The Spanish flu reached New Orleans in 1918. It eventually wiped out 1 percent of the city’s population. Louis Armstrong was then a 17-year-old trumpeter, trying to make a living playing clubs and riverboats. When gigs dried up, he put down his horn and took odd jobs and volunteered in overcrowded hospitals. Somehow, he never got sick.
Armstrong left New Orleans, winding up in New York, which would go on to become a mecca of American jazz. But as Ted Gioia has chronicled, many musicians had already made the move to New York before the flu hit. Though the virus forced the few remaining New Orleans jazz clubs to shut down, racism in the South had already led many African-Americans—who then formed almost the entirety of the jazz scene—to leave the city for better opportunities. When they left, they brought the music with them—first to Chicago, and then to New York and California.
Now another virus has forced every New York jazz club to shut its doors—and jazz is a genre built on spontaneous creation. At live shows, the piano talks to the sax, and the sax talks back, as though each musician has a different-color brush and the band is painting the canvas in real time. Live shows are also how musicians pay their bills. As Veronica Leahy, a talented young saxophonist studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, told me: “Unless you’re getting a check from a university, you’re freelancing. Either you play consistently, or you starve.”
Since March 2020, there haven’t been any gigs to play in New York, and several clubs, including the Jazz Standard, have closed their doors permanently. Many of those that remain open depend heavily on out-of-town visitors. Even as the lockdown eases, it will be a long while before New York tourism flourishes.
I asked Leahy how she has been spending her time, without performance. “At the beginning of quarantine, I did a lot of recording projects, but there doesn’t seem to be software that allows you to play in real time with no latency,” she said. “So I started taking some production classes at Berklee and began working on other types of music that are less dependent on that real-time interaction.” Arlo Sims, a jazz guitarist at Berklee, offered a similar story: “I told myself I’m going to practice so much with this time off. But honestly, I’ve ended up not being as interested in performance. I haven’t had a gig in months, so I’ve been playing a lot more indie music. Producing, sampling, making my own stuff and putting it online.”
If their stories are any indication, then Covid-19 might accelerate a trend that was already under way. One of the strongest elements of the much-reported jazz revival is that it has taken the genre in new digital directions. Listeners under 30 make up 40 percent of jazz listeners on Spotify, and the audience has grown every year since 2016. But the rising stars of this revival—artists like Makaya McCraven, Ashley Henry, Esperanza Spalding, Fabiano do Nascimento, and Kamasi Washington—have built their careers by fusing jazz with everything from Brazilian and Latin pop to House and R&B. Beyond the jazz world, the artists who have brought jazz rhythms to a mainstream audience—Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar, for example—are embedded in the world of hip-hop and rap. In Leahy’s words: “Jazz is increasingly becoming a flavor that artists are using in other kinds of music.” Though that brings new people to jazz, it also tempts artists to forgo its traditional live form, especially with the Internet. What does this mean for the future of New York’s live jazz scene?
“I’ve talked to some of the owners, and these places are really struggling,” Leahy told me. “I mean, jazz clubs were already always on the edge.” At least before vaccination is widespread, he continues, “there’s simply no way to host a show safely. Jazz bars are small for a reason—if you were going to follow social distancing, you’d have, like, ten people inside. There’s talk of doing outdoor concerts, but that won’t be a replacement. You need that tight space for the magic to happen.”
Bands have begun playing in empty spaces and streaming the gigs online. Venues such as Smalls, the Village Vanguard, and the Jazz Gallery are hosting bands and charging an online audience a fee. But any money being paid seems more like a short-term donation than a long-term solution. YouTube makes it easy to watch jazz for free, but a screened showing is no substitute for the real thing. Audiences don’t go to clubs just to discover new talent. They go because they want to see the drummer’s sweat, feel the vibrations on the floor, and watch the audience around them. They’re not just spectators. They’re part of the show.
But none of this has changed the reality that every jazz artist worth his salt still wants to make it in Manhattan. Brian Richburg, Jr., a young drummer from New Orleans, told me that he traveled from Boston to New York just to play an online show. As Leahy put it: “For jazz musicians, jamming is like talking. Imagine being fluent in a language, and then someone suddenly tells you that you can’t speak that language to anyone for six months.” Many of her friends have responded by picking up other instruments.
“We’ve all gone on these individual journeys. I’ve been listening to more music than I’ve ever done in my life. I feel like I’ve grown artistically. There’s no doubt that the music will be different when we all come out the other side.”
The first time Leahy played with friends since the lockdown began was August 28. “It was very spread out,” she told me. “We were wearing masks. I was in a booth. It didn’t feel like a concert, but it was really exciting. Playing with people again made me realize how much I miss it.”
Perhaps audiences will miss it, too. Perhaps people will want nothing more than to reencounter that intimate sense of connection that live jazz provides. If New York’s clubs get the support that they need to ride out this grim period, jazz in the city will survive. When live music does come back, young musicians will be leading the way.