How The Coronavirus Fallout Could Be Devastating To The Practice Of Jazz

Mar 19, 2020
Originally published on March 19, 2020 8:41 am

Last year, Sons of Kemet were one of the standout acts of the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. This year, the festival is one of countless gatherings that has been cancelled due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. For the music industry — and especially for bands like Sons of Kemet, which rely on the energy of live performance — the disruptions caused by social distancing have been devastating. To explain those problems, NPR's Rachel Martin spoke to Nate Chinen from member station WBGO and Jazz Night in America. Listen in the player above and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On the particular impact that tour cancellations have on jazz musicians

The first and most fundamental problem, of course, is income: Just like countless workers in the service economy, musicians are looking at a terrible hit to their livelihood. The scale of the disruption is almost unfathomable. For improvising musicians who generally don't have big record sales, touring revenue is absolutely crucial and this is the time of year when that would usually be ramping up. Factor in new restrictions on gatherings in cities like New York and the impact is catastrophic.

Especially for improvisational musicians, the connection with an audience is a lifeblood. Shabaka Hutchings, the British saxophonist who leads Sons of Kemet, says musicians are going to need to come up with some contingencies.

"There is no magic solution," he says. "But I think this is really the time to become creative about survival. Because that's what it is. Literally, all my gigs in the next two months have been canceled. And everyone I know is in the same boat."

On the absence of protections for touring musicians

For the majority of musicians there's no insurance policy to cover this sort of thing. And to make matters worse, many festivals and presenting organizations around the world have been shut down by government decree, which enables them to cancel a financial commitment to the artist without penalty. But then in some other places, there may still be a contract in place, so that really puts an artist in a bind when the whole point of a tour is to spread expenses across a full range of dates. So not only is there no insurance, [but] the system is actually skewed against a touring musician right now.

On a few creative solutions to keeping live music going

It's early still, but we're beginning to see some interesting work-arounds. Firehouse 12, a club in New Haven, Conn., just converted its spring season to a livestream-only series and I watched one of the shows last week. And jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant says she'll be streaming performances from her living room and accepting payment by Venmo.

These difficulties are still unfolding; we're not sure how they're going to play out. But it is important to find ways of supporting these artists. Their music provides inspiration and even comfort in these times. Shabaka Hutchings said there might actually be an opportunity here to change the system for the better, even after things go back to normal.

"We have to make the best of the situation, or the situation will just be tragic," he says. "And all situations have the potential to be tragic, or the potential to be tragic and transformative."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is the sound of a killer band in a crowded room, Sons of Kemet at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. It's a recording from last year. The festival this year has been canceled because of the coronavirus. It's one of so many gatherings that have been called off or postponed. For the music industry, and especially for bands like Sons of Kemet, which rely on the energy of live performances, the disruptions caused by social distancing have just been devastating. Nate Chinen from member station WBGO and Jazz Night In America is with me to talk about this. Hey, Nate.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, I mean, this has got to be a tough time for so many musicians - right? - all performers.

CHINEN: It really is, you know. The first and most fundamental problem, of course, is income. Just like countless workers in the service economy, musicians are looking at a really terrible hit to their livelihood. The scale of this disruption is just almost unfathomable. And for improvising musicians, who generally don't have big record sales, touring revenue is crucial. And this is usually the time of year when that would be ramping up. Factor in the new restrictions on gatherings in cities like New York, and the impact is really catastrophic.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, jazz, like you cover, is almost social by definition, right? I mean, it is all about the live performance.

CHINEN: Absolutely. And that connection with an audience is a lifeblood for these artists and for the art form. You know, we opened this segment with music by Sons of Kemet. Shabaka Hutchings, the British saxophonist who leads that band, told me musicians are going to need to come up with some contingencies.

SHABAKA HUTCHINGS: There is no magic solution. But I think this is really the time to become creative about survival because that's what it is. Literally, just, you know, with me, like, all my gigs in the next two months, you know, have been canceled. And everyone I know is in the same boat.

MARTIN: Wow. Do they not have any protections against cancellations, some kind of insurance?

CHINEN: You know, for the most part, no. There's no policy to cover this sort of thing. And to make matters worse, many festivals and presenting organizations around the world have been shut down by government decree, which enables them to cancel a financial commitment to the artist without penalty.

But then in some other places, there may still be a contract in place. So that really puts the artist in a bind when the whole point of a tour is to spread expenses across a full range of dates. So not only is there no insurance, the system is actually often skewed against a touring musician right now.

MARTIN: So what are the alternatives? I mean, what do they do?

CHINEN: It's early still. But we're beginning to see some interesting workarounds. Just in my own experience, Firehouse 12, a club in New Haven, Conn., just converted its entire spring season to a livestream-only series. And I watched one of the shows last week. And jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, she'll be streaming performances from her living room and accepting payment by Venmo.

And, you know, it's important to note that these difficulties are still unfolding. We're not sure how they're going to play out. But it is important to find ways of supporting these artists. You know, their music provides inspiration and comfort in these times.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CHINEN: And Shabaka, the musician we just heard from, he said that there might actually be an opportunity here to think about ways that we could change the system for the better even after things go back to normal.

HUTCHINGS: Or the situation will just be tragic, you know. And all situations have the potential to be tragic or the potential to be tragic and transformative.

MARTIN: So let's hope for the transformative part at the very least. Nate, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

CHINEN: My pleasure. Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF KEMET'S "MY QUEEN IS MAMIE PHIPPS CLARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.