Jazz in the Time of Corona

By Steve Bryant

When news of a possible pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S. this spring, no one could predict the extent to which this outbreak would affect society overall. One casualty of the pandemic has been the performing arts. With the imposing of social restrictions, organizations that depended on audience revenues were immediately devastated. From large venues like the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts to the small community arts groups, everyone has been affected. Most organizations face series budget shortfalls that will result in major cuts or total dissolution. A new proposed city budget would completely eliminate arts funding.

The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & the Performing Arts has been in a similar dilemma as most of the cultural arts organizations in Philadelphia. It is known both for presenting concerts by internationally renowned jazz artists and its highly regarded music education program. As with other cultural organizations, the Clef Club has been forced to develop alternatives in lieu of presenting live concerts and teaching students. 

But the organization has been able to develop systems to maintain its educational programs, which includes a working partnership with the world-famous Berklee College of Music in developing a Music Production curriculum. The Clef Club now presents all of its classes in a virtual setting, which includes instrumental lessons, and classes in theory, composing, and improvisation. Artistic and Educational Director Lovett Hines is pleased with the way faculty and students have been able to switch from live to virtual interaction. “The students have shown the ability to handle this crisis situation,” stated Hines. “Since we made this change we have been able to keep student level, as well as increase the number of participants.” Hines is the recipient this spring of a leadership award from the Arts & Business Council. The awards ceremony will also be online.

The Clef Club is finding it more difficult to replace its concert series, which is a major piece of its programs. The pandemic shutdown caused the cancellation of two potential blockbuster sets featuring Pharoah Sanders, James Carter, and Steve Turre. Hines indicated that he and the production staff have been working on some possible alternatives to live performances. “We have been exploring ways we can present the music,” declared Hines. “We have been looking at live-streaming concerts, holding Master Classes with some of our more renowned alumni, and even broadcasting videos of previous concerts. Right now we are looking at all the possibilities.”

The historic Settlement Music School has made similar adjustments to the pandemic shutdown and pivoted to online learning on March 13. In addition to offering distance learning in a variety of ways to students, Settlement’s Marketing Director Megan Looby says the School is streaming three, free online classes each week, in addition to waiving registration fees for new students interested in a four-week online individual lesson package. “We realize that now is the time that our students likely need arts the most,” Looby said. “So we want to be able to provide an outlet that will help keep them engaged, connected, and hopeful.”

Jazz producer Leo Gadson is facing an entirely different set of problems for his programs. For 45 years Gadson has been bringing some of the great talents in modern jazz to the West Philadelphia Community as the architect of the  Lancaster Avenue Jazz festival, as well as a successful concert series at the Community Education Center (CEC). “Our main problem,” Gadson stated, “Is that our programming entirely consists of live performances. When the City ordered the shutdown of all performance venues, our first dilemma was the total cancellation of our concert series. So we have had to consider alternatives to our regular mode of operation.” Gadson’s options really depend on the degree to which the City will lift restrictions on performing venues. 

Uncertainty lies ahead for all arts organizations, and advocacy efforts have started all over the city to help save the Office of Arts Culture & Creative Economy and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which has been a grantor to some of these organizations. You can make your voice heard by contacting your City Councilperson and if you’re in need of resources to help navigate the pandemic, please visit our crisis resource page.

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