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On Missing Live Jazz

Douglas Groothuis By

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Jazz is not dead—A music that thrives on improvisation and virtuosity can inspire its listeners and supporters, like me, to keep it alive and to plan and hope for its future. —A music that thrives on improvisation and virtuosity can inspire its listeners and supporters, like me, to keep it alive and to plan and hope for its future.
This pandemic has snatched much from us through its reign of disease and death. We have lost family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances to COVID-19. Millions have lost jobs or fear losing them. By all accounts, the whole thing stinks. We try to cling to what remains, and we hope and pray for restoration.

How does all this upheaval affect the jazz world? We have lost a host of old and not-so-old jazz luminaries to this disease, such as Ellis Marsalis (85), Henry Grimes (84), and Wallace Roney (59). How many more? I think of older jazz musicians still living: Sonny Rollins (89), Chick Corea (78), Herbie Hancock (80), Keith Jarrett (75).

Jazz is also losing gigs. Performers cannot perform live. Denver's premier jazz club, and my favorite venue, Dazzle, is closed until further notice—as is Birdland (New York), Snug Harbor (New Orleans), Yoshi's (Oakland), and hundreds of lesser known clubs. The lockdowns and slowdowns wrought by the virus hit jazz harder than some other art forms, for jazz lives on and is premised on improvisation—individual and group innovation in the moment and with an audience.

Jazz critic, Ted Gioia rightly calls jazz "the imperfect art," in a fine book of that name, since musicians compose on stage. They mix risk and talent before our eyes and in our ears. It is a high-wire act that, with the best of performers, is scintillating. Time practicing in the woodshed is not the same as time playing on the stage. But all woodshed and no stage makes for frustrated musicians—and hungry fans.

The loss of gigs is more than frustrating for the musicians, since so much of their income comes from performing live. While I can continue to be employed as a seminary professor by teaching through Zoom, a jazz musician cannot switch a gig to online and expect to be paid much, if anything. Although pandemic stimulus money helps, it is financially grim for the musicians and, of course, for the owners and employees of jazz establishments.

Besides the plight of musicians, jazz fans miss the discrete and unique pleasures of live jazz—the rapport with and between the musicians, the virtuoso playing, and the humor. (In my experience, jazz musicians smile more than do other performing musicians.) We also miss mixing with other jazz aficionados at Dazzle or Birdland or other clubs and concert venues. We miss the adult beverages, the food, the company, the general ambiance—in addition to the "sound of surprise" (Whitney Balliett) that is jazz. I find jazz audiences to be friendly, knowledgeable, and deeply interested in the music. I miss that warmth and glow, as do millions worldwide.

So we lament these losses. It is right to lament the loss of a true good—something that brings joy and flourishing to human beings. Yet we can also hope and act.

First, we can express our gratitude by writing cards or sending emails to musicians, supporting those in jazz who have been hit hard by this modern plague. Some "Go Fund Me" pages have been set up for financial support during this time of no gigs, no ticket sales, no open hours.

Second, we can take heart that in the spirit of improvisation, some jazz clubs are continuing to support jazz by putting performances online. For example, Dazzle's website encourages fans and musicians to stay involved:

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Just like seeing a performance at Dazzle, you can see your favorite artists right here on the website. It might not be a live show. But it's "here" and it's "now."

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Each musician can receive gifts via Venmo, PayPal and Cash App directly from you, their biggest fans and supporters. Your help is needed now, more than ever."

Jazz is not dead, although it may be on life support. But a music that thrives on improvisation and virtuosity can inspire its listeners and supporters, like me, to keep it alive and to plan and hope for its future. Even as we lament the losses, we can work for the preservation and restoration of one of American's greatest achievements, our jazz

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