Arts & Entertainment

New York jazz scene almost forgotten in pandemic

By Helen Cook

New York, Mar 8 (efe-epa).- Although jazz was born in New Orleans, with the passage of time New York City has become the mecca for this beloved musical genre, but the jazz scene there has been one of the sectors that has been almost forgotten during the pandemic because of the ban on public gathering in the intimate, crowded spaces in which the music is generally played in the Big Apple.

“This is a temple of music for 71 years. It’s the backbone in New York City. So I did everything I could for the 10 months personally, to keep it alive,” the owner of the iconic Birdland, Gianni Valenti, told EFE in front of a deserted stage and surrounded by empty barstools and tables.

His red-tinged nightclub, in which – before the pandemic – about 100 musicians per week performed and where some of the jazz giants like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday have wowed audiences was very, very close to disappearing for good in January, but Valenti decided to send out an SOS that galvanized jazz fans in the Big Apple.

Thanks to a GoFundMe campaign and a solidarity concert attended by Bill Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Joel, Birland managed to collect $500,000 that Valenti thinks will last the locale until the fall, when he hopes that things will have turned the corner and gotten back to some kind of new “normal.”

Even so, Valenti made it very clear that Birdland was saved thanks to the support of music and jazz fans, adding that state authorities had practically abandoned it to its fate.

“Music is who we are, it’s our lives. And I don’t think that the city, the governments in our country, have really paid attention to what’s happening to the artists,” he said.

And while restaurants have been able to serve customers with home deliveries or at outside seating during much of the pandemic, museums were able to open their doors at the end of August and stadiums began welcoming fans once again in late February, the small and intimate jazz nightclubs have remained almost without any customers.

This week, however, there was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel when New York State announced that starting on April 2 indoor musical events would be allowed to resume, albeit at only 33 percent capacity, something that Valenti says is not enough, since it’s not economically viable to open but only be able to welcome a few paying customers.

The Jazz Standard, one of New York’s most important jazz clubs, could not hang on like Birdland and on Dec. 3 announced that it was closing for good, while other locales like Smalls have also been close to “death” but have managed to survived thanks to rebroadcasting concerts online.

Besides sporadic fundraising campaigns, some private entities, like the Louis Armstrong Foundation, have thrown an enormous number of life jackets into the water, which more than 1,200 New York jazz musicians have grabbed hold of.

The institution, founded for educational purposes by the iconic trumpet player Louis Armstrong, decided to allocate $1 million of its funds to help about 1,000 jazz musicians with scholarships of $1,000 each and, after the initiative became public, managed to gather $200,000 more from donors and thus benefit another 200 musicians.

The idea of exclusively helping jazz musicians – the director of the Louis Armstrong Foundation, Jackie Harris, told EFE – arose from the fact that the jazz community is quite small and does not really have the support of the general public.

“The only people that host and support in the mostly jazz concerts are people who are jazz lovers, where the rhythm and blues, country and pop community is a whole lot larger,” Harris said.

Some of the musicians who received part of the funds, Harris said, began to cry at the good news, because they said they had had to go without eating since the majority of those that the Foundation funded have no other income but through music performance.

“Even some of those who were teaching, schools were closed,” she said.

Harris also complained about the lack of government action, but he said without hesitation that the private sector and large companies had continued making huge profits despite the pandemic.

“There’s so many zeros behind their profit margin that I can hardly envision that. What is it to spend a half a million dollars on supporting musicians who are out of work and have been out of work for a year?” she said.

“You know, we are all in this together, that’s not just a slogan. It’s a fact of life,” she added.

Among those benefited by the Louis Armstrong Foundation was Joe Dyson, a young percussionist who began playing the drums at age 2 and years ago decided to move from New Orleans to try his luck on the New York jazz scene, where he has played with well-known musicians such as Dr. Lonnie Smith, Ellis Marsalis and Jon Batiste.

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