WATCHING GIGS DISAPPEAR
Jazz musicians have little or no safety net during the coronavirus pandemic
No one will escape the coronavirus pandemic’s effects, but jazz musicians appear especially vulnerable to its economic impact.
For even before Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered restaurants, bars and concert halls closed, jazz artists in Chicago and across the country were seeing their gigs canceled, tours dropped and livelihoods vanish.
“My entire spring is shot,” said Orrin Evans, a top jazz pianist based in Philadelphia, before his first set March 14 at the Green Mill Jazz Club. “Tonight is probably the last day I’ll do a gig” for a while. period all the gigs ended,” said Chicago jazz guitarist Andy Brown. “It’s like somebody dropped an atom bomb on the town, or there was a solar flare and all the power went out.”
Said Chicago jazz singer Petra van Nuis, his wife: “It all seemed to happen in a couple of days. On Thursday, the 12th (of March), all day long, call after call, cancellation after cancellation. … I have basically nothing because I work at clubs, restaurants and bars.”
Like many other jazz musicians, van Nuis also performs for seniors in assisted living centers and the like. But there too “events have been canceled.”
“Retirement homes are now closed to nonessential people,” van Nuis said. “I do several library concerts a month. Those are canceled.”
Brown said he wholeheartedly agreed with the decision to shut down these gathering places, where the virus can easily spread. But he now faces a calendar that is as blank as his wife’s.
Yet even before the coronavirus onslaught, he experienced a foreboding about the jazz musician’s life.
“For the last six months or so, I’ve felt like every gig that I do, pretty much every day, starts with musicians wringing their hands and looking nervous and thinking: Where is this going?” said Brown.
“This is pre-virus jazz. Every gig starts with this stomachache feeling.”
Van Nuis too noticed a slowdown in engagements this year. When she communed with colleagues, she learned that “everyone’s schedule seemed lighter,” she said.
It’s important to remember that for an independent musician, the cancellation of a gig represents much more than the loss of a couple
hours’ work. Far more time is spent seeking out and lining up performances than delivering them.
“The problem with jazz, especially if you’re the leader, is you need so much time just to do the booking,” said van Nuis, who fronts her much-admired and aptly named “Recession Seven” ensemble.
“I’m basically working all the time to keep my part-time career.”
And because jazz dates are not typically very lucrative, “We sometimes are driving home from the gig and depositing the check in the drive-thru as we’re going home,” added van Nuis. “We’ve been able to squeak by like that.”
What’s more, for jazz musicians and other gig workers, there’s virtually no safety net.
Without a steady paycheck, paid sick days and vacation, employer-provided health insurance and other benefits of a conventional 9-to-5 job, the slightest interruption in work can be economically devastating. Wipe it all away in a single fell swoop, and artists have nowhere to go financially but down.
So though musicians such as van Nuis and Brown consider themselves fortunate to have good health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, their limited funds will last only so long.
“If we live frugally, we can make it like two months,” said van Nuis.
All of which inevitably leads them to compare their lot with classical musicians, such as the formidable artists who play in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Few, if any, jazz musicians enjoy the kind of support that the CSO artists have earned through their superlative skills and hardwon union negotiations.
During last year’s CSO strike, the terms of their employment and the benefits they sought were reported in the Tribune and elsewhere.
“Reading about the CSO strike, I felt agitated,” said Brown. “Because it felt like: Wow, there’s really no comparable situation for the equivalent musician on the Chicago jazz scene.
“CSO musicians, they have what they need to get in their contract. There’s nothing at all comparable for even the most celebrated, the most venerated and the most accomplished musicians here in jazz.”
The reasons for that are many, but perhaps they come down to how America views classical music versus jazz.
Starting in the late 19th century, this country sought to emulate Europe by creating great symphony orchestras and venerating the historic masterpieces of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and others. Jazz came later, emerging as a bona fide art form at the turn of the previous century in New Orleans brothels and clubs, migrating to saloons and dance halls in Chicago and beyond.
Never has jazz enjoyed anything close to the institutional support and philanthropy lavished on classical music in America, though Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and SFJAZZ in San Francisco have been bucking the long-standing trend. The disparities in funding between classical and jazz reflect the differences in lifestyle between musicians working in each arena.
“Basically, society has decided that classical is worthy of civic and cultural support,” said Brown, who points out that “there are a lot of sociological reasons, you can say racial reasons. We get it — the history of America. Jazz is historically African American music.
“America, I feel, doesn’t quite know how to value its own history, like Europe does. Europe is always looking to its past.
“The United States is always looking to its future — the latest pop music, the latest trend. It doesn’t know how to celebrate itself.”
Not that Brown and van Nuis believe that anyone owes them a living. They made the choice to pursue what was a tough life long before the current crisis and acknowledge that it’s up to them to figure out how to make it work.
“We made our own bed,” said van Nuis. “I understand there are people out there who are really suffering, who are in an absolutely dire situation, where one week can ruin them, not two months.
“I don’t want it to come across as a complaint. I understand it’s my adult responsibility to take care of myself.”
Along these lines, van Nuis has applied for a job at Trader Joe’s and has looked into becoming a census taker. Brown, however, chooses to cling entirely to his art.
“I’m going to go to the gigs, I will follow them till they’re gone, and when and if it stops, I’ll reassess,” he said.
Yet even beyond the question of money is that of identity.
“Musicians always wonder: What would happen if I’m injured?” said Brown. “Who am I if I’m not a guitar player?
“I don’t know who I am if I’m not going to play every day. I guess we’re going to find out.”
Orrin Evans, seen playing at the Green Mill on March 14, said thanks to the shutdown of businesses because of the coronavirus pandemic “my entire spring is shot.”
Jazz duo Petra van Nuis, left, and Andy Brown perform at Pete Miller’s in Evanston in 2014.
Pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Gene Jackson perform at Green Mill in Uptown on March 14.