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Without Live Gigs, Kansas City Jazz Musicians get Creative Rebuilding the 'Original Gig Economy'

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Above image credit: Kansas City jazz drummer Tyree Johnson in Kansas City’s 18th & Vine District. (Chase Castor | The Beacon)
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6 minute read

Kansas City, while  famous for football and barbecue, is arguably most known for its contributions to jazz. The genre originated among the Black community of New Orleans in the early 20th century before becoming popular among the African American community of Kansas City in the 1920s. 

Since then, it’s become a cultural pillar of the city, with more than 40 venues regularly hosting jazz music — at least before the pandemic.

Before loosening some restrictions on Feb. 19, the City Council limited indoor gatherings to a maximum of 10 people in response to COVID-19. Event spaces had to submit a waiver to be granted a 50-person maximum. The result? Many jazz clubs stopped live performances or closed indefinitely, ending gigs for many local jazz musicians. It’s still unclear how many will survive the pandemic.

“I’ve been making most of my income from gigs for the last few years, and for it to all just go away and not know when it was going to get back was a bit devastating,” said Aryana Nemati, who has played the saxophone for jazz bands for nearly a decade.

After the stay-at-home order in March requiring all nonessential businesses and services to close down, jazz artists in Kansas City suddenly found themselves without a major source of income: live gigs. 

“Money had actually come to a screeching halt for at least two to three months,” said Tyree Johnson, a professional drummer of 15 years. 

The average jazz musician had 35.5 gigs cancelled in 2020, according to a survey conducted by JazzFuel, a site that provides industry insight to independent jazz musicians. Of the musicians surveyed, 61% said their 2020 income would be at least 50% lower than in 2019, with 30% saying their income would be more than 75% less. 

“You hear people talk about working for Uber or freelancing, but musicians have always had to do that. Theirs is the original gig economy,” said Mark Edelman, the president of the KC Jazz Ambassadors, an organization that works to preserve the cultural heritage of jazz in Kansas City by supporting and promoting musicians, students, businesses and fans of the jazz community.

“They might get $150 a night here, 75 bucks to play a restaurant there, maybe they’re lucky and they get a wedding and they get $200, but you have to add all that up every week. And it’s hard to do when suddenly 90% of that work disappeared.”

Helping Kansas City Jazz Musicians

In order to compensate for the sudden loss in income, many musicians have turned to grants and other external resources. KC Jazz Ambassadors set up a virtual tip jar for people to donate to the group’s Musicians Assistance Fund. 

So far, they’ve received about $10,000 in contributions, according to Edelman. The organization also tapped its own treasury for about $18,000 that it had raised over the years, administering a total of $28,000 in gig grants in 2020.

“We took the approach that if you’re missing a gig, you’re missing 150 bucks,” he said. 

Kansas City’s 18th & Vine District, famous for its jazz.
Kansas City’s 18th & Vine District, famous for its jazz. (Chase Castor | The Beacon)

The Charlotte Street Foundation, a local arts organization, has been issuing grants to artists by way of their Rocket Relief Fund. The first and second cycles of the fund, launched in 2020, distributed $210,000 in emergency grants to 210 local artists within 80 miles of Kansas City, Missouri.

The fund’s first two cycles received 700 applications, according to Christine Boutros, the grants and awards programs manager at Charlotte Street. Of the 700 applicants, 25% were musicians and dancers, Boutros said. 

Johnson, the drummer, received a grant from Charlotte Street during its second cycle. 

“It helped me help my family, take care of my equipment and pay some bills,” he said. 

Later, Charlotte Street began to prioritize artists of color in its lottery, jumping from 29% such awardees at the end of cycle one to 43% at the end of cycle two, Boutros said. 

Now in its third cycle of the program, Charlotte Street announced that at least 60% of the grants will be awarded to people who are Black or indiginous or people of color, who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

The single highest risk for not being able to meet basic needs across the board for applicants that was cited was lack of financial security, Boutros said. 

“Among BIPOC artists, there is a higher number of people not having health insurance and not having a financial safety net,” she said. “So we know that there’s higher risk factors depending on one’s ethnicity.”

Using Tech to Reach Audiences

In the absence of in-person gatherings, livestreaming has become a popular alternative for musicians looking to make up for lost gigs. In fact, nearly half of all musicians surveyed by JazzFuel have performed a livestream concert since lockdown.

Jackie Myers, a pianist and singer for 10 years, began hosting livestreamed performances from her home early in March.

“The pandemic shut everything down, and I lost a gig that Sunday,” she said. “I was up and running a home studio doing livestreaming by that Friday.” 

After discussing social-distancing concerns with her neighbors in attendance, she agreed to move the operation outside and built a patio in her backyard, where she would host four to five shows a week, she said. As it got colder, Myers went on to organize drive-in concerts.

And although virtual performances have allowed Kansas City jazz musicians to continue playing, they are far from the perfect solution. 

Marcus Lewis, a bandleader and trombonist of 25 years, continued creating original songs by editing together the music his band members recorded at home.

“The only downside is you don’t get to actually make music with people in the same room,” he said. 

Lewis, who has traveled the world playing for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Prince and Bruno Mars, finds that isolation goes against the collaborative nature of jazz music, which builds off the energy and improvisation of the other players. 

“That’s very important to jazz — the interaction.” 

Musicians performing covers of songs can run into issues with music licensing and copyright laws. On Oct. 1, Facebook changed its music guidelines, forbidding users to use videos on its products, including Facebook Live, “to create a music listening experience.” 

“It got more difficult for us to livestream,” Myers said. “Our options started getting smaller and smaller, and it was already sort of an impossible situation.”

Nemati, the saxophonist, began to perform via livestream but with time also noted a decline in engagement and views. 

Saxophonist Aryana Nemati at The Piano Room
Saxophonist Aryana Nemati at The Piano Room, 8410 Wornall Road, in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood. (Chase Castor | The Beacon)

“It was almost oversaturated at the beginning,” she said. “I think people really wanted to get a more alive musical experience.” 

Since then, Kansas City has allowed nonessential businesses to reopen, as well as operate at full capacity and resume their normal hours of operation, so long as social distancing is implemented and masks are mandated — causing an even sharper decline in the popularity of livestreams. 

“There’s not as much of an audience available for musicians that want to play over social media,” Myers said. “You pretty much have to just go back into the venues if you want to play.”

Path to In-person Performances

A recent study found musicians playing trumpet and bass trombone — common jazz instruments — tend to generate more aerosols than when speaking. Higher aerosol concentration leads to increased risk of airborne disease transmission. Some musicians across the U.S. have experimented with special coverings on their wind and brass instruments to help stop the spread of aerosols, with significant success.

Johnson has a plexiglass barrier that he uses at times to soften the sound of his drums. Now, it doubles as a barrier for protection. 

“Music is supposed to help you to forget everything that’s going on outside,” he said. “But you still have to make sure people know that (the pandemic) is still going on.” 

Clubs reopening have allowed some Kansas City jazz musicians to resume live gigs, but the continued spread of COVID-19 makes returning a conflict of safety and work.

“There was a point where I was singing through masks,” Myers said. 

The singing itself was manageable, but Myers received pushback from the audience who wanted to hear and see her clearly. 

“I couldn’t give them the night they needed, a night off from how hard this time is, because they look at me and they see a mask,” she said. “They just want a break, and they used to be able to get that from live music.” 

Some musicians refuse to take the risk altogether. 

“I haven’t played a gig since the second week of March, 2020,” Lewis said. 

In the meantime, the bandleader has leaned into other ventures, like arranging, writing and teaching music, in order to sustain himself. 

“I’m not going to perform in person until I feel absolutely safe.”

Mili Mansaray is a freelance reporter for The Beacon, an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.

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