I feel bicoastal gloom at the cancelling of the Sweet and Hot Music Festival, the closing of the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel. Both of these sad events can be understood in economic terms, but these news stories are not new.
I was speaking to a jazz musician two nights ago about his arrival in new York City in the mid-Eighties, and invariably our conversation became a litany of jazz clubs and restaurants that featured live music — all gone now. Another musician reminded me of the magical decade of Fifty-Second Street: a block full of jazz clubs and nightspots that are now office buildings and chain pharmacies. A few months ago I asked a young musician how she was faring and she told me of taking a job in Whole Foods to be able to get by.
I understand that the “hospitality” business — restaurants, clubs, and other sites providing entertainment, food, and drink in return for profit — cannot be philanthropic. When a club owner hires musicians, (s)he will want to see more money in the cash register (archaic terms these days) to offset the expense of the music. In an era when bar patrons turn to their iPhones and to the multiple television screens for their entertainment, does live music, creative improvised music, stand a chance?
The other factor is the machine we are all utilizing at the moment, and I acknowledge my responsibility in the problem. “Why get dressed up in the cold to travel to a jazz club when there is so much to see and hear online? Who needs to leave the monitor? Besides, there’s that wall of CDs my spouse says I hardly ever listen to.”
But I am talking about art and individuals that have more depth — and more fragility — than the moving images on the computer. Jazz musicians are more than mp3s.
One can find true community from listening to living people create art for other living people: like minds assembled to share joy.
But too often, jazz listeners think they are supporting the music by having a bumper sticker or a seat cushion that proclaims their allegiance to jazz. Writing BIRD LIVES on a wall won’t bring him back, and wearing a sparkly hat that says I LOVE DIXIELAND doesn’t help any player to pay the rent. Buying another CD is always a good thing, but ask any musician how much money (s)he has received from the sale.
Jazz Studies Programs have their place, as do vast online collections of “free” music, but do any of these activities benefit the musicians and their families?
So I propose, not for the first time, an individual, active commitment to the art form. If you are financially able and physically healthy, why not pay your debt to jazz by visiting a place where live jazz musicians are playing? Buy a drink or a meal. Listen attentively. Put something in the tip jar. Tell the manager / owner that you have made a special trip to this restaurant or club to hear ______ and her Hooligans (invent your own appropriate name).
Yes, I know that (in my father’s words) things are tough all over. Sometimes the situation seems so bleak that one wants to retreat from those people — real and figurative — who have their hands outstretched to us. What I am proposing costs money, takes time, is occasionally inconvenient. But offering support to the people and music we love is a better use of our energies than mourning the losses after the sad news has registered. And being generous to jazz may help insure that we can hear and see it, live, in the future.
The generous people I know write checks to worthy charities, institutions that do good.
What have you done for jazz this month? It has done so much for you.