February 20, 2020: Harrison Squared, at Buckingham Palace (Calgary!) Left to right: Vetro, Argatoff, Wallace and Murley. Photo credit Buckingham PalaceWith the COVID-19 pandemic having passed the one-year mark – and with recent ominous developments indicating we’re likely looking at another year of it – and with the university teaching year just finishing, this article will be a kind of retrospective diary of the past annus horribilis from the perspective of a jazz musician and teacher.

Lest I forget

In February of 2020, about a month before COVID hit North America, I did a tour of Western Canada with Harrison Squared, a quartet co-led by two young musicians named Harrison – Harrison Argatoff (tenor) and Harrison Vetro (drums), with saxophonist Mike Murley and me aboard as greybeard mentors. The band was born out of a few sporadic gigs, but some chemistry was there and we’d just released a CD called Trout in Swimwear, so the tour was a chance to promote the CD and for the band to coalesce with eight concerts spread over two weeks. The first day was the most gruelling: an eye-wateringly, early-morning flight to Vancouver, renting a van and taking the ferry to Nanaimo, then driving to Courtenay to do our first gig in a club that night, with just hours to spare. That our first gig was in Courtenay was significant for me as it’s become like a second home – my sister-in-law Fran and her son Kyle (like a third son to me along with my own two) live there, and her cousin Frank is just down the street, so I’ve visited many times. However, the tight schedule didn’t allow much time for socializing. 

Read more: How did I not see that coming? A (Lost) Year in Retrospect

From Left: John Sumner, drums; Steve Wallace, bass; and Mark Eisenman, piano in 2007, playing a Carmen Unzipped cabaret with Jean Stilwell. Photo byPeter MartynJazz is not easily boiled down to any one element but when you get right down to it, learning to play jazz is largely about learning how to listen. Really listen, hard, to many things simultaneously while making spontaneous decisions based on what you’re hearing. This is true of all music to some extent but especially so with jazz because it’s so unscripted: there’s often very little on paper to tell you what to play or how to play it, or when. The best jazz is like a coherent conversation between musicians using sounds instead of words, and what makes it coherent – or not – is whether the “conversationalists” are not only speaking the same language, but also really listening to one another. 

As a player you have to learn to divide your ear to monitor many aspects at once: the form and structure of the tune being played; the melody, which you try to hold in your ear even after it’s been abandoned; the harmony and its variations; the dynamics; the rhythmic pressure/development and other minutiae; all while trying to hear the big picture, the overall arc of a performance. You have to listen to yourself closely, but also to what everyone else is doing. But while doing all this listening you also have to act and react instantaneously – to not only listen hard, but fast. Hesitate, even for a second, and you’re lost.

Read more: Listening Fast and Hearing Long

Many would agree that 2020 was the worst we’ve ever been through and we were all anxious to see the end of “The Year of Living Covidously.” So good riddance, 2020, and don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. But of course the root of all our problems and suffering – the pandemic – hasn’t gone anywhere and simply flipping over to January of a new year on the calendar hasn’t solved it, any more than anything else we’ve tried. And Lord knows we’ve tried lots, at least most of us. Masking up, staying at home, social distancing, keeping our bubbles small, working from home (that’s if you still have a job), forgetting what eating in a restaurant or hearing live music feel like. Stores and schools closed, then open, then sort of half-open, then not. And still the numbers go up as we chase this invisible enemy, to the point where The Myth of Sisyphus no longer seems a metaphor but something we’re living on a daily basis. Keep pushing that boulder.

None of this is to say that we should join the ranks of the anti-mask loonies or herd-immunity-at-any-cost-COVID-deniers, not at all. We have only to look south of the border to see how well that hasn’t worked, as Samuel Goldwyn might have put it. Clearly we must stay the course with these mitigation measures because they’re the best tools we have and, just as clearly, we would be even worse off without abiding them in the last year. It’s just that after nine months and counting of cave-dwelling isolation… well, it’s getting harder. To quote one of Mose Allison’s more sardonic later songs – “I am not discouraged. I am not down-hearted. I am not disillusioned… But I’m gettin’ there… yeah, I’m gettin’ there.”

Mose Allison. Photo by Mose Allison

Read more: New Year, Same Old

1 GIMME THAT WINEThere’s no use sugar-coating it: this coming winter promises to be the darkest in living memory. Mix the harsh weather we Canadians can always expect this time of year with the fact that COVID-19 numbers are on the rise everywhere (Toronto is about to re-enter a modified form of the spring lockdown as I write), and you have a recipe for Bleak on Toast with a side of Dismal. 

Normally, we can look forward to Christmas and/or Hanukkah to provide an oasis of celebration in the midst of all the cold and ice and snow, but with the lockdown measures set to extend at least 28 days from November 23 on, these holidays will be a lot less festive this year. The best we can hope for is to celebrate them with a vengeance next year and in the meantime, thank God the LCBO is still deemed an essential service. As Lambert, Hendricks & Ross once famously sang, “Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle).” Cheers.

I’m tired of writing about the effects of COVID on musicians and live music and I suspect you are tired of reading about it, too. Let’s just say it’s been devastating, that many of us have done our best to do a technological end run around the pandemic, and leave it at that. The real question becomes how do we get through the next couple of months with our sanity and spirit intact? I’ve already recommended alcohol, but that doesn’t work for everyone. We’re all going to be cooped up inside so we have to learn to enjoy that as best we can. Cooking, baking, reading a good book or watching some classic movies all help; watching the news, not so much. And of course staying in touch with friends and family by phone or email or Zoom is really important. But above all else, I find listening to music helps the most. Since CDs have become almost obsolete, I came to regret having amassed such a huge collection of them, but no longer. I’ve spent a lot of the past eight months revisiting my collection and it’s been time well spent.

So, in the spirit of “bring it on” which helps Canadians withstand the winters, I’ve decided to offer a menu of songs which address the “joys” of winter – not Christmas or Holiday songs, which we all know – but rather songs which actually have to do with winter itself. If you’re reading this online, I’ve included YouTube links to each in the hope that housebound jazz fans will get some enjoyment out of these gems. 

Read more: Antidote to the Winter of Our Discontent: A 51:48-Minute Playlist

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
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