A few days into the Bay Area’s stay-at-home order a lemonade-out-of-lemons meme started appearing on the Facebook pages of many Berkeley musicians I follow. Violinist Irene Sazer captured the insistently resilient mood when she posted on March 23, “On the bright side, I am no longer calling this shelter-in-place. I am now an artist-in-residence.”
For the most part musicians thrive in each other’s company, and the starve-the-virus isolation regime has put the kibosh on countless collaborations. I decided to check in with players around town like Sazer to find out how they’re turning the calamity into an opportunity for creative exploration. Like many musicians who also teach, she’s conducting lessons online but she’s also taken the opportunity to multiply her fabulous menagerie of painted instruments.
Clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a prolific composer, has turned his COVID-19 residency into an ongoing recording project. Though untested as a sound engineer, he began recording a new song every day and posting them on Bandcamp, a steadily expanding album called Plague Diary that is available for free (though contributions are of course welcome). “The philosophy here is ‘use what you’ve got’ (is there ever another option?),” he wrote in a recent newsletter. “For me that means clarinets, a synthesizer I can’t figure out, and rudimentary recording ability.”
Creating new music helps take some of the sting out of cancelled gigs. Drummer James Small was supposed to be on a world tour with Oakland blues star Fantastic Negrito (now rescheduled for October). He’s been practicing on an electronic kit at home and getting back into producing, creating his own music that he’s sharing with fellow players.
“It’s a mandatory vacation,” Small says, noting that he’s also on leave from his day job as an afterschool teacher at Emerson Elementary School. “I’m really focusing on myself, growing and creating a little bit more. I go to my family’s church in El Sobrante and with nobody there I recorded a one-minute video on drums. I posted it for musicians to take and add on and I’ve already got six people who sent it back.”
Pianist/keyboardist Maya Kronfeld, who like Small played in the Berkeley High jazz band, was booked for an East Coast tour with jazz vocalist Thana Alexa and her husband, drum star Antonio Sanchez (the couple is on the cover of the May issue of Downbeat). At the same time she was planning on finding a place to live during her three-year stint in the Princeton Society of Fellows, a plum post-doc position that starts in the fall doing research and teaching interdisciplinary courses in comparative literature and philosophy. Hunkered down at home in Berkeley, she’s been taking on assignments from fellow players, delving into classic compositions by masters like Wayne Shorter.
“I’ve been in wonderful daily check-ins with musical colleagues, challenging each other to do transcriptions,” Kronfeld says, specifically mentioning drummer, bandleader and composer Allison Miller. “I showed her some voicings to practice, and made her give me some drum paradiddles to work on. I challenged an old friend who lives in Mexico, Raúl Perales, to learn a bass line from Marvin Gaye’s Live at the London Palladium, which has some of my favorite bass playing ever. In the midst of all this stress and difficulty these are moments that return me to younger days when there was room for this kind of creativity and challenges with peers.”
Some musicians have been connecting with friends, fans and colleagues via streaming concerts online. It helps when one’s bandmates live down the hall. Thompsonia, the family combo featuring Suzy Thompson on guitar, fiddle and vocals, Eric Thompson on guitar, and their daughter Allegra Thompson on bass, is performing a live concert streamed from their living room on Facebook on Tuesday April 14 at 4 p.m. The set list isn’t set, but some surefire shelter-in-place numbers include the Carter Family’s “50 Miles of Elbow Room” and “There Is a Trap” by the Stanley Brothers, which includes the refrain “Please move away, you’re getting much too close.”
Suzy figures that shelter in place might lead to more familial music making than usual “because other avenues are cut off,” she says. “I’ve started doing quite a bit of teaching on Zoom too. What’s working out really well is a three-times-a-week, 30-minute class for fiddlers focusing on pieces using open tuning. I open the channel a half-hour before and the students can visit with each other. I do that on pay what you want basis, given how many people have lost work. I do wonder where this is going to leave live music performance when it’s all over.”
It’s likely that some venues aren’t going to survive, though some of the city’s most venerable presenters are less vulnerable. Freight & Salvage owns its facility outright, so the organization has been focused on raising funds for furloughed employees and helping out struggling musicians. After an anonymous donor committed the funds the Freight decided to distribute $1,000 each to 50 musicians who’ve performed at the venue in recent years.
“A simple application went out last week and within a day we had 67 applications,” says Sharon Dolan, the Freight’s executive director. “We’ll probably get twice that number before the application window closes.”
Some bands have live streamed performances to raise money for Freight employees and the club is exploring ways to live-stream music while adhering to health guidelines. “We’re going to continue to try to work out the kinks and get more live streaming up,” Dolan says. “We’re used to planning months and months in advance, but now if an artist wants to do something in three days, we’re like sure. What’s hit home is how resilient musicians are. They’re putting stuff out there. More than ever music feels like an essential service.”