Philly Jazz Guide: How the public health crisis has impacted the Philadelphia jazz scene
April is Jazz Appreciation Month, which usually means that this space is overflowing with opportunities to congregate and share the experience of hearing live music across the city. This year, of course, we’ll all have to show our appreciation from afar, as the calendar has been wiped clean thanks to the devastating threat of coronavirus.
It would have been a slightly more somber occasion than usual in any case. Even before life turned upside down, Philly lost two jazz greats in March. On the 6th, legendary pianist McCoy Tyner passed away, drawing a final curtain on the iconic John Coltrane Quartet. It’s impossible to overstate Tyner’s influence on modern jazz pianists, his percussive and harmonically dense style echoed in countless players over the last half century.
Just six days later he was followed by Danny Thompson, the longtime baritone saxophonist of jazz’s favorite extraterrestrial big band, the Sun Ra Arkestra. Thompson first joined the ensemble in 1967 and would go on to play a key role at various points, especially its latter-day incarnation led by Marshall Allen.
Allen was intended to be the guest of honor late last month at Ars Nova Workshop’s annual fundraiser, which had announced a special performance by Yo La Tengo not long before being forced to call off the event altogether. Like most organizations and venues in the city, the presenter’s schedule is now a blank slate at least through May. Founder Mark Christman opts to see the hiatus as an opportunity. Taking a much-needed breather after 20 dogged years, he’ll be able to focus on larger-scale projects in the works, including art exhibitions, a partnership with The Woodlands historic site and the annual October Revolution festival, minus the day-to-day demands of regular concerts. In the coming months, livestreams or releases from the Ars Nova archives are a possibility.
The next few weeks would have been packed ones for Fire Museum, which had shows by Jaap Blonk, Jaimie Branch and Stephan Crump’s Rosetta trio to be disappointed about. Such unpredictability can be brutal to a small organization like Fire Museum, though it’s been buoyed through the difficulties by the announcement last week of a three-year operating grant from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which should promise a healthy return once reality returns to (relative) normality.
The hiatus is more devastating for full-time venues like Chris’ Jazz Café and South, both of whom have closed their doors for the duration. For the latter, that means the cancellation, or at least postponement, of a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Bynum Hospitality Group, which would have included tributes to some of the now-lost legends who graced the stage of Zanzibar Blue, the Bynum Brothers’ first jazz space.
At Chris’ the shows that might have been include homecomings by all three Eubanks brothers – trombonist Robin this month, with trumpeter brother Duane in tow, and ex-Tonight Show guitarist Kevin in April. Most disappointingly, May’s schedule was intended to include a benefit for South Philly guitar master Pat Martino, who has not performed since November 2018 due to severe health issues. A GoFundMe campaign has been launched in his honor.
Both venues are also restaurants, so their closure impacts not only audiences but the staff members who live on the always-thin margins of the service industry. Gift certificates are available on the Chris’ and South websites, with online fundraisers a possibility for the near future as well. In the meantime, owner Mark DeNinno is preparing the club for live streaming, which will help ease the place back into business as wary customers trickle back in and be available on an ongoing basis for the future.
The cancellations will be felt perhaps most vividly at the end of the month, when the annual Center City Jazz Festival usually fills several blocks around Broad and Sansom with music. The weekend will be silent this year, though founder Ernest Stuart promises a revival in the fall.
For now, musicians are scrambling to figure out the new normal. Nick Millevoi has been posting some oddball video collages on Instagram that suggest he’s handling isolation about as well as Jack Torrance in The Shining (albeit with a six-string axe rather than a literal one), while Orrin Evans has assembled members of his “Village” for impromptu jam sessions in his living room. The Philly Jazz Legacy Project is asking local musicians to contribute 3-5 minute videos explaining the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and music, with a $50 payment for qualified musicians. Contact Suzanne Cloud at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. That’s just a few examples – keep an eye out on social media for increasingly common livestreams and other resourceful approaches to maintaining sanity.
Outside the city, pianist Fred Hersch is offering daily mini-concerts from his living room via Facebook, while vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner have performed at-home duos, as have harpist Brandee Younger and bassist Dezron Douglas.. An all-star lineup will make up a weeklong virtual festival with Live From Our Living Rooms as a fundraiser for performance grants to impacted New York City musicians. The lineup is stellar: Chick Corea, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Bill Frisell, Julian Lage, Dave Liebman and others will appear over the course of the week.
For those needing more than the healing power of music, Jazz Philadelphia has compiled a listing of information, self-care and artist resources here.
Take care, stay healthy, and hopefully we’ll all be back together soon to complain about the jerk who won’t shut up during the bass solo.