Throughout the pandemic, jazz artists were denied access to the bandstand. But the challenges they faced were not just the economic ones from the loss of so many live shows. The artists also have missed the experience of sharing their music with their fellow musicians and listeners who even in silence convey real energy.
With more and more venues reopening to live audiences, thankfully, musicians are back performing. Recently, we asked several artists from The Jazz Cruise to tell us about the emotions they felt during their first gig back in front of a live audience since the pandemic began in March 2020. As you will see, the shows varied greatly as far as the venue and location, but the feelings of excitement and inspiration were consistent. Here they are in chronological order:
Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Jacksonville, Fla.
In a residency as guest artist and clinician at the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, I performed with their jazz groups and worked with their trombonists as part of their Spring Jazz Festival. This gig was postponed twice and was my first traveling gig since March 2020. Most memorable was the experience of once again playing in front of a big band on a performing arts stage to a large in-person audience. Also memorable was my first handshake in over a year. That handshake was with the great trombonist Dave Steinmeyer, who attended the concert.
Dee Dee Bridgewater with her Memphis Soulphony band
Bayfront Amphitheater, Miami, Fla.
At that outdoor concert, the sanitary precautions that were taken included that all participants were tested for COVID-19 before entering the backstage area, and precautions were followed to a T. I stopped our sound check at one moment to say a prayer of thanks and some crew members got on their knees in thanks. The promoter asked me to say a prayer at the beginning of our performance, which I also did. The concerts were done for French TV and produced by a French company. We shared the evening with Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Aymée Nuvoila as part of International Jazz Day.
Fabrika, Philadelphia, Pa.
Not only was it my first in-person performance, but it was opening night of jazz at the club. The sound check was filled with joy and uncertainty. After playing the first tune for a sold out crowd, joy and celebration overtook any uncertainty. It was a great night of music and fellowship.
City Winery, Chicago, Ill.
Thinking back to those shows, mostly I remember the feeling of mutual relief. Everyone was happy to be out and living again such that the enthusiasm was more than usually palpable. I mean, we sold out the shows, but it wasn’t filled to the potential capacity of the room, and yet it still felt maxed out.
John Clayton with Gerald Clayton
SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco, Calif.
It was strange, lovely, surreal, normal and foreign. It has been hell for us all, so it’s good to feel the energy of others in the same room again. The most memorable thing is “feeling” the air being moved by the other artist(s). Having my bass notes travel to the ears of other players, my sound, blending with theirs, etc. I’ve missed that like nobody’s business.
Ada Rovatti with the Four Tenors and the WDR Big Band
Kölner Philarmonie, Köln, Germany
The concert was quite an unforgettable experience because it was my first gig in almost a year and a half, it was with one of the best big bands out there and along with some of my favorite tenor players and I felt totally rusty and nervous as a teenager on the first solo on her lifetime. Even if it was in a huge concert hall, it was very intimate, with the big band as audience and everyone was very sweet, supportive and amazing. It was a treat to see and hear again my friend Karolina Strassmayer. And everyone in the WDR Big Band is an amazing and accomplished soloist. The arrangements were by Bob Mintzer (he arranged two of my original tunes) and hearing Mintzer, Bob Malach and Paul Heller soloing was an amazing way to get back into the “Magic Mojo” of music.
Acadiana Center for the Arts, Lafayette, La.
It was a really great experience, because it was the first time that we were able to feel a visceral connection with a live audience in a year and a half. Plus, it was a group that I have always wanted to put together: Christian Euman (drums), Alex Boneham (bass) and Lenard Simpson (saxophone). All were musicians I mentored in the Monk (now Hancock) Institute and they are all extraordinary. COVID-19 made it necessary for Alex to move to upstate New York, which was particularly painful because he and Christian are such a connected force as a rhythm section and it was always a joy to tour with them. Lenard had to move to Chicago, his hometown, which was a drag for me as I was beginning to use him on all of my gigs. I believe he is an important new voice on the alto and soprano saxophone. He’s also a wonderful person. So it was a blessing to be able to have my first live gig be with those musicians.
Bria Skonberg with Jon Batiste
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Ed Sullivan Theater, New York, N.Y.
It was the first day back for everyone in the Ed Sullivan Theater so the energy was electric!! The absolute joy on the faces of the audience and being surrounded by live music filled my soul. The most memorable part is that the seven-piece trumpet section included many of my favorite players, and we were asked to wear angel wings at the last minute. I could see the next day’s memes in my mind: “Bird Lives” “Feather Report” … but all of these high-profile players totally embraced it to fulfill the vision of the bandleader and that will stick with me forever. It ended up being SO much fun and we were dubbed the Heavenly Seven. Maybe there’s a Christmas gig in our future?
Kenny Barron with his trio
Mt. Gretna Playhouse, Mt. Gretna, Pa.
My first gig for a live audience after the lockdown was in Mt. Gretna, Pa. Two things I remember about the gig was how great the audience was and that the audience was mostly senior citizens. They were the most enthusiastic audience ever.
Fred Hersch solo
Le Bal Blomet, Paris, France
When I first stepped on stage, for a few seconds I was like a deer in the headlights — until I heard the applause and felt the love from the people there, for many it being their first being at a live concert. This was the beginning of a month of concerts in Europe and though I would never have wished this for any of us, taking a break from gigs after 47 years seemed to do me some real good at the piano. I felt inspired, loose and energized. Hoping for more in the fall but whatever happens I will treasure every evening of this tour.
Paquito D’Rivera with the ADDA Symphony Orchestra
I participated on my first real full scale audience post-pandemic event in Spain for a Symphonic tribute to Chick Corea, beautifully arranged by Argentinean pianist-composer Emilio Solla for his jazz trio of Jorge Roeder (bass) and Ferenc Nemeth (drums), plus the phenomenal ADDA Symphony under Josep Vicent. I was the guest artist for this very pleasant music evening. We all love Chick’s music, so the impeccable arranging work of Emilio, the quality and dedication of a very young and talented orchestra and conductor, plus the typical enthusiasm of the Spanish people at the magnificent auditorium, all worked to our advantage. There is nothing in the world like a live audience!
South Jazz, Philadelphia, Pa.
Wow, the feel was euphoric. My thoughts were: It’s official, we’re back at it. My mother Carmella was at the gig and she will be on The Jazz Cruise in 2022.
Ted Rosenthal with Karrin Allyson
Jazz Forum, Tarrytown, N.Y.
Playing live to a packed house with an enthusiastic audience was exhilarating. Performing live with Karrin Allyson and Marty Jaffe, both swinging and sensitive musicians, became even more thrilling by the energy and good vibes we received from the audience.
Jennifer Wharton and Bonegasm
Iowa City Jazz Festival, Iowa City, Iowa
The crowd was probably the biggest that Bonegasm has ever played for and was super attentive and fun. It was also the first time taking the band out of town since COVID-19. My stress was through the roof until we played our first notes. Then everything felt like a celebration. A bonegasm, if you will.
Sheila Jordan with Roni Ben-Hur and Harvie S
Pangeia, New York City, N.Y.
I did selections from my first Blue Note recording, Portrait of Sheila, originally released in 1963. It was very nice to perform for a live audience again and they were so wonderful. Lots of singers and instrumentalists were there. We were sold out, I think.
Christian McBride with the New Jawn Quartet
Keystone Korner Baltimore, Baltimore, Md.
I had quite a number of gigs before that, but none with a full capacity audience. What was most memorable was the dual feeling of exhilaration and trepidation. Exhilarating to be in front of a full audience again, but feeling so naked without a mask. The exhilaration certainly outweighed the trepidation, however.
Tierney Sutton with Tamir Hendelman
The Family Farm, Woodside, Calif.
This duo tribute to the seasons with Tamir Hendelman took place at a beautiful outdoor venue among the redwoods in Northern California. The audience was over 200 folks and it’s hard to describe the feeling of playing for a live audience after over a year of playing into the voidddddd! Everything about the experience was first-rate: A perfectly tuned Yamaha piano, terrific sound system and engineers (which every jazz artist can tell you is RARE for an outdoor concert) and, most importantly, LIVE humans in the audience, unmasked because we were outdoors, to respond.
New Suffolk Town Beach, N.Y.
This was a benefit concert for the New Suffolk Town Beach Society in Long Island who hired Gil Goldstein (who lives there a block from the beach) to put a band together, which was comprised of me and Ada, Gil, Mark Egan (bass), and Mino Cinelu (drums). The crowd sitting on picnic tables went nuts and many weren’t even true jazz fans. The lady who introduced Gil said he was one of our great “percussionists” for starters even though he was sitting behind a keyboard. But a great time was had by all. We played for two hours until it got dark out. Concert halls are next!
Shelly Berg with Rene Marie
Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, Colo.
The most memorable aspect of this concert was the realization of how much we have missed the energy between audience and performers. We were all thrilled and grateful.
Nicki Parrott with the Pittsburgh Symphony, led by Byron Stripling
Hartwood Acres, Pittsburgh, Pa.
It was really special because the Pittsburgh Symphony sounded incredible and it was Byron’s first time conducting the orchestra since becoming the Pops director in January 2020. The crowd loved it and loved Byron. The trio with Bobby Floyd on piano and Jim Rupp on drums was swinging and effortless. There was definitely a sense of “Let’s give the audience a great show.” I was on cloud nine the whole time and for me personally there’s no comparison between live performance and live stream. Playing live keeps you on your toes and is less structured than a livestream. I think musicians need to play live to keep the excitement of being a musician alive.
Rockport Jazz Festival, Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Mass.
It was my first solo performance ever. I was playing mostly solo guitar and had my father on my mind throughout. I saw so many of his solo shows as a teenager and in my early 20s. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the energy the audience provided and by the music itself.
Gary Smulyan with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Band
Jazz on the Great Lawn Fest, New York, N.Y.
This tribute to Jimmy Heath, produced by the Jazzmobile organization, was overwhelmingly emotional and it was genuinely wonderful to be performing again for people. The audience of more than 1,000 fans was so appreciative and just overjoyed to once again be able to listen to live music. And we were thrilled to be able to once again play music in person for them.