By Tim Ferguson
Jazz is still alive in Greenwich Village. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly challenging for presenters and musicians, we may be starting to see some hope as we begin to emerge from our collective nightmare.
While many jazz musicians have lost all or most of their incomes this year, and jazz venues have been forced to shut their doors and have lost all revenue, the music persists. Individual musicians and bands have found creative ways to perform, from parks and street corners to virtual concerts, and a few of the most prominent clubs in the village have continued to present the music online.
The legendary Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Avenue), probably the most important jazz club in the world, is offering free content including interviews and selected performances on its website (villagevanguard.com/) as well as livestreaming performances for a $10 fee. Opened in 1935 by Max Gordon, the intimate listening room has been the center of New York’s jazz since the 1950s. Now operated by Gordon’s wife Lorraine and daughter Deborah, the club has invested heavily in streaming, to keep musicians playing and maintain a presence on the scene during the pandemic, but is in a precarious position like so many local businesses. There is no word as of this writing on when they will be able to resume presenting live performances.
Smalls (183 West 10th Street) and its sister club Mezzrow (163 West 10th Street), both destinations for jazz lovers from around the world, have been presenting livestreaming performances at smallslive.com/ and, when possible, live shows throughout the year. Currently, both venues offer nightly performances to socially distanced audiences of maximum 35 percent capacity. Owner Spike Wilner has been at the forefront of livestreaming, as well as creating the SmallsLIVE Foundation, a not-for-profit endeavor to support the music, musicians, and the venue. Livestreams of live shows are free to members (no cost to join), and archived shows can be streamed for a small fee.
Zinc Bar (82 West 3rd Street) has opened a sidewalk café for drinks and snacks, with musical performances by duos on Sundays, and word is they hope to reopen their stage by early May.
The fate of other favorite local jazz spots is less clear—like popular game room and jazz venue Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street) and beloved neighborhood music institutions 55 Bar (55 Christopher Street) and Arthur’s Tavern (57 Grove Street)—all of which are closed although rumored to have plans to reopen.
Jazz is tenacious—a music born of the African diaspora and its many struggles; this is not the first time it has been threatened and will undoubtedly not be the last. Jazz will continue, but many individual musicians and numerous venues are at risk. As the new administration in Washington begins sending out financial aid to individuals, localities, and businesses, there is some hope that the Village jazz scene will be back in full force soon. Until then, how about watching a livestream from the Vanguard? Or maybe enjoying a cocktail and a set of world-class music at Mezzrow or Smalls? The musicians and clubs could use the help and the music is the best in the world!
Author Tim Ferguson is a professional jazz bassist and educator who has lived in Greenwich Village since 1994. He has recorded numerous albums, both as a leader and bandmember, and can be heard in local jazz venues, and in concerts and jazz clubs around the world.