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

In Part One of this article, last issue, I offered this working definition of jazz: Jazz is a music of collective improvisation which swings, and which places a premium on individual sonic expressivity. I went on to discuss the collective improvisation and individual sonic expressivity aspects, but ran out of space before getting to the business of swing and why it matters, which I’ll take up here. But before getting to that ... perhaps not surprisingly, given the music’s moving-target nature, I’ve already expanded the definition: Jazz is a music of collective improvisation which swings, and which places a premium on blues tonality and individual sonic and rhythmic expressivity.

Apologies for complicating things, but jazz is complex, and after all, the first part of the title is “Notes Toward…”. In all honesty, I may never arrive at a definition of jazz which is satisfactory – indeed, that may be impossible – but I’m trying to assemble the essential elements of the music and what makes it distinct from others and it occurred to me that the individual freedom essential to jazz extends not just to a player’s personal sound, but also to matters of rhythm and phrasing: Coleman Hawkins did not phrase eighth notes like Lester Young did and Wayne Shorter doesn’t phrase eighth notes like Young did, and so on down the line. And no two drummers play the iconic skip-beat on the ride cymbal the same way – not quite.

As to the use of blues tonality, I think we can all agree that it has been prevalent in jazz throughout its history. Not just on the standard 12-bar blues form, or in the obvious use of blue notes, but as a pervasive stylistic influence informing matters such as pitch, vocalism, sound, phrasing, spacing, vibrato (or the lack thereof) and above all, emotion; the feeling in jazz. To be sure, this blues influence is not exclusive to jazz; it can be heard in country and folk music, and in rock ‘n’ roll, but in jazz it’s much more central, more varied and subtle, even to the point of abstraction. Every time you hear a great jazz player – from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman and beyond – put a buzz or a smear or a bend on a note, or play what seems like a wrong note, you’re hearing the blues. Lester Young could play the most obvious note – the tonic of a chord – and invest it with an extraordinary feeling; the feeling of the blues. 

Read more: Notes Toward a Definition of Jazz, Part Two: Swing
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