Toby Wren: ‘The Jazz Social is not about hi-fidelity but about celebrating the activity of music-making’

To say that the COVID-19 crisis changed the way we consume music would be an understatement. The global pandemic has put most of the world’s global activity at an abrupt halt and the arts sector has been severely affected. One of the well-documented aftereffects has been the surge of live-streaming performances, which has offered artists with a creative outlet – or at least a substitute for an actual gig – while at the same time offering the audience some much-needed solace, the kind that a live performance can only offer; not to mention that many of these live-streaming sessions are ‘ticketed’ or by-donation events, making up for the substantial loss of income that most of performers are facing at the moment. Guitarist Toby Wren was one of the first artists in Australia to come up with a plan to address these issues, creating the nations first ‘virtual’ jazz club, The Jazz Social – i.e. a YouTube channel featuring weekly performances by three artists, and a PayPal account for the ‘box office’ side of it. Here’s what he had to say about it.

How did you come up with the idea for the Jazz Social?

When the coronavirus shutdowns started I saw some of my dearest friends lose all of their gigs over night. I couldn’t get to sleep at the injustice of it – that some of the most highly trained professionals, people that brought so much beauty into the world could be left out in the cold. Our governments have been treating the arts sector with contempt for years now, so it was definitely not a surprise, but I felt that we had to find new ways to help each other.

So The Jazz Social was primarily a way to generate gigs for musicians, but it was also a way for musicians from different cities to connect and share their ideas, something we don’t tend to do very often. I think it’s quite special actually to get a chance to sit down with musicians like this, see them play up close, and hear them speak. That to me is one of the benefits of the video call, which you would have to say is the defining new media platform of the times – that it is strangely intimate.

You actually feel like you are in the musicians’ living rooms, even if the NBN sometimes conspires to introduce some noise into the process.

What was the main challenge you have had to face in developing this project?

To be honest it came together easily and we launched two weeks after I came up with it. I had to get over some of my initial reticence about approaching the musicians and having confidence in the idea, but people, musicians and audiences have been really supportive which gives me the confidence to keep going. One of the real challenges for me has always been the promotion of what I do. I am happy just playing and recording in my own bubble and only reluctantly push my work out to a broader audience, but I’m really lucky that Anje West (from The View from Madeleine’s Couch) has been handling the promo for The Jazz Social from the beginning and she does such a great job of spreading the word. I don’t have any expectations about whether it will continue after the shutdowns. It might be unique to this time and place, but on the other hand I also think it does something different to a regular gig. It’s a different medium. So I guess we’ll keep doing it for as long as there is interest in it and support for it.

What has been the highlight so far?

The highlight is generating a gig opportunity for the musicians. Many of them are really doing it tough. Many of them have families. The money aspect is important of course, but as you can see from all the creative activity on social media, we are social animals, and we need to have opportunities to share our creativity for it to really mean something.

When society in general has lost some of its appreciation for what music-making means I think it’s important for us to support each other and that probably means spending more time building communities of people online.

It’s a little strange because we are talking about jazz, which is an artform associated with ‘live’-ness, but then again, we just don’t have that option right now.

How did you choose the artists taking part in it?

I chose the musicians that I wanted to hear. There is an ongoing need to balance higher profile artists, who might attract more audience and help build The Jazz Social as a brand, and emerging artists who might really need the work right now, and who are ready to share their work with a wider audience. I think the platform is a leveller. Everyone who plays gets an even split, because we’re all in the same boat.

Who would you dream of having perform on one of the gigs?

Well they are pretty much all dream gigs already! I want to keep this a mostly Australian venture, because I see real value in making connections between musicians in such a spread out country like ours. But, I also have an idea to invite some internationals to do ‘virtual Australian tours’ via the Jazz Social.

How does the Jazz Social fit in with your other projects?

The coronavirus shutdown is so weird for everybody. A lot of things seem to make sense in retrospect and I think I really needed to do this for the community and for myself. An unexpected but very welcome side effect is that it is utterly inspiring. When the shutdowns were announced, I felt like being at home meant that I would naturally turn to music, but instead I felt totally wiped out. But now I find myself practicing and composing again and I think that is down to The Jazz Social.

How have you personally been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?

I think a lot of people have gone through the same process that I have, where the immediate worry was financial, because that was a threat that we could understand. And the financial stuff is hard, I’m having to take some pretty drastic steps, but ultimately it’s also kind of banal, in comparison to the changes we are experiencing psychologically, socially, culturally. There are changes there that will take years to understand. I’m finding on the whole that I have a lot more time on my hands because I’m not travelling, and because I can’t handle watching the news at the moment. I’ve gone from reading multiple news sources multiple times a day to just making sure I don’t miss any major announcements. So I have more time in my day, and more silence, which I really value. I am also seeing my kids more and getting to see what they are studying in school. That’s really nice. Am I even allowed to say that though? That the CRISIS has helped me re-examine some of my assumptions about how I should be living my life?

Who are you spending your self-isolation time with?

I’m spending it with my partner, my kids and all the students I see online. I’m composing and playing the guitar. I am also sporadically learning French and running The Jazz Social. I’m already a bit of a loner, so I haven’t changed what I do so much. It must be much harder for more extroverted people and I can’t imagine living alone at this time. That must be really hard.

What is it that you miss the most?

I miss the every day interactions with people of course. That seems to be a fundamental human need. The thing I also miss is just moving through urban environments. I like to walk and to see people going about their day. People aren’t doing that at the moment – they are out there to exercise or buy food and a lot of them are anxious about doing so. Some days everyone says ‘hello’ and some days it seems like everyone is looking at everyone distrustfully.

What is the role of music in times like this?

Let me preface this by saying I have an unconventional perspective on what music is and is not. To me, art and music are activities, not products. I don’t really consider recordings to be music for example. I think they are a product that reminds us of music and that they ultimately introduce more distance between people. This must partially explain why I would do something like The Jazz Social, which is not about hi-fidelity, and much more about celebrating the activity of music-making.

I think that music-making, which includes listening of course, has the potential to bring people together and to heal. Listening and interpreting what you hear is a fundamental human activity, and it’s one that takes us forward as a species, perhaps more so than any scientific or political endeavour.

The problem is you can’t describe how, or quantify it, and any attempts to do so just devalues it as an activity. You just have to be open to knowing it.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘Solitude’ by Duke Ellington. I played a live-streamed duo gig with my friend Andrew Shaw and we played covid inspired tunes. That was the one that stuck out for me. I don’t think I’ve ever played it live before and I really enjoyed playing it super slow. It’s been in my head ever since.

Tune in to The Jazz Social Channel onFriday 8 May for a triple bill featuring Joe O’Connor, The Dorchester Trio, The Hauptmann Duo

Past Performances:

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