There is no point in attempting my usual meandering approach to the topic that preoccupies all of us at the moment. Just as unnecessary travel is discouraged, leisurely verbal excursions now seem a rude extravagance. As the Novel Coronavirus invades our shores—and lungs—we’re faced with the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes. Even the very oldest of my readers are likely too young to have lived through the so-called Spanish Influenza of 1918. This is a hundred-year plague.
We’re seeing the best—and worst—of ourselves. People are rising to the occasion to observe basic precautions against contracting or spreading Covid-19. If we never learned to wash our hands twenty times a day (as I did in grade school) we’re getting a crash refresher course now. Unfortunately, certain others are panic-buying the supposed necessities of life and stripping the supermarket shelves of household paper products and cleaning supplies. I think back on Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and I have to smile—albeit bitterly. Mackay would certainly add a whole new chapter on our TP-omania.
The gracious social amenities that we have traditionally enjoyed—and have taken for granted—are suspended. We guess that we may at some point again venture out for a haircut and a movie, eventually. For those of us who border on agoraphobia (or cross that border) it doesn’t feel much different. We notice that the more sociable types are chafing at the current restrictions; in fact we, for all our reclusiveness, wouldn’t mind dining out at a restaurant if it were possible. Yes, these four walls do begin to feel a bit close, at that.
One of the boons we begin to miss sorely—and others, whose livelihood is jeopardized, miss grievously—is live music performance. Every one of the musicians who read this paper and write for it is affected. Tour dates have been cancelled, performance venues are shuttered, and festivals are assessing whether to go ahead or to consider next year. Our Festival Roundup page is stark; even certain of those events that remained standing at press time may decide to cancel.
I have also updated jazz clubs’ and musicians’ ads with the information I have available. The best course of action is for those wishing to attend check ahead to make sure the gig is on. I wish I could offer some reassurance that things will get better sooner, but I suspect many of the scheduled club dates in the next few months reflect wishful thinking. Since I’m writing for adults of a certain age, I won’t belabor the issue. For the time being, when any of us go out among people, it’s at our own risk.
There are brighter notes to this crisis, however. Musicians, who are stuck home for the duration and are involuntarily laying off, have had to draw on their resourcefulness to raise money. On Thursday, February 19, my wife Sue and I “attended” (via Facebook) a concert given by multi-instrumentalist Matt Tolentino at his home in Cincinnati. The program, which started at 8 pm, was fueled by requests which Matt sang and played on his accordion.
For those who are not (or who didn’t think they were) accordion fans, Matt kept an online crowd that at times approached 200 viewers transfixed with his unparalleled showmanship (and musicianship) for nearly three hours without a break. His repertoire is apparently limitless, and he croons in a manner happily reminiscent of Irving Kaufman. Reactions to his performance abounded—there were well over 500 “likes” and “loves” on his Facebook post.
Matt’s wife Danielle Benningus kept track of the requests and the donations in “virtual tip jar” hosted at Venmo and PayPal. An additional delight was Matt’s running commentary throughout the evening. Speaking of the limits on public gatherings imposed by the Coronavirus restrictions, Matt said, “The doctors say keep it to ten people…that’s a good night at a jazz club.” He is a marvelous, classic entertainer who seems to have been born about 90 years too late—or just in time for us. He’s planning to make his virtual vaudeville a regular Thursday night Facebook gig.
Matt Tolentino is not the only musician playing for an unseen audience. Others of our acquaintance, such as the magnificent Andy Schumm, have hosted live events in the past week. Many of your favorites will absolutely be live streaming to keep money coming in, and it behooves us all to support them. If you have Facebook, you know who to look up and follow for future developments.
Another option is that we must support artists by buying their music on CD or download. Musicians rely on their album sales to make ends meet—and traditionally those sales have been at performances. At the moment we don’t have the option of directly putting twenty dollars in the cashbox for a lovingly-crafted recording. Our essential commerce must, for the moment, be virtual.
Finally, it’s time to consider directly commissioning compositions from those writing new rags and other pieces. If you have enough money to support a composer’s work, your patronage would make a lovely and enduring gift to our musical community at large. There is brilliant and gorgeous new music being written by living composers—and they need to keep the lights on.
Cabin fever may be an annoyance, but being stuck at home need not be without its moments of grace and conviviality. Whatever our degree of physical isolation, we must still be kind—and syncopate.