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Locked Down, Seeking Freedom

By Larry Blumenfeld

Jon Batiste leads musicians in a protest in New York City
Photo: Yumi Matsuo Studio

Jazz gigs disappeared. Tours vanished. Then, the world cried out.

It came on gradually, and then suddenly. Before long everything paused, everywhere. The music, like the rest of life, was locked down.

Cécile McLorin Salvant was scheduled to perform her original theatrical piece, “Ogresse,” with a 13-piece chamber ensemble at Oakland’s Paramount Theater on March 11. She ended up singing it for about a dozen people in Angela Davis’s living room. For her, the experience was “like sitting around a campfire, telling a story,” Salvant said. It offered both relief and revelation. “The song and the story is about the African Diaspora, about cycles of appropriation and oppression, and about fetishism of the Black female body. And here I was, in a moment of crisis, singing it for someone who knows more about these things than nearly anyone I can think of, who has done something about these things.”

It was also a moment of high anxiety and dashed hopes. Salvant’s tour unraveled. “As bandleader, I had advanced all the costs,” she said, “so that put me in a precarious position. And given the nature of the problem, I felt responsible for everyone’s health, too.” The small group at Davis’s home for her performance included trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who lives nearby. “Cecile’s performance felt surreal,” he said. “It’s also when everything began to get real for me.” He had flown to Switzerland, to teach, fresh from a gig at New York’s Blue Note club. He barely made it back. An April Jazz at Lincoln Center engagement for his “Banyan” project—a big band including elder masters Jack DeJohnette, Gary Bartz, and Tom Harrell—got canceled, along with a May tour. The release of his next Blue Note album seemed in question. “I’m a very private person, but I was thinking about how I could help someone,” he said. Extending the mentorship ideal of his Banyan band, Akinmusire set up Q&A sessions on Instagram. “I was getting a lot of emails from students, and none of them were in school just then.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner

Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner

A week after singing in Oakland, Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner performed in duet, this time from her own living room, in Harlem. She webcasted her “Coco Concert (Brought to You By Covid-19),” as it was billed online, via Facebook and Instagram. Onscreen, heart-shaped emojis floated up the side of her Facebook feed as Salvant leaned into her MacBook to sing Mel Brooks’s “High Anxiety.” And that’s how it went. Jazz musicians making music anyway, streamed online, often raising money for worthy funds or just keeping themselves afloat. From the Pennsylvania home where he was locked down, pianist Fred Hersch played Billy Strayhorn’s “UMMG” (which stands for Upper Manhattan Medical Group). Introducing the song, Hersch, an AIDS survivor, reflected on the heroism of the doctors and nurses in his life and the ones who were just then working the pandemic’s front lines. Each day at precisely 5 p.m., saxophonist Roy Nathanson played from the second-floor deck of his house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, in duet with his neighbor, bassist Lloyd Miller, from the street below—“to provide something lovely on our block that all of us could count on in a very uncertain time,” Nathanson said. In April, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra resumed its Sunday evening concerts, typically held at Manhattan’s Birdland club. The musicians recorded parts in their homes—from Madrid, L.A., and New York—which were edited together and streamed via a Facebook page. “What spoke to me from this Frankensteinian editing process online, spanning the many places we recorded, was something I was not prepared for,” O’Farrill said. “The glorious vibe of my band shouted at me from my computer.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Photo: Mark Fritton

Among the first lockdown-inspired releases, Quarantined with Nick, from trumpeter and keyboardist Nicholas Payton, started off in jarring fashion. “I wanted to sound unsettling,” Payton said, “like a needle dropped in the middle of a record. That’s how the news of this pandemic felt. We were caught off-guard.” For Payton, who lived through the floods that followed the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina in his hometown of New Orleans, in 2005, the pandemic stirred up painful memories. “But this time I’m at home,” he said. “There are basic services. My home hasn’t changed while the world watched. Instead, a universal reset button has been pressed and the very foundation of how we live have been shaken, daily. What’s like Katrina is that this crisis brings certain things into question: How much of this is due to lack of preparation or to not paying attention? At what point do we use these calamities and catastrophes as a wake-up call? How bad to things have to be before we change how we live, and how we interact with one another?” Along with electronic and acoustic instruments, the album’s rich stew of sounds included chopped-up recordings of spoken words, drawn from news stories and interviews, interrogating those very ideas.

According to Jazztimes magazine, Argentine saxophonist Marcelo Peralta’s death, on March 10, at 59, was the jazz world’s first Covid-19 casualty. The disease quickly claimed lives of more musicians—trumpeter Wallace Roney, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, saxophonist Lee Konitz, bassists Henry Grimes and Andy Gonzalez, saxophonist Giuseppi Logan. A month after pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis died from complications of Covid-19, his son Wynton raised his trumpet to lead the first installment of “Memorial For Us All,” an online Lincoln Center series meant as “secular community remembrance of the lives of those who have left us too soon.” The experience was virtual, stitched together like O’Farrill’s concert. Still, as the 16 musicians moved from the dirge “Flee As a Bird” to an up-tempo version of “Didn’t He Ramble,” they were faithful to a New Orleans jazz funeral tradition that transforms mourners into celebrants through music, simulating the moment a body is “cut loose,” its spirit set free.

This was cathartic, and a stark reminder that these rituals couldn’t happen as they should. Clarinetist Michael White, who played in Marsalis’s online memorial, and who has by his own estimation played in more than 200 jazz funerals in his hometown, said that “it feels unnatural not to properly release and send off members of our musical community. What happens to all these souls? And to ours?” Pianist Jon Batiste, bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” who grew up not far from Wynton Marsalis’s home, told me: “It makes me very sad that when one of our elders passes away, I can’t go back to the village. I can’t get that final scoop of wisdom, and the final meaning can’t be fully reflected upon together in the same space.”

Village Vanguard Empty

The Village Vanguard closed its doors on March 16, but had begun live streaming concerts by mid-June.
Photo: Courtesy of the Village Vanguard

The very experience of jazz played live at a club has always been, in large part, a process of communing with ancestors. The clearest reminders of our inability to enact that ritual have been the red double doors on Seventh Avenue South leading to the Village Vanguard, New York’s oldest continuously operated jazz club, which were locked on March 16. Just three weeks prior, the club marked its 85th year in a basement space with charmed acoustics, its green felt walls adorned with photographs of musicians such as saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans, who both recorded classic albums there.

“I thought we’d be dark for a month, and that seemed like forever,” said Deborah Gordon, who started working at the Vanguard in 1989 and took over running the club full time after her mother, Lorraine, died in 2018. “But look where we are now.” The place wasn’t entirely empty. Jed Eisenman, who began washing dishes in the club in 1981 and now directs its weekly bookings, stopped by four or five times a week, he said. “Maybe I find something useful to do, but mostly I come to convene. I don’t want the spirits in the place to be forsaken.”

"How bad do things have to be before we change how to live, and how we interact with one another?" - Nicholas Payton

For pent-up spirits and restless fans, some measure of release arrived on June 13, via livestreamed sets from the Vanguard stage. When drummer Billy Hart began the series, leading his quartet, the club was empty save for the band and a three-person crew. “But you can’t really be alone in the Vanguard,” Hart said, “because our community is embedded in those walls.” The livestream came off like a good European TV broadcast, with camera angles accurately conveying jazz’s flow and attitude. Still, it couldn’t conjure what Lorraine Gordon once described to me as “that palpable feeling, when everybody’s face is absolutely glued to the stage—like a painting but it’s real life.” Pianist Vijay Iyer, who headlined the next Vanguard livestream, said the experience felt much like a gig. And it was. The twice-a-week sets have attracted roughly as many listeners as would regularly fill a sold-out week (albeit at a greatly reduced cover charge). “It’s an experiment,” Deborah Gordon said, “and it means that the club is again paying musicians to perform” (generously, according to more than one musician).

Across town, Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery stopped hosting regular concerts after drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s riveting March 7 performance. Rio Sakairi, the club’s artistic director, shied away from livestreamed music—it feels compromised, she said—and instead established innovative digital events from artist’s homes. “Words & Music” sessions were casual virtual gatherings; “The Lockdown Sessions,” on Saturdays, were more like an insider’s variety show, via Zoom—part prepared videos, part discussion. In one episode, from his bedroom, drummer and MC Kassa Overall presented a piece in which he’d cut up and reassembled a video by guitarist Bill Frisell; in the screen’s corner, Frisell reacted to the results.

Melissa Aldana Jazz Gallery

Melissa Aldana performing during
The Jazz Gallery's Lockdown Sessions

Music labels were similarly thrust into a new and unsettling reality. “We talked to all the artists,” said Seth Rosner, a partner in Pi Recordings. “No one was sure when anything would start again or when they would step on a plane again.” A recording session to complete singer-multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu’s album was canceled. A release from Henry Threadgill’s Zooid ensemble got pushed back. “But I was listening to any new music I could get my hands on,” Rosner said, “and I knew I wasn’t alone. Pi created “This Is Now: Love In The Time of COVID,” a digital-only series available through Bandcamp; artists received 100% of the proceeds, which they shared with funds of their own choosing. The first edition, saxophonist Steve Lehman’s Xenakis and the Valedictorian, was made using the Voice Memo app on Lehman’s iPhone, in the front seat of his Honda CR-V. The haunting themes of the second one, InWhatStrumentals: Music from In What Language?, drawn from pianist Vijay Iyer’s post-9/11 spoken word-and-music collaboration with poet-producer Mike Ladd, seemed eerily current.

From the start of the Covid-19 crisis, one fact was clear: Musicians needed funds. Venues required support. Nonprofit organizations were thrust into fresh action. The Louis Armstrong Foundation's Emergency Fund delivered $1 million into the hands of musicians. South Arts’ Jazz Road Quick Assist grants offered $1,000 of relief to each of 450 musicians. A newly formed Jazz Coalition commissioned 50 musicians to create “a new canon of COVID-era works.” Chamber Music America issued advance payments to compensate for lost income to more than 250 jazz artists in its grantee network. In addition to its COVID-19 Musicians Emergency Fund, the Jazz Foundation of America turned its annual Apollo Theater benefit into “#TheNewGig,” a streamable three-hour telethon rich with rare moments and powerful segues (saxophonist Wayne Shorter talked about the JFA’s work; moments later, Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento performed “Ponta De Areia,” which he’d recorded with Shorter in 1975).

Paul Cornish and Lenard Simpson Jazz Gallery

Paul Cornish and Lenard Simpson
performing during The Jazz Gallery's Lockdown Sessions

Gargi Shindé, CMA’s director of programs for jazz, recalled phone calls to musicians, many of whom had the very pre-existing medical conditions that made for extraordinary risk and some who lacked reliable internet connectivity. “This experience revealed something we need to face,” she said. “We’re in danger of losing this nation’s heritage sound. Black artists, especially those over 65, are being affected in a disproportionate way.” For Sara Donnelly, director of jazz at South Arts, “It was humbling, and it set off alarm bells. I received requests from the entire gamut of the jazz world—from a cocktail pianist in Oklahoma to high-profile artists with major awards. It was like the whole art form was crying out as one.”

If the pandemic revealed stark societal inequities, so were inequities surrounding jazz, and music in general, laid bare. Ethan Ellestad, executive director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), questioned his city’s famed tourism economy in an interview with the weekly Gambit newspaper: “This is an industry that according to their own numbers brought in well over $10 billion, supposedly, into the city last year… It didn't find its way to the musicians, to the service industry workers, to the creative and cultural communities. It was clear there wasn't any safety net that had been developed.”

Miguel Zenón The Jazz Gallery

Miguel Zenón performing during
The Jazz Gallery's Lockdown Sessions

In the absence of touring, as musicians’ livelihoods moved online, more widespread inequities were highlighted. A U.S. Copyright Office report, issued in May, confirmed what we already knew: the digital marketplace for recorded music is rigged in favor of big tech over content creators. The Music Worker's Alliance established a Call by Musical Artists for Basic Fairness in the Digital Marketplace , demanding that companies like YouTube, Google, and Facebook protect against rampant copyright infringement and create a “sustainable online music ecosystem”; its more than 5,000 signatories included Ahmad Jamal and Esperanza Spalding. On June 30, guitarist Marc Ribot and other musicians, instruments in hands, mounted a “silent concert” in protest at Google’s Manhattan headquarters. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone magazine reported that Live Nation, the largest live events company in North America, plans to enact policy changes in 2021 that will shift financial burdens to artists—decreasing monetary guarantees and raising the cancellation fees for artists. In July, Grammy Award-winning composer-arranger Maria Schneider filed a class-action lawsuit against YouTube and parent companies Google and Alphabet, on behalf of independent rights holders who lack access to the copyright protections enjoyed by YouTube’s preferred partners. As the complaint states: “YouTube has facilitated and induced this hotbed of copyright infringement through its development and implementation of a copyright enforcement system that protects only the most powerful copyright owners such as major studios and record labels.”

In late June, despite Rio Sakairi’s ambivalence, the Jazz Gallery began streaming live sets from its stage. “Musicians are crying out to play with each other,” she said, “and the audience wants it.” In July, the first presentation of a Jazz Coalition commissioned piece, vibraphonist Joel Ross’s “Praise in the Midst of a Storm,” had its premiere online. Welcome as these developments are, no one wishes for virtual presenting to become “the new normal.” Donnelly, of South Arts, has focused on live performances, whenever they resume. “Vital as it may be, virtual programming is, at best, a band-aid,” she said. As Nathanson told me, “There is just no way to replace the experience of playing with and in front of people. It’s just essential to the experience of meaning-making with sound.” It’s not clear how sustainable livestreaming is, anyway. Smalls, a Manhattan club with a devoted following, began livestreaming on June 1. Pianist Spike Wilner, who owns the club and its sister venue, Mezzrow, established a nonprofit, SmallsLIVE Foundation, buoyed by a $25,000 donation from Billy Joel. Yet in a dire-sounding late-June Facebook post, Willner wrote: “As of today, both Smalls and Mezzrow have been closed for 100 days. All my staff has been laid off…. Neither the city, state or country has given us any assistance or even guidance as to when we can reopen and under what restrictions. Mezzrow is a mess, uncleaned and abandoned for months. At Smalls, we pay bands to play to an empty room.”

Aaron Parks The Jazz Gallery

Aaron Parks performing during
The Jazz Gallery's Lockdown Sessions

In April, “Live from Our Living Rooms,” an online music festival created by vocalists Thana Alexa and Sirintip, and saxophonist Owen Broder, raised nearly $60,000 for grants to New York City musicians. In July, the organization mounted a 12-day “Creative Summit and Fundraiser.” During one workshop, pianist Christian Sands answered a student’s question about “intent” with advice about “practicing how to be the music, how to embody the sound.” Hours later, agents and managers looked for solutions in the face of “venues that are bleeding money” and “places to play that may no longer exist.”

This past June, what would have been the 25th edition of the annual Vision Festival, the world’s most vital gathering for creative music in all its manifestations, was canceled. Patricia Parker, founder and board member of Arts for Art, the nonprofit that mounts the festival, said, “We had to stop, and we had to reorganize everything.” First, Arts for Art set up Zoom sessions, “to see and hear each other, and so we could find a common way through all this.” Parker and others then mined archived videos and created a series of weekly online releases. Yet the focus was on purposeful action. “Artists have always led the way in times of need and crisis,” she said, “and this is no different.”

William Parker

William Parker
Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

Right now, these senses of need and crisis, as well as the promise of transformative change, are especially pronounced. The widespread protests sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd, among other recent atrocities, have transformed an inward-pointed extended moment of pandemic into an outward-reaching period of soul-searching and activism, confronting harsh truths surrounding Black identity in this country that have always been both subtext and rallying cry for the jazz community.

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Arts for Art started Artists for a Free World, which included a free-jazz marching band that has since supported some three-dozen demonstrations. “As artists, our strength lies in who we are, and how we can transform each moment,” Patricia Parker said. Twenty years ago, her husband, bassist William Parker, as clear a father figure as exists for the Vision Festival community, told me: ''If someone comes to me and says they want to play, if there's any light in there and it needs a spark, then I feel that it's my job to help get it going because it's recruitment for a cause.” His sprawling new 10-CD set contains one track, “Baldwin,” that includes samples drawn from a 1963 interview with James Baldwin. “It doesn’t matter any longer what you do to me,” Baldwin says at one point, amid atmospheric electronics, percussion and trumpet improvisations. “The problem now is: How are you going to save yourselves?”

Ben Williams Jazz Gallery

Ben Williams
performing during The Jazz Gallery's Lockdown Sessions

Musicians’ responses to Floyd’s murder have been many and varied. Scott Robinson posted a recording of a single sustained bass saxophone note that lasts 8 minutes and 46 seconds, precisely the duration it took to extinguish Floyd’s life. In a widely published editorial titled, “Black Protest is Music. Learning the Melody Isn’t Enough,” trumpeter Terence Blanchard wondered, “Maybe this time can be different,” and reflected on those who mimic Marvin Gaye’s inflections in “What’s Going On” without knowing the lyrics (Don’t punish me with brutality/Talk to me, so you can see/Oh, what’s going on). “The pain we sing of is a lingering, never-going-away pain,” Blanchard wrote.

"I think this situation begs an interesting questions about the arts. Why are they important??" - Cécile McLorin Salvant

One sunny June Sunday, in Manhattan’s Union Square, Jon Batiste spoke through a megaphone (and a mask) about the need to “implement systemic change and avoid collective apathy.” He then led roughly a thousand people, including members of his Stay Human band, up Sixth Avenue, just blocks from the Village Vanguard, where he’d recorded two albums, drawing directly on the second-line tradition he learned as a boy, in New Orleans. He played and sang, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and, later, “We Are,” his latest single, a call-to-arms, he told me, “to confront the choice between profit and humanity, between freedom and the bondage of racism and all the terrible things that have been accepted and perpetuated in this country.”

Ambrose Akinmusire

Ambrose Akinmusire
Photo: Ogata

Not long after the lockdown started, Cécile McLorin Salvant told me, “I think this situation begs an interesting question about the arts. Why are they important?” A month later, Arturo O’Farrill spoke of “rewriting the mission” for his organization. “To do that, we have to ask the same questions all jazz musicians must ask now. Why are we jazz musicians? What is the point?”

Ambrose Akinmusire’s newest album, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, came out in mid-June, just a bit behind schedule. On his 2011 Blue Note debut, he’d read aloud, over a drum solo, reports of the shooting of a young black man, Oscar Grant III, by a transit officer in his hometown of Oakland. On “Rollcall for Those Absent,” from a later album, a child recited the names of those killed in similar circumstances—Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin, and on— with just Mellotron, an electro-mechanical keyboard, as background. In January, when Akinmusire recorded the new album’s final track, “hooded procession (read the names outloud),” he hadn’t yet heard of George Floyd. “I was trying to express my exhaustion,” he told me. “I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years. I’m telling the listener, ‘It’s your turn here. Maybe this will be more effective.’” Without his trumpet, playing glistening chords on a Fender Rhodes piano, he takes his time, as in a church processional, moving nearly imperceptibly from minor key to major, finding fleeting resolution.

Larry Blumenfeld writes regularly about music for The Wall Street Journal and is editor-at-large of Jazziz magazine. He was the 2019 Jeanette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University. His “Covid Conversations” blog series, among other things, can be found at

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