Stalwart Chris’s Jazz Cafe is among the treasures we have to lose, but there are bright spots
by Suzanne Cloud
Mark Deninno, chef and owner of Chris’ Jazz Café will freely admit that the club has been struggling through the pandemic. The historic jazz spot closed its doors on March 15, 2020. “I shut down the restaurant, gas lines, everything, and spent a month trying to figure out how I was going to protect my family and myself.” With city grants to retrofit the venue, he said, “I turned the club into a full blown tv studio to start back up again. I started streams in July for a Pat Martino benefit at 25% capacity but drew viewers from 30 different countries.”
But it was still very difficult with a Pay What You Wish revenue strategy. “Online is not the same as people coming in and paying ticket prices. And we kept getting shut down as the COVID restrictions changed.” Many musicians have played for nothing to sustain the club, and Deninno says that 100% of any revenue goes into a general fund to fund the artists and tech people. Pianist Eric Wortham II will be performing on December 17 to raise money for the venue, and Deninno is hoping he’ll be able to “have 25% occupancy by late spring, and maybe a full house by fall 2021.” There is a GoFundMe to help the club, the musicians, and the employees.
Across the city, other fundraisers and creative plans are trying to stem the tide of losses from the pandemic, with little to no support from the city.
On November 20, 2020, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a heartfelt commentary (“Philly Arts and Culture Scene May Never Recover from Latest COVID restrictions”) about the effects of the pandemic and the mayor’s response to it by Priscilla M. Luce, interim president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and Aalyah Duncan, leader of Philly Culture United. Understandably, both of these arts advocates were not happy about Mayor Kenney’s vicious cuts to main components of the Philly arts and cultural infrastructure such as the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.
They wrote, “Ignore the thousands of jobs eliminated due to COVID-19. Pay no attention to the programs or performances, which have long served to bring people together in celebration of our shared humanity. Forget our work done for incarcerated populations, the homeless, and thousands of schoolchildren. What arts and culture is bracing for is the complete folding of arts and culture organizations, the closure of hundreds of neighborhood programs. . .”
Ignore the thousands of jobs eliminated due to COVID-19. Pay no attention to the programs or performances, which have long served to bring people together in celebration of our shared humanity. Forget our work done for incarcerated populations, the homeless, and thousands of schoolchildren. What arts and culture is bracing for is the complete folding of arts and culture organizations, the closure of hundreds of neighborhood programs…
A new Op-Ed on December 15 echoed those sentiments, and called out the new Arts Task Force that has been created as not enough. While it’s nice, it’s not as nice as funding, argued Tu Huynh, former City Hall Exhibitions Manager for OACCE. “It cannot bail the City out with good PR to improve its image. The City needs to show that it can be trusted with public tax dollars after it basically abandoned the arts last June.”
Sure, classical music critic Peter Dobrin gushed that the Mellon and William Penn Foundations were giving $8 million to the city’s arts and culture organizations to help them through the hard times, but alas, none of the money went to jazz organizations to help musicians who were thrown out of work or the small number of jazz venues that willingly live close to the financial edge to keep this particular music alive in our historical jazz town.
A New York Times article took notice of the tenuousness of jazz. “Jazz Lives in Clubs. The Pandemic is Threatening its Future,” warned, “The concert world as a whole is in crisis, but perhaps no genre is as vulnerable as jazz, which depends on a fragile ecosystem of performance venues. . . In interviews, jazz musicians young and old expressed worry for the health of the genre, and their own careers, if the venue network. . . winds up decimated.”
So, Jazz Philadelphia asked me to take a brief look at how Chris’s and some other Philly jazz organizations and venues were fairing now that a vaccine is on the scene and things seem to be looking a bit cheerful.
I talked to drummer/percussionist Jim Hamilton, founder of the Germantown-based, non-profit Rittenhouse Soundworks, who prior to the pandemic, hosted a monthly “Musicians Gathering.” He nurtured the event as a community space that musicians could come and record, rehearse, or just listen and jam with each other. Once COVID-19 hit, the meetings ended. “We talked about going virtual but decided against it because it wouldn’t have had the same fellowship vibe.” Hamilton’s recording studio is still going and so is the film company associated with it. “We prepare the room, wipe everything down, and then use ultraviolet light to sterilize the space.” He said that singers can be a problem with COVID being airborne, but he said he actually recorded a choir that recorded with their masks on! “Let me tell you,” he said, “if Rittenhouse Soundworks were a business it would have folded, but it’s a vocation. My family built this to serve music and the community.”
If Rittenhouse Soundworks were a business it would have folded, but it’s a vocation. My family built this to serve music and the community.
Kim Tucker, program director at Jazz Bridge, emailed me that the organization had to cancel seven concerts last spring, so they reached out to the booked artists to offer them some financial assistance. “Some musicians accepted, some took half, and others wanted to pay it forward.” This fall, Jazz Bridge also began programming virtual concerts in partnership with PNC Arts Alive and WRTI studios. More concerts are planned starting in January 2021. Since Jazz Bridge’s main mission is to help jazz musicians in crisis, Tucker wrote me that they “gifted 12 microgrants of $500 each to musicians to help with rent/mortgage assistance, medical payments, health insurance payments, food, and utilities.”
Lovett Hines, artistic director, and Philly’s most treasured mentor of music education at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts, told me he went headlong into virtual education booking every Saturday from 9 to 3p.m. with 25 to 30 kids every hour once the venue closed. With noted musicians like Richard Hill, Monnette Sudler, Sherrie Butler, Alan Nelson, Bobby Zankel, David Fishkin, and Marcell Bellinger as teachers, the young and hungry future jazz stars didn’t miss too much. I asked Hines how the kids were managing Zoom. “Kids love music on Zoom. . . It has some real rewards too. No boundaries! We have students from California, Denver. The only difficulty we had was to find a way to replicate the sound, have young people playing together, so Berklee gave us Spire Studio. It’s a distance music producing tool. They can record the parts and come up with a finished product.” The relationships the Clef Club established pre-pandemic with the Kimmel, Settlement, Berklee, and Jazz House Kids have ballooned this year to help compensate.
Trying desperately to get back on its cultural feet while dealing with the sale of their building, the Painted Bride Arts Center still took the time to recognize the immediate need for local, out of work jazz musicians and found money to dispense $500 microgrants to 17 musicians to continue their creative pursuits. Some of the lucky grantees were Arnetta Johnson, Sumi Toonka, Monnette Sudler, Jamal Jones, Luke O’Reilly, and Tom Lawton. Long-time art and culture programmer, percussionist Lenny Seidman told me they also have been presenting a virtual intergenerational series called Deep Roots: Bold Future Conversation Series, which features streamed exchanges between young and older artists.
It was encouraging to discover how resilient the jazz community has been this year. Without the huge grants other arts groups received, musicians, venue owners, nonprofits, and fans found ways to support each other and adapt to the trauma without lots of money pouring in. I’m not saying that now we should forget our troubles and just get happy. But stories of musicians supporting the local clubs, clubs supporting the musicians, music mentors still finding a way to inspire and motivate kids, nonprofits digging deep to keep the lights on in many a jazz home, and everyone learning Zoom or chipping in to see a live Facebook stream, have helped us all deal with the trauma of 2020. We’re going to get through this. Jazz will survive, just like it did when New Orleans closed down during the flu epidemic of 1918. Seventeen-year-old professional trumpeter Louis Armstrong prevailed over the hard times to take his new sound to Chicago just a few years later. We will too.