When clubs closed, The Jazz Gallery emerged like a phoenix: NPR
Harold O’Neal / Courtesy of the artist
The set erupted around 9.15 p.m. on a Friday evening in October. Narrow aisles crowded with listeners. As Delta stood outside, the Jazz Gallery hummed with excitement under pressure. Few wore masks. Many focused on cream puffs plated in the Green Room to celebrate the late Roy Hargrove’s 52nd birthday. Between nudges and clinking plastic cups, the atmosphere reflected something untraceable but palpable: through a year of isolation and tense returns, the gallery community has never lost contact.
Months before the mayor of Blasio issued proof of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for indoor entertainment in August, the Gallery launched a virtual health exam to promote community safety. In September 2020 before a viral wave, and then again in April 2021, the nonprofit sold tickets for $ 50 – higher than pre-pandemic rates – to a reduced-capacity audience, temporarily suspending tickets. member discounts. âThe artists were going through a difficult time,â explains artistic director Rio Sakairi, âso we more than doubled our payment guarantee. It was the right thing to do. ”
In the spring of 2020, the on-site rally eclipsed a panic that suffocated the city. Neighboring clubs followed similar impulses, adopting live performance models so artists could get back to work. But Sakairi created an online programming suite unique to the Gallery: âI experimented with formats to bring music and community closer together. ”
One such format, The Lockdown Sessions, featured artists sharing video creations and chatting via video conference. Intentionally, Sakairi paired young artists with established leaders. âA lot of people have listened to Bill Frisell,â she says. “Nobody knew [bassist] Hannah Marks, but people said, ‘Wow, I’m going to buy your CD.’ They were opportunities for discovery and community building. ”
Hank O’Neal / Courtesy the artist
Especially for those squatting abroad, the series has become a lifeline. Some videos turned the session into an arthouse; others, a comedy club. âEveryone was looking for something,â Sakairi said. Trombonist-songwriter Kalia Vandever considers The Lockdown Sessions her ‘most enjoyable’ virtual gig: “Rio included the element of talking to artists and audiences afterwards. It felt very personal and very loyal to the community of the gallery.”
Eventually, the Flatiron Hall began to broadcast live performances that would disappear after 24 hours, out of deference to the active musicians. Viewers have embraced the virtual medium created in June 2020, at least for a while. A year later, when customers returned to physical spaces, the online atmosphere began to deteriorate as complaints about sound quality and ticket prices increased.
Virtual programming persists, but Sakairi predicts that international members will remain active for another year and then terminate their membership. In recent months, the streaming success rate has dropped 90% from its 2020 peak to around 20 viewers. But heads remain cold. “We are not worried,” she said. “I predicted the pandemic wouldn’t change live music. And it isn’t.”
The real dilemma seems more abstract. Aside from the simplistic nature of the live performances, several performers admitted to Sakairi that they play “safer” when the cameras are on. And for an improvised art form, the risk is there. To alleviate anxiety, the gallery only shows performances on Saturdays.
With clubs now featuring live broadcasts alongside in-person performances, mixed reactions abound. Drummer-songwriter Nasheet Waits views the evolution to ubiquity of livestreaming with measured optimism. âMusic is a collective experience, to a large extent,â he says. “This is not a replacement, but I think it should continue and be offered in conjunction with [in-person performance]. ”
Supported by outside funding – and similar gathering communities – places with the same heart have also summoned their inner phoenix. Building on live streaming offerings throughout the summer, on September 14, Village Vanguard once again hosted the sets in person at full capacity. Smalls Jazz Club – whose nonprofit SmallsLIVE foundation received $ 25,000 from Billy Joel in April 2020 – has regained its late-night reigning club status, encountering countless obstacles including an anonymous complaint filed with the State Liquor Authority in March.
Although saddened by the losses, in particular that of Jazz Standard which announced its closure in December 2020, Sakairi remains hopeful: âThere is nothing like live music. It shakes you up in a way that nothing on the screen can. Everything will be alright.”