Growing up in the 60s and into the early 70s, I listened to Motown, rock and top 40s pop music. That was the soundtrack of my childhood. The Four Tops. Temptations. Little Stevie Wonder. The Beatles. The Doors. Pretty much any song in the Top 10 on any given week. In those days, I was no more aware of or interested in jazz than I was in polka.
In college, I used to buy albums at a record shop that had a large cardboard box full of “cut-outs,” promotional albums which had the corner clipped off so they supposedly couldn’t be re-sold. They cost a dollar or two. The bin usually contained albums by obscure rock bands that I'd never heard of and never would. Still, I always took a look just in case. One day, I spotted a collection of jazz on the Impulse label. I was curious. It cost just $2 so I figured I’d take a chance and I bought it.
Back in my room, I put it on the turntable. The first song was bewildering. It was a strangely ethereal music by a group led by Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s widow, on harp. Interesting, but way too weird. The second song changed my life. The song was Dear Lord by the classic John Coltrane quartet (Coltrane on alto sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums). I had never heard anything like it before. It was the most sublime, the most achingly beautiful music that I had ever heard. I played it over and over. It was perfect. I had discovered the magic of jazz. It hadn’t grown on me. It was a revelation.
About a year later, on summer vacation in LA, I went to the Newport Jazz Festival traveling show which was held at Hollywood Bowl. Jazz was struggling to find an audience among young people, so the festival organizers had taken it on the road to large venues far from its home in Newport, Rhode Island. Very cleverly, they mixed jazz musicians with pop musicians in the lineups. The headliner the night I went, and the reason I was going, was Stevie Wonder, one of my childhood favorites who was then at his peak popularity. The show was an eclectic blend of jazz and soul. The Staple Singers were on the bill. So was the great jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, resplendent in a white suit.
There was also on the bill a guy I had never heard of, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind sax player. Kirk came onto the stage with his band and stepped to the microphone. He said, "We don’t play any of that electric music. There’s no electricity in the jungle.” That was it. People in the crowd looked at each other, puzzled.
Kirk proceeded to blow down the house. It was mesmerizing, almost hypnotic and undeniably powerful. At one point, he played two wind instruments at the same time -- blowing without pausing to take a breath. I read later he had learned to inhale through his nose while expelling air through his mouth, so he didn't have to break. It was so astonishing that I literally wasn’t sure I was seeing what I was seeing.
The performance was a tour de force that brought the crowd, a pop music crowd, to their feet, roaring and applauding. I was right there with them, clapping madly while slack jawed in awe. Kirk stepped again to the mike.
“And now," he said, "I’m going to play something you all can relate to.” He played the notes of a scale -- up, then down -- whirled around and walked away, trailed by his band.
Clearly, we, the audience, had just been insulted, but it didn’t matter. Just as the first time I heard Dear Lord, I had just had an otherworldly musical experience. I had been touched -- really touched almost like actual physical contact -- by something that I had never imagined, never expected. Over the years, I would have other deeply memorable live music experiences and not just from live jazz. I once saw Bob Marley and the Wailers in Oakland. He was the most charismatic performer I have ever seen. I went to a performance of Thus Spoke Tharathustra (best known for the opening movement which was the theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey) that left me dazed and dazzled. Paul Simon on the Graceland tour with the amazing South African singers Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The classical violinist Midori. And more.
Live music is art happening in the moment, at that very moment, never to be repeated (recordings of live performances just aren’t the same as having been there). It has the power to open and shape minds. It allows us to peer into the souls of other human beings in a way we can't otherwise do. To be uplifted and carried away. Music played live can express grief and love and joy. It has the power to console and to inspire, to speak to you and to speak for you.
In March 2020, the music died. As pandemic swept the country in March 2020, live music venues began shutting down en masse. Musicians had nowhere to play. Audiences had nowhere to go to see live performances.
“I was supposed to go to New Orleans and then Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York and then Europe,” jazz pianist Lynne Arriale told me by phone from her home in Florida. “I was very concerned about my upcoming dates. I spoke with colleagues in New York and they said, ‘Lynne, everything is getting closed down.’” Within days, almost every jazz club in New York had shut. The same thing was happening across the country. In my own neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I would pass the sad, sealed facade of Smoke, my local jazz club where I had spent dozens of hours over the years.
Arriale hasn’t performed live since then. She doesn’t expect to again until next spring. She's spent the past year plus teaching, practicing and working on new material for her next album, due out next spring.
“It’s just been a very tough time,” she said. “To think that there are so many musicians that literally lost their source of income, and in some cases it could be 100 percent of their income.”
Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, a regular fixture at Smoke, was touring in Europe when the pandemic struck. He had to scramble to get home to New York. Being unable to perform has been a crushing blow financially, luckily tempered by his teaching job at Oberlin College in Ohio. Two weeks ago, Henderson played his first gig 15 months at a small club in Baltimore.
Eddie Henderson “It was wonderful,” Henderson said. “It’s a feedback circuit. When somebody performs live, you get the enthusiasm, excitement from the audience and that Spurs the creative juices in the performer."
Lynne Arriale says: “The energy of the audience is powerful. It’s a conversation. Even though they may not be talking, we’re having an exchange when we’re performing. It’s hard to describe.”
I asked Midori what it is like to play classical music in a live setting. Full disclosure: I serve on the board of Midori & Friends, the non-profit she founded 29 years ago to provide free music instruction to New York City public schoolchildren.
"For me, the excitement comes from the feeling of 'for this once only,''' Midori said. "A performance is a one of a kind performance every single time. I often hear expressions like, 'I really felt the audience on my side' or the like. But I think these are often from my non-classical colleagues. The way I think my classical colleagues would explain is that we have a target goal or point of what we are trying to communicate (or) project, and that target -- or people -- are in the same space. Essentially, we are sharing the same space in which the music is being played, heard, delivered, and received. This process is unique each and every time."
Some jazz venues have managed to hang on during Covid by live streaming performances on weekends that viewers would pay a small fee to access. I've often walked past Smoke on a Friday or Saturday night and heard the muted sound of jazz in full swing behind the shuttered windows and front door. Inside musicians would be making music -- playing for the live stream -- but with no audience. I have some idea what it must be like for them because I've seen these made-for-home-viewing events. A song ends and there's a deadly silence. The musicians look slightly bewildered, unsure where to look or what to do. Their expressions -- those who aren't masked -- seem to say: This is not normal. This isn't right.
One night, maybe 25 years ago, I went to see saxophonist Gary Bartz at Bradley’s, a tiny club in Greenwich Village that’s now long gone. I enjoyed the first set, then decided to head home. But when I stepped outside, it was snowing heavily, so I went back in for the second set.
The first set had been fine. The second set was amazing.
The music will come back. There just may be fewer venues. How many clubs can withstand going a year and a half with limited or even no income? In New York City, the Jazz Standard in Manhattan went under last year and another club, Birdland, is teetering. In L.A, the Catalina jazz club in Hollywood had to raise money via a Go Fund Me campaign to survive. It did and recently reopened for the first time since March 14, 2020.
There will always be live music. It will exist as long as people do. Because it needs to be played. And it needs to be heard, seen and felt.
I invite you to share your first introduction to the wonder of live music. Where and when was it? And what was it like?