It was an honor to celebrate the innovative pianist/composer Geri Allen on her induction into the DownBeat Hall of Fame. For this article in the August 2022 issue, I spoke to her manager and close friend, Ora Harris, who generously shared many wonderful stories with me; her collaborator and friend, the masterful drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington; and Jana Herzen of Motéma Records, her last label before Geri’s untimely passing at age 60. Thanks to DownBeat Editor Frank Alkyer for the assignment.
Category Archives: Music Writing and Clips
For Charles Mingus’s centennial, DownBeat asked me to do a deep dive on the composer, bassist and singular American cultural figure. In this package of three pieces, I explore the place Mingus occupies in the popular imagination, by all accounts well-deserved, as a force of nature, an iconoclastic truth-teller, a volatile, emotional man with a violent streak. But his many friends and fellow musicians, people who knew and loved him, remember a different side: the spiritual seeker, poet, esthete and philosopher; the bandleader who took pains to treat his musicians fairly; and, above all, the artist he was right down to his bone marrow. Among the artists and critics I interviewed: Christian McBride, Charles McPherson, biographer Brian Priestley, and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Vincent Gardner, who served as musical director for JALC’s Mingus centennial tribute. The main article is here. A sidebar on the making of “Epitaph,” Mingus’s magnum opus, is here. Another piece about new Mingus recordings and tributes is here.
Imagine if Sarah Vaughan played saxophone like Dexter Gordon. That’s approximately the effect when the 35-year-old singer and tenor saxophonist Camille Thurman performs. She told me about her struggles with sexism and crippling self-doubt in my interview with her, from the March 2022 @DownBeatMag.
Charles Mingus – prolific American composer, bass virtuoso, memoirist, poet, notorious truth teller, and all-around badass – would have turned 100 years old this year. I was delighted when @DownBeatMag asked me to write an appreciation of Mingus and his place in jazz history – delighted, and a bit intimidated. How on earth could I summarize his life and contributions to jazz in six magazine pages, give or take? You can judge how well I did soon. My story will be in the May issue, hitting the streets approximately April 1.
What a beautiful experience it was to be among the first wave of American tourists coming back to Italy last week. I was there to attend “A Night in Anzio,” an invitation-only jazz party in the seaside town south of Rome, assembled by Polish saxophonist Sylwester Ostrowski. Here are my impressions of the experience on Downbeat.com. The line-up included four great tenor saxophonists – Ostrowski, Igor Butman, Alexander Beets and Camille Thurman – Green. Take a look at the video here:
More than a gifted pianist, organist, and 20-yr member of James Taylor’s band, Larry Goldings is also the brilliant comic mind behind the viral CPAC “national anthem” video and, as most jazz fans know, the madcap “Hans Groiner” character, an “expert” on Thelonious Monk’s music who “improves it by making it more relaxing and less offensive to the ear.” Many thanks to Mac Randall of JazzTimes for publishing my interview with Larry. (BTW, don’t miss the priceless “Groiner interview” – an Easter egg embedded within the article.) #LarryGoldings #HansGroiner #JamesTaylor
A little over a year ago, Janis Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer arrived home from an aborted tour. “At first we all thought, OK, I’m sure we’ll be back at work by the summer.” When that didn’t happen, Janis and her buddy Lauren Kinhan of New York Voices started figuring out a way to convert their monthly “Vocal Mania” shows at NYC’s Zinc Bar to a live-streaming online format. The result, they told me for DownBeat Magazine, is Vocal Gumbo. My interview with Janis and Lauren.
Stacey Kent, Jim Tomlinson, and Kazuo Ishiguro “Wish They Could Go Travelling Again” (Jazziz, April 2021)
I think it’s safe to say that Stacey Kent is the only jazz singer to have a Nobel Prize-winning novelist writing lyrics specifically for her voice. That novelist is Kazuo Ishiguro. Stacey, Ishiguro and Jim Tomlinson, Stacey’s musical director and husband, are the subjects of my piece in Jazziz Magazine. (Free trials of Jazziz are available if you’re not a subscriber.)
What a pleasure to interview Sergio Mendes, one of my musical heroes since I was a kid. The article appears in TIDAL Magazine, the highly readable online publication of the TIDAL streaming service (owned by Jay-Z).
Here’s one bit that didn’t make the final piece:
“Mas Que Nada” – Sergio’s signature song since Brasil ’66, a song that became the first-ever worldwide hit in Portuguese. The title means, approximately, “Yeah, right,” sarcastically, in Brazilian Portuguese. Sergio recalled when he heard the song for the first time:
“It was in Bottles Bar (the legendary Rio jazz hangout that witnessed the birth of Bossa Nova), maybe ’61 or ’62. This young kid, Jorge Ben, came in with his guitar and started playing it. It was so different from the very melodic stuff Jobim would do, a different vibe. But a great chant! When I play it in Japan, the Japanese sing along with it – it’s like the national anthem!”
I asked if he had any idea the song could become such an enormous worldwide hit in its original language. “Never!” he said. “When I first heard my record of it on the radio [in 1966], I called Herb [Alpert, his producer at A&M Records]. He said, “Sergio I think we’ve got a big hit here!”
Cecile McLorin Salvant on gratitude, pandemics, awards, and what scares her (Jazziz Magazine, Jan. 2021)
“There’s something really exhilarating about doing something terrifying,” she said, talking about her latest project, Ogresse, her song cycle/performance piece, which she is trying to turn into an animated feature film. For my vocal jazz column in Jazziz Magazine (Jan. 2021 issue), the supremely talented @CecileSalvant, a recently minted MacArthur fellow, spoke to me from Miami, where she was spending the holidays. A beautiful person and artist.
Last summer, with the club and concert scene in the US and Europe shuttered and fear rampant, the sensational 30-year-old pianist @EmmetCohen managed to organize a tour of Europe for his NYC-based trio. Everywhere they went, they were told they were the only American band that had come over and performed. How did they do it? My news piece in DownBeat.
My latest for JazzTimes — Pianist @JohnBeasley is the Zelig of the jazz and pop music world, playing with everyone from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to Steely Dan, Carly Simon and Rickie Lee Jones, arranging music for American Idol, playing on James Bond movie scores, and serving as musical director for Jazz at the White House and International Jazz Day. But it’s his brilliant writing for the Grammy-winning MONK’estra that has won him his greatest acclaim. And he’s got a few stories… https://jazztimes.com/features/profiles/john-beasley-reflects-on-miles-herbie-and-of-course-monk/
I recently had the pleasure of talking to singer/arranger Amy London of the Royal Bopsters for Jazziz Magazine, then reviewing their new album Party of Four for DownBeat. The Bopsters – soprano London, alto Holli Ross, tenor Pete McGuiness, and bass Dylan Pramuk – specialize in the vocalese of the bebop era and beyond. On the new album, they perform songs by Billy Strayhorn and Tadd Dameron, standards and more modern stuff, including one by Wayne Shorter. They all get the Bopsters’ treatment: twisty, 4-part close harmonies and effervescent scatting.
Since the DownBeat review had rather strict space limits, here’s the full, unabridged version.
The Royal Bopsters
Party of Four
Motéma Music MTM0372
No jazz vocal group in the 20th century cast a longer shadow than Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. They had so many things going for them: their skill as arrangers and entertainers; their ferocious swing; their ability to channel horn or sax sections; and Jon Hendricks’ ingenious way with vocalese lyrics.
All those qualities are echoed in the work of The Royal Bopsters. Their first album, which included guest appearances by Hendricks, Annie Ross, and three other all-time jazz vocal greats, Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordan, and Bob Dorough, conveyed the sense of a torch being passed. Now, after a five-year hiatus, the Bopsters – Amy London (soprano), Holli Ross (alto), Pete McGuiness (tenor), and Dylan Pramuk (bass) – are back, and their sophomore release is an entertaining gem.
The new CD is like a master class for jazz arrangers and vocalists, with Pramuk and McGuinness steering the artful arrangements, while London, Ross and Pramuk contribute clever lyrics. The album is dedicated to the memory of Ross, whose life was tragically cut short last May after a three-year battle with cancer.
Ms. Jordan and the late Mr. Dorough (in one of his final recordings) return as guests, with delightfully free-spirited vocals. Uber-bassist Christian McBride, who presented the group at the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival, adds his deep pocket to two tracks. Pianist Steve Schmidt, bassist Cameron Brown, drummer Steve Williams, and percussionist Steven Kroon, provide first-rate support throughout.
Among several extraordinary tracks, Pramuk’s arrangement of Tadd Dameron’s classic “On A Misty Night” is a standout. It’s based on two previous records: Dameron’s big band arrangement from his The Magic Touch album; and a lyric written by British singer/keyboardist Georgie Fame to a Chet Baker trumpet solo from yet another recording. The whole album is peppered with such Easter eggs for jazz and vocalese fans.
The late Ms. Ross’s version of Tito Puente’s hit “Cuando Te Vea (When I See You),” for which she translated the lyric with the permission of the iconic Latin bandleader, is another highlight. It features McBride’s compelling tumbao and an uncanny mouth-trombone solo by McGuiness, but they don’t overshadow Ross’s impassioned vocal, a fitting valediction for a terrific singer gone too soon.
Party of Four: But Not For Me; On A Misty Night/Gipsy; How I Love You (Let Me Count The Reasons); Lucky To Be Me; Why’d You Do Me The Way You Did; Day Dream; Cuando Te Vea; Baby, You Should Know It; Our Spring Song; Rusty Dusty Blues; Infant Eyes; My Shining Hour. (58:42)
Personnel: The Royal Bopsters (Amy London, Holli Ross, Pete McGuinness, Dylan Pramuk), vocals; Steve Schmidt, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Steven Kroon, percussion (7,11); Bob Dorough, vocals (8); Sheila Jordan, vocals (4); Christian McBride, bass (2, 7).
Ordering info: Motéma.com
I’m excited that so many of my favorite artists and interview subjects are nominated for 2021 Grammys! The list includes John Beasley; Kurt Elling, featuring Danilo Perez; Kenny Washington; Becca Stevens; Chico Pinheiro; Maria Schneider; Alan Broadbent; Chick Corea; Christian McBride; Brian Blade; Terri Lyne Carrington, and Jacob Collier (album of the year, no less!). Big congratulations to all. And stay tuned for my upcoming portrait of John “Killer Beas” Beasley in JazzTimes.
2. Album Of The Year
Award to Artist(s) and to Featured Artist(s), Songwriter(s) of new material, Producer(s), Recording Engineer(s), Mixer(s) and Mastering Engineer(s) credited with at least 33% playing time of the album, if other than Artist.
Fisticuffs & Julian-Quán Việt Lê, producers; Fisticuffs, Julian-Quán Việt Lê, Zeke Mishanec, Christian Plata & Gregg Rominiecki, engineers/mixers; Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo, Julian-Quán Việt Lê, Maclean Robinson & Brian Keith Warfield, songwriters; Dave Kutch, mastering engineer
- BLACK PUMAS (DELUXE EDITION)
Jon Kaplan & Adrian Quesada, producers; Adrian Quesada, Jacob Sciba, Stuart Sikes & Erik Wofford, engineers/mixers; Eric Burton & Adrian Quesada, songwriters; JJ Golden, mastering engineer
- EVERYDAY LIFE
Daniel Green, Bill Rahko & Rik Simpson, producers; Mark “Spike” Stent, engineer/mixer; Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion & Chris Martin, songwriters; Emily Lazar, mastering engineer
- DJESSE VOL.3
Jacob Collier, producer; Ben Bloomberg & Jacob Collier, engineers/mixers; Jacob Collier, songwriter; Chris Allgood & Emily Lazar, mastering engineers
- WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III
Rostam Batmanglij, Danielle Haim & Ariel Rechtshaid, producers; Rostam Batmanglij, Jasmine Chen, John DeBold, Matt DiMona, Tom Elmhirst, Joey Messina-Doerning & Ariel Rechtshaid, engineers/mixers; Rostam Batmanglij, Alana Haim, Danielle Haim, Este Haim & Ariel Rechtshaid, songwriters; Emily Lazar, mastering engineer
- FUTURE NOSTALGIA
Koz, producer; Josh Gudwin & Cameron Gower Poole, engineers/mixers; Clarence Coffee Jr. & Dua Lipa, songwriters; Chris Gehringer, mastering engineer
- HOLLYWOOD’S BLEEDING
Louis Bell & Frank Dukes, producers; Louis Bell & Manny Marroquin, engineers/mixers; Louis Bell, Adam Feeney, Austin Post & Billy Walsh, songwriters; Mike Bozzi, mastering engineer
Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner & Taylor Swift, producers; Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner, Serban Ghenea, John Hanes, Jonathan Low & Laura Sisk, engineers/mixers; Aaron Dessner & Taylor Swift, songwriters; Randy Merrill, mastering engineer
31. Best Improvised Jazz Solo
For an instrumental jazz solo performance. Two equal performers on one recording may be eligible as one entry. If the soloist listed appears on a recording billed to another artist, the latter’s name is in parenthesis for identification. Singles or Tracks only.
Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, soloist
Track from: Axiom
Regina Carter, soloist
Track from: Ona (Thana Alexa)
Gerald Clayton, soloist
- ALL BLUES
Chick Corea, soloist
Track from: Trilogy 2 (Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade)
- MOE HONK
Joshua Redman, soloist
Track from: RoundAgain (Redman Mehldau McBride Blade)
32. Best Jazz Vocal Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal jazz recordings.
- SECRETS ARE THE BEST STORIES
Kurt Elling Featuring Danilo Pérez
- MODERN ANCESTORS
- HOLY ROOM: LIVE AT ALTE OPER
Somi With Frankfurt Radio Big Band
- WHAT’S THE HURRY
33. Best Jazz Instrumental Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new instrumental jazz recordings.
- ON THE TENDER SPOT OF EVERY CALLOUSED MOMENT
- WAITING GAME
Terri Lyne Carrington And Social Science
- HAPPENING: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
- TRILOGY 2
Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade
Redman Mehldau McBride Blade
34. Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new ensemble jazz recordings.
- DIALOGUES ON RACE
- MONK’ESTRA PLAYS JOHN BEASLEY
- THE INTANGIBLE BETWEEN
Orrin Evans And The Captain Black Big Band
- SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT
John Hollenbeck With Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace And The Frankfurt Radio Big Band
- DATA LORDS
Maria Schneider Orchestra
35. Best Latin Jazz Album
For vocal or instrumental albums containing at least 51% playing time of newly recorded material. The intent of this category is to recognize recordings that represent the blending of jazz with Latin, Iberian-American, Brazilian, and Argentinian tango music.
Afro-Peruvian Jazz Orchestra
- FOUR QUESTIONS
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
- CITY OF DREAMS
- VIENTO Y TIEMPO – LIVE AT BLUE NOTE TOKYO
Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Aymée Nuviola
- TRANE’S DELIGHT
62. Best Instrumental Composition
A Composer’s Award for an original composition (not an adaptation) first released during the Eligibility Year. Singles or Tracks only.
- BABY JACK
Arturo O’Farrill, composer (Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra)
- BE WATER II
Christian Sands, composer (Christian Sands)
Alexandre Desplat, composer (Alexandre Desplat)
Maria Schneider, composer (Maria Schneider)
Remy Le Boeuf, composer (Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly Of Shadows Featuring Anna Webber & Eric Miller)
63. Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella
An Arranger’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.) Singles or Tracks only.
- BATHROOM DANCE
Hildur Guðnadóttir, arranger (Hildur Guðnadóttir)
- DONNA LEE
John Beasley, arranger (John Beasley)
Remy Le Boeuf, arranger (Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly Of Shadows)
- LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING
Alvin Chea & Jarrett Johnson, arrangers (Jarrett Johnson Featuring Alvin Chea)
- URANUS: THE MAGICIAN
Jeremy Levy, arranger (Jeremy Levy Jazz Orchestra)
64. Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals
An Arranger’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.) Singles or Tracks only.
- ASAS FECHADAS
John Beasley & Maria Mendes, arrangers (Maria Mendes Featuring John Beasley & Orkest Metropole)
- DESERT SONG
Erin Bentlage, Sara Gazarek, Johnaye Kendrick & Amanda Taylor, arrangers (Säje)
- FROM THIS PLACE
Alan Broadbent & Pat Metheny, arrangers (Pat Metheny Featuring Meshell Ndegeocello)
- HE WON’T HOLD YOU
Jacob Collier, arranger (Jacob Collier Featuring Rapsody)
- SLOW BURN
Talia Billig, Nic Hard & Becca Stevens, arrangers (Becca Stevens Featuring Jacob Collier, Mark Lettieri, Justin Stanton, Jordan Perlson, Nic Hard, Keita Ogawa, Marcelo Woloski & Nate Werth)
11. Best Contemporary Instrumental Album
For albums containing approximately 51% or more playing time of instrumental material. For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new recordings.
Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah
- CHRONOLOGY OF A DREAM: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
- TAKE THE STAIRS
Grégoire Maret, Romain Collin & Bill Frisell
- LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL
My short piece about the gifted young jazz singer, from DownBeat‘s recent “25 For The Future” special issue. https://downbeat.com/news/detail/jazzmeia-horn-ambition
After 35 years as a guest singer on other peoples’ records, Oakland-based Kenny Washington, 63, is releasing his first studio album under his own name. The album is called What’s the Hurry?
“I’m originally from New Orleans, the Big Easy,” Washington says. “The people are laid back. I’ve never been in a hurry to do anything.”
Joe Locke, the extraordinary vibraphonist who works with Washington often, calls him “one of the most important male vocalists in the world…Kenny is the whole package.”
Here’s a two-year-old video of him at KNKX Public Radio in Seattle (I haven’t found a video from the new album yet, but this will give you a taste of his talents).
Milton Nascimento is one of the most singular Brazilian singer-composers of the last century. Antonio Adolfo, Rio’s great pianist, bandleader, and arranger – and no slouch in the composing department either – has explored his old friend Milton’s evocative harmonies and haunting melodies in an exquisite new album, made with the participation of some of Brazil’s most accomplished jazz musicians.
The album has been number one on jazz radio in the U.S. for three straight weeks, an unexpected and delightful surprise (to me, at least). Here’s my interview with Mr. Adolfo in DownBeat (including links to the music), just out today.
DownBeat recently asked me to review Capitol’s re-release of Frank Sinatra’s 1960 mid-career classic Nice ‘N’ Easy, now in an expanded edition for the album’s 60th anniversary (https://downbeat.com/digitaledition/2020/DB20_08/single_page_view/48.html). A slightly “expanded edition” of my review is below. Diving back into that New Frontier world with Frank and Nelson Riddle – both of them at their artistic peak – proved a soothing diversion from the pandemic and the anxieties and outrages of the 24/7 news cycle. I heartily recommend it.
Nice ‘N’ Easy (60th Anniversary Expanded Edition)
Capitol/UMe Records B0031729-02
Ol’ Blue Eyes to the rescue: In these troubled times, a classic album of Sinatra love songs might be the ultimate sonic comfort food.
Especially this album. Nice ‘N’ Easy was recorded in 1960 when Sinatra was at the height of his vocal powers. At age 44, no longer the carefree young crooner, his voice had deepened and matured, reflecting the agonies of his tempestuous six-year marriage to Ava Gardner. After two ballad collections (No One Cares and Only the Lonely) featuring torch songs near-suicidal in tone, Sinatra wanted to record love songs with a lighter touch.
The newly minted title track, by Lew Spence and the young Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was the only mid-tempo number. Sinatra had previously recorded the other 11 songs, all classic ballads, for Columbia in the 1940s. Now he intended to produce the definitive versions, with peak Nelson Riddle arrangements, this time in hi-fi and stereo. The 1960 versions are deeper and richer; the arrangements are more modern but timeless.
With his honeyed timbre, marinated over the years by booze, smoke and heartaches, Sinatra is the romantic hero of each little three-minute drama, the voice always intimate, now confiding, now confessing, sometimes just wryly commenting.
The new stereo mixes are breathtaking, and the bonus materials are invaluable: two session takes illuminate Sinatra’s process in the studio, recording take after take with full orchestra. There’s also an exquisite “The Nearness of You,” the album’s original title track.
Riddle was the best, and Sinatra knew it (“Nelson is the greatest arranger in the world” he declared). His orchestrations, particularly his writing for woodwinds and strings, are a heavenly combination of romance, classical know-how, and judicious use of jazz harmonies. If you don’t get goosebumps when Frank sings, in “That Old Feeling,” “…and when you caught my eye, my heart stood still,” as Riddle’s strings start to soar, check your pulse.
Nice ‘N’ Easy: Nice ’N’ Easy; That Old Feeling; How Deep Is The Ocean; I’ve Got A Crush On You; You Go To My Head; Fools Rush In; Nevertheless; She’s Funny That Way; Try A Little Tenderness; Embraceable You; Mam’selle; Dream; The Nearness Of You; I’ve Got A Crush On You (session takes); Nice ‘N’ Easy (session takes). 57:15
Personnel: Frank Sinatra, vocals; Nelson Riddle, arranger and conductor; orchestra includes Plas Johnson, tenor saxophone; Al Viola, guitar; Felix Slatkin, violin; Bill Miller, piano.
Ordering info: sinatra.lnk.to/NiceNEasy60
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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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
“Despite being at the crest of a 25-year career, during which he has been called ‘the standout male jazz vocalist of our time’ by the New York Times, among many other awards and accolades, he is modest about his achievements and self-critical to a fault. At one point in our conversation he blurts out, ‘Man, I sure wish I could sing better.’” My cover story from the May 2020 JazzTimes.