Jazz mu­si­cians have lit­tle or no safety net dur­ing the coron­avirus pan­demic

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Howard Re­ich Evans typ­i­cally is a busily tour­ing mu­si­cian who swings through Chicago once or twice a year to play the Mill. “I don’t know if there’s any way to plan for this. … I’ve never seen any­thing like this. The only thing this re­minds me of was 9/

On Mu­sic

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.

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