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Coping With COVID: Views From the Perspective of Twin Cities Jazz

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The pandemic of 2020 has forced a tsunami of change for everyone in the performing arts. With nightclubs, theaters, and museums closed, or operating at limited capacity, Twin City jazz musicians have had to double their efforts to stay musically involved. Things grew difficult for the clubs that offer jazz, as well. But all is not lost. In fact, many see at present light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, (though others may see it’s an oncoming train).  Jazz Police recently surveyed Twin Cities jazz performers and club owners to discover how they have adapted and coped with COVID while working to keep Minnesota swinging.

Jay Epstein – (Photo- Andrea Canter)

Drummer Jay Epstein, who is perhaps the busiest jazz drummer in the Twin Cities, has gigged throughout the span of the pandemic, though at a less furious pace than usual, grooving  musicians and singers at clubs like Crooners, Jazz Central and the Ice House. He most often plies his trade with Chris Lomheim, Red Planet, and the Andrew Walesch Plus Nine.  “I just got my second vaccine,” said Epstein, a septuagenarian who appears not a day over 40, “so I’m really beginning to relax. But the pandemic had me nervous; I’ve been pretty maniacal about avoiding the illness. Sometimes, I’d even wear two masks.” He said with a laugh. “I’ve even sprayed my masks with disinfectant.”

Dale Alexander

Pianist Dale Alexander, who recently returned to the Twin Cities following decades in California, where he side-manned for ex-Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, continues to make regular appearances at Jazz Central and The Dakota, two venues that offer streamcast performances via the Internet. “I just finished playing at the Dakota with Jesse Simon’s Minnesota Hard Bop Collective,” said Alexander. “They call the program, ‘‘Streaming at the Dakota,” and it’s a great way, man, for musicians to stay in touch with an audience.”

Jazz musicians rely on keeping sharp via jam sessions and rehearsals, but the pandemic threatened to annihilate those possibilities. Big Tech, however, offers alternatives. Musicians now gather digitally, jamming from the safety of home and studio via platforms like Acapella and JackTrip.

Drummer, and leader of the Minnesota Hard Bop Collective, Jesse Simon, has successfully streamed online with his group by employing apps like Acapella.

“The most difficult aspect using these apps is because of the lag or time delay between the music and the onscreen images. The better apps, like JackTrip do cut down on the delay. But those programs involve more software and equipment. But even so, I’m not complaining. The saving grace of being able to stream gives musicians the opportunity to play together.”

Jessie Simon (photo Andrea Canter)

Just prior to the advent of COVID, Simon had won an arts grant from which he pays his musicians.

“It’s nice to be able to pay the guys for their efforts,” said Simon. “Our streaming performances help to keep us musically fit. Streaming has been a musical lifeline for us.

Mac Santiago (Photo – Andrea Canter)

Because the streaming concerts have an in-person audience of little to none, the necessary shekels arrive via sources like Jazz Central’s Musician’s Relief Fund and The Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which was cancelled last summer, but was rescued via steaming.

Jazz Central’s founder, drummer Mac Santiago, sparked the concept of the Jazz Musician’s Relief Fund. “We were fortunate last March, when we received a foundation grant, which helped us set up for the streaming events and to make the studio safer from COVID. We held a fundraiser and raised over $10,000. We also had a streaming jazz festival where 32 bands played over three days. Jazz Central (www.jazzcentralstudios.org) has just celebrated its 10th Anniversary, and we’re feeling absolutely optimistic about our future. Things have changed.

From now on–believe it– streaming will be the new normal.”

Crooners Supper Club in Fridley accepted the challenge of the pandemic and has managed to thrive in spite of it. Crooners built outdoor stages last summer, where patrons listened to live performances from the safety of their cars. Later, a tent was erected, and sparsely-spaced seating offered food and drink along with the entertainment. Beck Lee, publicity spokesperson for Crooners, said the battle to keep Crooners thriving and offering live entertainment has been, in his words “gratifying.”

“Mary Tjosvold, set the mandate,” said Lee of the club’s owner.  “She assured us that Crooners would survive. Mary stated her commitment to do all that’s necessary to keep the club in business. We had to obey the quarantine, of course. But the outdoor shows began last June.”

Lee said Crooners (www.croonersloungemn.com) enacted safety updates to keep customers and staff safe from the virus. “The Main Stage has been totally redesigned. And the singer Andrew Walesch, who is on our staff has redesigned the stage in the Dunsmore Room. At present, Crowd space is limited to half-capacity, with social distance seating and a plexiglass barrier erected in front of the stage. We reopened on January 28.”

Though no one at ICEHOUSE MPLS could be reached for comment, Jay Epstein added they had introduced similar safety and social distancing measures there. Contact them at (www.icehousempls.com)

Omar Abdulkarim

Trumpeter and bandleader Omar Abdulkarim faced many cancellations as the jazz venues closed. He took employment as a medical aide, and now puts in a full 40-hour week, in addition to his musical efforts required of the trumpet.  “It’s hard to keep up with my music and work full time during the day,” said Abdulkarim. “I continue to do some studio recording, and I’m playing some of the streaming gigs at Jazz Central and the Dakota. I do enjoy it. But I got to admit, I miss the audiences.”

Sophia Kickhofel

Abdulkarim’s absence from the stage will not be for long. He will debut his own group, the Omar Abdulkarim Quintet at Crooners Dunsmore Room on Friday, March 12 at 8:30 pm. Tickets start at $20.

The gifted young alto saxophonist, Sophia Kickhofel has also performed streamed concerts and said she found the experience “awkward at first.”

“It takes some getting used to, lining things up with the other instruments.  But I am always glad to have somewhere to play. My high school (she’s a senior at Apple Valley High School) jazz band is rehearsing again. I also play with the Dakota Combo at MacPhail Center for Music.  You have to practice a lot to keep your playing sharp when not playing out a lot.”

Kenny Horst (photo Andrea Canter)

Minnesota’s premier jazz nightclub, The Dakota Bar and Grill, offers no date for when it plans to return to normal scheduling. They continue to host streamcasts, for which they sell a small number of tickets. It’s notice on the website (www.dakotacooks.com) reads,  “The health and safety of the public, our artists, and our staff are our foremost priority. The Dakota is following the directive of the State of Minnesota and postponing all events for the next two weeks through March 26. We might be going dark but we aren’t going silent. We are going to stay in touch with you, the patrons, who make the Dakota possible with regular updates on how we are using this time internally and where we are with plans, new shows and rescheduled shows.”

Of all the musicians and participants interviewed, only one has contacted COVID. Kenny Horst, Drummer and former owner of the venerable and sorely missed Artists Quarter (1974-2014) came down with it after his wife, Dawn Horst, had attended an office party. “We were both very lucky,” said Horst. “Neither of us had to even go to the hospital. We followed the quarantine and got out of it with no residual effects. I’ve been laying low, for the most part. But I’ve just had my second vaccine and I’ll be out and playing now very soon”

Editor’s Note :  Kenny Horst is playing with “What Would Monk Do?” Saturday March 13 at 8:00pm as a streaming performance at www.jazzcentralstudios.org/live-stream