The pandemic was absolutely devastating for jazz music and jazz musicians. Men and women who had dedicated their lives to mastering their craft had every opportunity to share it ripped away for almost two years, leaving them utterly bereft and at a loss for anything to do—that’s the accepted narrative, anyway.
The reality is a little different, based on three interviews with three British-based jazz musicians. Admittedly, three is not a large sample size and, undoubtedly, there will be those who considered jacking it all in for a “proper job” as the financial pressures of the pandemic hit home.
But chats with Martyn Roper (The Washboard Resonators), Elise Roth (and her Harvard Squares), and Steve Coombe (Shirt Tail Stompers) offered a curiously counterintuitive picture of what lockdown life for a pandemic might look like for a musician—how productive, relaxing and even enjoyable it might be.
Martyn Roper, The Washboard Resonators
Martyn, who is one half of the Yorkshire-based jazz and blues duo with Jack Amblin, called Britain’s on-again-off-again lockdown “sort of a dream come true in some ways.” The new dad was getting a bit sick of playing 200 or more one-nighter gigs a year. “I was perpetually tired and struggled at times to be motivated when home,” he said.
But within a few days of the UK’s first Covid restrictions, he had a system to help him cope. “I kept office hours from 9am to 6pm,” he explained, “to work on practicing instruments and writing songs for what became our Streamlined Rag album. I wrote around 20 songs, of which we chose 12 to arrange and eventually record.”
Martyn and Jack also scheduled three weekly Zoom calls to work on original music. “We tried to keep our little cottage industry going as best we could,” said Martyn. “It was actually nice to have a more demarcated life between work and then relaxing. I got to work on personal projects I’d wanted to do for years, and then of an evening cook a nice meal, watch a film, and play with my lovely son Albert—that was actually a wonderful experience.”
In some ways, the pandemic has actually been good for business: Martyn started recording weekly videos about blues history and his beloved resonator guitars. His channel now gets 200,000 views a year—and it’s still growing. “I’ve been contacted from all over the world and we’re constantly making new friends with shared interests,” Martyn said. “We never had the time for videos before, and so Covid has actually broadened our reach across the world—we now regularly sell shirts and CDs all over because people found us on YouTube.”
Even the live performances continued through the restrictions, albeit mostly online—and for little pay. “Even at the height of lockdown I was averaging a couple of sessions a week,” said Martyn. “When things eased, we got to doing outdoor gigs quite quickly, often in marquees outside pubs and often for small fees with audience tips.”
But Martyn acknowledges that other musicians were not so lucky. “We have taken considerably less money overall,” he said, “but we were doing so much more than many other artists, who were clearly having huge mental health issues from having few opportunities.” The guitarist credits a supportive network of UK venues and bookers, cultivated over years, with his relative success. “I still count my blessings that I’ve had enough to make a living, and have enjoyed working with venues to figure out ways of adapting to make shows happen safely,” he added.
The Washboard Resonators spent November 2021 touring around Britain, selling out small theaters and arts centers. “Although ticket sales are down, we did perfectly fine,” said Martyn. “That month of shows has given us confidence that there are enough people out there to support us—who will take the risk to come out and buy a ticket to a show.” with more than 50 gigs now booked through to fall 2022, Martyn expects this year will be a busy one. “There will be problems and cancellations of course,” he said, “but I know in essence it will be fine.”
Elise Roth, Elise Roth & Her Harvard Squares
In early 2020, English-American Elise had just moved back to London after three years studying musicology at Boston University. “I had a lot of things planned,” she said. “I’d met my partner, found an apartment I liked…” then her professional plans came crashing down. But, undeterred, the multitalented performer put her other skills—and her contact book—to work. “I’d met a dancer who had a voiceover agency, so I recorded some audiobooks and I’m still working with them,” said Elise. “So that helped a lot.”
Having previously felt the pressure to fill her diary, the pandemic let Elise focus on what she wanted to achieve. “I didn’t feel the pressure of having to hustle for gigs—because there weren’t any,” she said. “I was able to follow these ideas which I’d previously shot down. It was good just to have the time and freedom to do those things, and realize people enjoyed them.”
The vintage singer and comedienne couldn’t help going a little stir-crazy, but managed to channel this in creative ways. “Then I lost my mind and started doing dumb stuff on the internet,” Elise explained. “I wrote parodies addressing my mental health through song and so on, or just dressed in ballgowns and flounced around the house.”
Her comedic creations to date include Flo Rida’s “Apple Bottom Jeans” as sung by the Andrews Sisters, plus a sherry-soaked “Chrimble Message from the Queeb” which, she feared, might see her transported to the colonies for treason. The previous Christmas saw her record a hilarious “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” run back and forth through a translator app, as per her 2020 EP The Garbled American Songbook.
Chances to get out and gig picked up from April 2021, after months of venue closures. “Places were just rushing to book people,” said Elise. “I had a few things over summer and I even managed to get to the States for a wedding gig.” In fact, a bit of breathing room was welcome. “I also realized, without having to constantly think about where my next gig was coming from, there were certain gigs I didn’t like anymore,” she added. “The wallpaper gigs—I like people paying attention to me! They’re good for rehearsal, but they make me sad.”
As for what she would replace them with, Elise hopes to pick up many more dance festivals in the future. “I love playing for swing dancers, she said. “They listen in a different way, with a different energy. You get energy back from them and that’s always really nice.”
Steve Coombe, Shirt Tail Stompers
The Shirt Tail Stompers were due to celebrate ten years together with their own music and dance festival in Lithuania during August of 2020. All one hundred early bird tickets sold out within an hour. The three-day party was set to feature ten bands, ten DJs and dancing until the small hours—all of which was canceled just two months beforehand. “It was so sad,” said Steve. “We had people coming from the UK, Thailand, New York and all sorts, but we thought it probably best not to do it.”
The bandleader and trumpeter was hoping for an uptick in live gigs around Christmas 2021—but the omicron variant had other ideas. “Yeah, that threw things off a bit,” he said. “We had our last gig on December 23,” he added (in mid-January). “We played the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. That was a fun gig, a sold-out show.” But even this engagement nearly didn’t happen. “On the day I only had three musicians out of seven,” said Steve. “Some were isolating because they were sick, or they’d been in contact with someone who was. I was making lots of calls, but I ended up with a great band.”
And where the jetsetting Stompers would normally expect bookings from the Netherlands to Thailand, traveling has largely been out of the question. The band had a dozen international engagements during 2021—in the end they played just one, a September festival in Lithuania. Things are now turning around, slowly but surely. “We’ve got a couple lined up for this year,” said Steve. “We’re off to Warsaw in March and we’ll see what else gets confirmed in coming months.”
Unlike many other musicians, Steve refrained from online performances while venues were off limits. “We took an approach of not doing things online,” he explained. “We just wanted to do things live. Steve used the time to practice instead, rediscovering a love of the piano. “I’ve been playing a lot lately, especially classical,” he said. He and the Stompers also managed to release an album, the remotely recorded Walk Right In, featuring original track “Lockdown Lockup.” “Somehow I’ve been really productive,” said Steve.
In fact, he went as far as calling the pandemic “an amazing time for musicians”—although perhaps only those with the Stompers’ fanbase. “We spend our time pottering at home and playing instruments anyway,” he explained. “I used the time to really focus on myself personally and musically—you don’t get the chance when you’re traveling every weekend. I even got fit—things were that bad! But I’m happy if I’ve got five or six hours to practice in a day.”
Now that pubs, clubs and theaters have reopened, the bookings have come rolling in. “I didn’t push any venues,” said Steve. “I wanted to stand back and see what was happening. We’ve not been as busy as before, but that’s only because I wasn’t pushing anyone.” Bandmates are also easier to come by, now most are triple vaccinated. “A few musicians didn’t want to travel, but most did,” said Steve. “Recently the issue has been musicians getting ill. We need to go out and work—we’re not getting handouts. But we’re not really protected and nothing’s going to stop us catching things.”
When the band does come together, when the venues are open and the tickets sold out, people are happy to see the Stompers return. “Crowds are much more appreciative than ever before,” said Steve, “the response has been so warm.” Even Elise’s “wallpaper gigs” pay more attention. “There’s a venue called the Nightjar, a nice underground speakeasy with live music every night,” he added. “It’s mostly City boys and people on first dates—you might get a ripple of applause after a song. But since restrictions have been lifted you’ve got people going wild with appreciation because now it’s like, ‘Wow, there’s actual live music!’ Also they might just be more drunk, because they haven’t been out in a while.”
Despite all the love, there are currently no plans for a belated ten-year celebration. “We don’t have plans to do it at all,” said Steve. “Maybe we’ll do it for twenty years instead.” but then he added, tantalizingly: “There’s still a chance we’ll do our own event in London, then we’ll see what happens.” But while it would be great to the Stompers and other UK bands back with such a celebration, it seems that some at least have been getting on okay without us.