our fans and our artists.”  

On April 28, both festivals were cancelled. All artists who were invited to perform in 2020 have already been invited for the 2021 editions.

Sweet is not worried about the foundation’s survival. “The foundation will be OK. George will ensure that,” he said, referring to founder George Wein, now 94. “Right now I’m 100 percent focused on keeping our musicians musicians. Our goal is to give the money back to the next generation of artists who will play these festivals. That’s the biggest part of our job.”

Wilner, who went through “a dark period” following the closing of the club, said his mood lifted considerably after receiving a phone call from Wynton Marsalis in early April. Marsalis was working to secure funds for musicians and small clubs. The Louis Armstrong Foundation, of which Marsalis is board president, had established an Emergency Fund for Jazz Musicians, to award one-time grants of $1,000 to freelance jazz musicians affected by the shutdown. The foundation committed to awarding 1,000 grants, totaling $1 million.

“He asked me to be on his committee to help decide who gets the money,” Wilner said. “I put together a list of about 350 musicians who I thought could use it. They did a beautiful thing. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a tremendous morale booster.”  Wilner’s own SmallsLive Foundation has also begun making emergency donations to jazz musicians in need.

Similarly, NFF established a Newport Festivals Musicians Relief Fund. Starting with a small, $20,000 emergency fund, Sweet and his Board members decided this was a “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency moment. After three weeks, the fund had grown to $160K, thanks to donations.  We’ve had 500 applications and so far, fulfilled 275 of them. These are for musicians who have played Newport and other Rhode Island musicians, musicians whose names you would know. They each receive anywhere between $300 and $1,000. It’s like passing out band-aids on the battlefield,” he said.

With the jazz world reflecting the disarray of the larger world, the future for jazz venues is murky. “Jazz tourism in NYC is a big thing,” Wilner said. “We’re so dependent on it; any club owner in town will tell you that. We can’t run at capacity without our tourists, and God knows when that’s gonna come back to NYC.”

The concert business is another unknown. “The one thing that will never go away is this: there’s something in our human DNA that needs to commune with others,” said Newport’s Sweet. “For some it’s religion; for some, sports; for some, music. I think the word “normal” will be redefined.  The one thing I still believe in, for my entire professional career, is the desire for human beings to congregate around music. It’s being tested now. I don’t think live music is remotely close to dead. People just cannot live without it.”  — Allen Morrison


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Filed under Catalina's Jazz Club, Coronavirus and Jazz, COVID-19, George Wein, Newport Jazz Festival, Ronnie Scott's, Smalls, Spike Wilner, Village Vanguard, Wynton Marsalis

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