Jazz on Lockdown: keep music alive [VIDEOS]

There’s a running joke that emerged during the first days (weeks?) of the COVID19 crisis – and it doesn’t seem to be willing to die anytime soon. The joke is that, while the pandemic calls for mass gatherings to be avoided at all cost (more on that later), jazz is safe – because, you know, jazz does not attract masses.

The joke is best summed up in this meme:

Funny, right? Well, except that it is not true – the truth is that jazz bands are struggling. Musicians, along with other type of artists and anyone working in the arts, culture and events industry, are part of the cohorts of workers affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, losing their livelihoods within days.
According to I lost my gig Australia, so far the events industry has lost $325 million worth of cancelled gigs – and that number is rising daily.
Here’s a random example: Ellen Kirkwood was planning to present her amazing [A] Part suite at Wollongong Jazz,with the Sirens Big Band.
It is one of those rare works of art that are created as a response to the zeitgeist, music that talks about the issues we are facing – in the aftermath of the devastating bushfires, this work gained another kind of urgency. In the era of COVID-19 it has become essential listening; this is the kind of music – insightful, empathetic, human – that we need most of all. The power of music to heal, to connect us and to help us make sense of the world.


To say that things are changing – and probably faster than what we can process – is an understatement.

That ‘jazz club’ joke? That was three weeks ago – or was it? Sometime it still feels like yesterday – others like years ago, when Melbourne woke up to the news of all outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people being ‘suspended’ (a beautiful euphemism for ‘forbidden’), which led to the cancellation of the Grand Prix, followed by the closure of the Melbourne Recital Centre and the Arts Centre, the cancellation of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and Stonnington Jazz and other large-scale events; then there was the ‘suspension’ of indoor gatherings of more than 100 people – The Jazz Lab was first to make the hard but responsible decision to close its doors, followed by Paris Cat, Bird’s Basement, Uptown Jazz Cafe and Melbourne’s two little intimate venues, Lido Jazz Room and Classic Southside. The Ellington in Perth, Doo-Bop and Brisbane Jazz Club in Queensland, Foundry 616 and all the jazz venues in the country did the same.
Some of them are still optimistic that they will reopen mid-April; some have kept their May program live – but as we move further towards lockdown, chances of this happening are really dim.
So yes, the Jazz scene is hardly ‘fine’. Not only because we are all confined at home, not only because venues are closed, gigs are cancelled, recording sessions have been postponed, projects put on hiatus, but more importantly because COVID-19 is taking a toll on lives. The international jazz community is already mourning the passing of great masters: Manu Dibango, Mike Longo, Wallace Roney, Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, the list goes on.

Now more than ever, we need the healing power of music; we need the community building experience of live music performance to cope with the new normal we are trying to adapt to. Self – isolation, quarantine, lockdown, physical distancing – you name it, it will affect our lives for longer than it actually lasts.

Like a wildflower that finds its way to grow through a rock, music stays alive and offers us comfort and hope. Master John McLaughlin was one of the first of the greats to react – offering his latest output with Zakir Hussain and Shankar Mahadevan for free, as a gesture of solidarity.

“In view of the current situation world wide with Corona Virus and the fact that we are obliged to spend more time at home, we would like to offer our friends the free download of the new album Is that So? until end of April 2020 from Abstract Logix,” reads the message of the legendary guitarist.
“Enjoy the music and stay happy and healthy!”

Others soon followed his lead – musicians like saxophonist and keeper of the spiritual jazz flame Nat Birchall, from Manchester, UK, who offered his spectacular 2016 album Creation for free through a Facebook post saying: “In light of these dark times I thought I would make a tiny gesture and make my darkest album, Creation, available for free download. It’s quite dark but I believe it has uplifting qualities all the same. I wrote the music, and we recorded it, at a time when the world was getting darker and it got me thinking about where all this darkness came from. Was it there from the beginning, or did it arise somewhere along the way. Was there love in the universe at the beginning or did that arise at some time. Either way I firmly believe the only way to fight darkness, or evil, or hate, is with positivity, with beauty.”

Here in Australia, our friend – and brilliant pianist – ade ishs offers his full discography for free, in the same spirit. “My thoughts are with those who are disadvantaged and having difficulties fulfilling basic necessities, as well as those struggling financially, mentally, and physically, including those who have their income cut off because of the outbreak,” ade says.”In times like this, let us support each other and give to others what we can give.”

Another Aussie legend, folk-jazz artist Ben Salter also stepped up to offer a live recording of his performance at the Bridge Hotel in Castlemaine – featuring cellist Bridget on and Julien Wilson on sax – for free; a day later he released yet another album, Summer of the Loud Birds.

Yes, he is prolific – which also helps make another point: there is so much music out there, that all of us who rely on it for our emotional stability can feel safe. We’re never going to run out. Apart from the millions of recordings in the vaults – most of them just a push-of-the-play-button-on-a-streaming-service away – there is an abundance of music created right this moment, music that is not necessarily written to cope with the global self-isolation situation, but that is de facto doing it.

Some of this music is created in front of our very eyes – in the dozens of live-streaming performances and zoom video collaborations already taking place every day.

This is the Isolation Improvisation Collective, a new venture byLachlan Thompson, Patrick Telfer, Gordon Li, Isha Ram Das, Theo Carbo, Sophie Weston and Monica Lim.


Here’s another observation – as the planet is facing an unprecedented global crisis, as the global economy is already in tatters, people are fearing for the future, for their lives, their health, their jobs. Trying to understand, they make comparisons with the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression; but there’s a difference – back then, we did not have the tools we have today; back then, we could not instantly communicate with each other. There was no Telehealth during the Spanish Flu, there were no virtual classrooms during the Great Depression, no video chat, no WFH, no opportunity to work online. Things are different now; this is not to say ‘easier’ nor that we know the shape our communities will take, after all this is over.

Case in point – arguably the most widely used online tool these days is zoom. Corporations use it to manage work meetings; teachers and therapists use it to deliver lessons and sessions online; musicians use it to play together.

Look at this group of legends (Steve Grant on cornet, Jono Brown on the trombone, Flora Carbo on sax, Jon Delaney and Ben Kahans on guitar, Kym Purling on piano, Sebastien Girardot on bass, Phill Jenkins on tuba and Danny McKenna on the drums) playing Mama Inez together.


This gem was recorded between 27-31 March in Melbourne, Adelaide, Paris and Vung Tao. This is what a jam session in lockdown looks – and sounds – like.

And yes, COVID-19 has deprived us from our beloved jazz clubs, but live performances keep happening. When the Arts Centre announced its closure – three weeks ago – the Melbourne Sympony Orchestra still performed Rimsky – Korsakov’s Scheherazade as planned, in front of empty seats, but beamed live into our living room. This was of course, when a gathering of fewer than 100 people in a room was still allowed.

In the days that followed, other organisations have followed this example.

TheJazz Music Institute in Bowen Hills has been streaming its JMI-Live weekly gigs for a while now, and it has not stopped these past couple of weeks; starting with a fantastic performance by Jess Spina and the Will Sargisson Trio, the JMI Live sessions – every Thursday at 8pm – are the closest we have to a jazz club.

While these gigs are streaming for free, JMI still pays the musicians who perform to the empty club.

“We are feeling very thankful for modern technology and our ability to continue spreading jazz and our love for music during this crazy time,” reads the statement.

Over in Sydney, SIMA is doing something similar, holding its program online, under the title ‘A Meditation in Jazz’ every Friday.

Back in Melbourne, the Make it up Club has been presenting weekly curated experimental, improvised, and avant-garde music and sound happenings since 1998. Now it has moved to presenting online concerts of mind-blowing music.

It’s not only organisations; it’s also individuals. Every Sunday afternoon, the brilliant Nat Bartch is hosting her own series of concerts, featuring guests such as guitarist Robbie Melville.

What is really interesting is that these ‘Soothing Sundays’ not only quickly found an audience, but this audience is willing to offer donations to the performers, setting an example of a successful business model that would make live-streaming gigs viable for artists.

Which brings us to the newest ofthese ventures, the Jazz Social, a virtual ‘jazz club’ bringing together three artists per week live-streaming from their homes. Viewer spots are limited and access to the gig is by donation – like what happens at an actual jazz club.

Next week the Jazz Social features Julien Wilson, Kristin Berardi and James Sherlock. We’ll be there.

This is the new normal. We will get used to it. And we will prevail. As long as there’s music.

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz!
To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association initiated ‘Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here’– posts curated by jazz journalists internationally, representing local concerts that didn’t happen with embedded representations of the musicians, and methods to support those losing gig income.
“The goal is to expose music by artists across all borders to foil the coronavirus, to lose not a note, to support the visibility of jazz and the enjoyment it offers transcending containment measures.” Howard Mandel, JJA president