From both a local jazz and personal perspective, I didn’t think it could get any worse than 2019 where, as I wrote here previously, in rapid succession the deaths of Ed Bickert, Gary Williamson and John Sumner robbed the Toronto scene of three of its best musicians, and for many of us, of three long-standing and treasured friends. Norma Thompson and Rochelle Koskie, two great ladies who had adorned the Toronto scene for decades, also passed. In the middle of all of this I fell and tore up my shoulder pretty badly – very small potatoes compared to dying – but for a time the injury called into question my future as a bass player. And about a month later, my good friend Patti Loach had a bad cycling accident and tore up her clavicle. Pianist Norman Amadio made it through 2019, but just barely, dying on January 21, 2020 after a long decline. But his death, coming before the pandemic hit us, seems like last year, too. Several times back then I said out loud that on a close-to-home level, it was the worst year I could remember, ever. How wrong I was.

Cortege

2020 has seen more deaths of jazz musicians than any other year in memory. Not all of these were COVID-related, but many were. Here’s a partial list – the ones I can remember off the top of my head – and it’s not even Halloween yet: Lee Konitz, Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Annie Ross, Holli Ross, (no relation but also a wonderful singer), Steve Grossman, Henry Grimes and  Giuseppi Logan (days apart in April), Johnny Mandel, Jimmy Cobb, Lennie Niehaus, Eddie Gale, Helen Jones Woods, Robert Northern, Cleveland Eaton, Keith Tippett, Gary Peacock, Ira Sullivan, and two men who were not musicians but who each had a major impact on jazz for many years – Chicago-based promoter Joe Segal and writer/critic Stanley Crouch. 

And this doesn’t include musicians in other fields – Bill Withers, Peter Green (for my money the best British blues guitarist of them all), Charlie Daniels, John Prine (broke my heart), Eddie Van Halen and many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Like the ballpark hawker says, “Get yer program, folks, you can’t tell the (dead) players without a program!” There have been more jazz obit notices in my email than nuisance promotions lately. The virus taketh away and then it taketh away more.

Read more: Jazz in the Kitchen: The COVID-19 Sessions

Rex side-door staff screen and instruct jazz-hungry guests.It would seem the rumours about a second wave in the spread of COVID-19 this fall are not rumours at all. We’ve already seen a dramatic rise of cases in Toronto and elsewhere around the country and the world recently, and fall is just starting. There are various factors to blame: cooler weather, which the virus seems to like; the inevitable relaxation, brought on by partial reopening, of mitigation measures such as social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, with numerous instances of socially irresponsible behaviour across the board; and the Rubik’s Cube-attempt to reopen schools, which is just getting under way. Not to mention that flu season – which will give our health-care system a double whammy to contend with – is upon us.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but this is likely to get worse before it gets better; we’re nowhere near the end but somewhere nearer the middle of the beginning, or (shudder) on the cusp of a new beginning of this pandemic. It’s easy to forget that the reason we were able to flatten the curve of infection in the first place is that we all made personal sacrifices during the lockdown period, and with the above-mentioned factors in play, now is not the time to relax those efforts, but to redouble them. We can’t do anything about cooler weather or the flu season, but we can wake up and continue to be careful and vigilant before we’re back to square one with another lockdown.

Small ensembles, small audiences and plexiglass.From the point of view of this column I’d like to address the delicate balancing act of reopening jazz, both in live venues such as Jazz Bistro and The Rex, and in the post-secondary schools which offer jazz programs. Both the Bistro and The Rex have partially reopened recently with social distancing measures in place, mostly having to do with a reduced capacity of both the size of audiences and bands. The Bistro is having live music Wednesday through Saturday with solo piano from 5 to 7, followed by duos and/or trios starting at 8pm with audience capacity limited to 50 people. The Rex spent the lockdown refurbishing its stage and began presenting live jazz again on September 3, also with a reduced crowd capacity. They’re going seven nights a week with trios starting at 5:30 and slightly larger bands at 9pm. I haven’t been yet, but I’m told they’ve installed a plexiglass barrier across the front of the bandstand, I suppose to protect customers from the blowing air of wind instruments. I’m not sure how this affects sound but the image conjures up chicken wire surrounding the stages of livelier country and western bars – think The Blues Brothers. Such are the realities of jazz, COVID-19 style.

Read more: Caught Between Jazz and a Hard Place

Photo by Willie KingIt’s almost impossible to believe that this most Twilight Zone of summers is rapidly drawing to a close. How did September come so fast despite many of us enduring so many long, empty and isolated days? Days upon days of not working, of not going out much save when necessary, of not seeing people, except on a computer screen or in brief “Dare we?” encounters. Indeed, with everything still pretty much upside down and our sense of normalcy and time in tatters, it’s hard to even say what the passing of summer means anymore. More on this later, but it reminds me of one of the many wonderfully droll lines from the great relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry: “I’ve seen the future; it’s a lot like the present, only longer.”

A Blizzard of Cancellations

In the old days, during inevitable patches when work was slow (we didn’t know what slow was), musicians would jokingly say “I looked in my gig book the other day and got snow blind” – as in too many blank, white squares, a blizzard of empty dates. It’s like that now, only the vast white spaces are interspersed with dates that have been scratched out, looking like little scruffs of dirt poking through the snow. And COVID-19 has brought a new gig convention: the courtesy cancellation, when a bandleader calls or emails the other musicians they’d booked on a job to tell them it’s been cancelled.

Read more: PANDAMIT!

Steve Wallace, centre, in friendlier times, with the Barry Elmes Quintet. Photo by Don Vickery“Playing the changes” is jazz argot (jargot?) for navigating the chord changes of any given piece or tune being played, a hard-earned skill, the challenge of which varies depending on how many chord changes there are, and how complex they might be. It’s also referred to as “making the changes,” as in playing notes which fit the chords – a sort of entry-level requirement – or “running the changes,” which can carry a negative connotation of a soloist robotically playing a lot of notes without necessarily making a coherent musical statement of any melodic value.

However, the difficulty of negotiating the labyrinthine chord changes of, say, Giant Steps, or I Got Rhythm, pale in comparison to the challenges facing jazz musicians during the COVID-19 lockdown of the past three months and counting. “Playing the changes” has taken on a whole new meaning – as in adapting to the catastrophic changes wrought by this virus. These have affected all of us deeply of course, but I would like to address them from a jazz perspective.

I’m slightly reluctant in doing so lest this take on a “woe is me” tone of self-pity, as if jazz players have suffered more than other live performers such as actors, dancers and musicians in other fields. Everyone has surely suffered from the lockdown measures, but as a largely in-the-moment, collectively improvised music – and an economically vulnerable one at that – jazz and its practitioners have been particularly set back by social distancing.

Read more: Playing Changes

To wildly understate matters, these are not normal times. Neither will this be a normal WholeNote issue, nor is this a normal column for me, if such a thing exists. I don’t intend to make this seem all about me, but I do want to go into detail about how the pandemic shutdown has affected me as a musician and music teacher, in the knowledge that mine is just one of thousands of such stories, and in the hope that my experience will resonate with others in the same position. Or those who are worse off.

The crisis really hit home on March 11/12, when all professional sports shut down almost at once; this sent shockwaves about how real and serious this virus is, and remains. Within hours schools closed, social distancing measures were implemented and by March 16, Ontario had issued lockdown orders re non-essential businesses closing, limiting travel and large social gatherings, etc. To quote two lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916: ”All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

On March 11, my wife Anna developed a sudden, burning cough, a concern for obvious reasons. It was diagnosed the next day as “only” pneumonia, perhaps the first time ever that a fairly serious illness was greeted with relief. On March 15, the last day I appeared in public, I developed a bad cold: sinus congestion, bad cough, but no other overt COVID-19 symptoms. We were laid up for about three weeks with these ailments and there were times we were certain that we had it. There’s nothing like a highly contagious and deadly virus to waken the inner paranoid hypochondriac in all of us. Like most others, we stayed home as much as possible and tried to stifle our uncertainties and anxieties.

Read more: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
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