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Philly’s jazz community improvising to deal with COVID-19

Philadelphia's jazz player and impresarios are finding ways to create safe places for scat.

Chris' Jazz Cafe has begun streaming live performances from the empty club.
Chris' Jazz Cafe has begun streaming live performances from the empty club.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Anyone curious about how the COVID-19 pandemic has played out on Philadelphia’s jazz scene should visit the little Sansom Street club that traditionally has been a haven for the city’s musical hipsters.

When the virus outbreak in March shut it down for nearly six months, Chris' Jazz Café decided to improvise. Motivated by health concerns and a re-imagined vision of its future, the now-reopened club transformed itself into a safe space for scat.

Carpeting was replaced with more hygienic hardwood. Touchless sinks and paper-towel dispensers were added to restrooms. Sanitizing stations were placed throughout. Plexiglas dividers now separate performers on stage. And four high-definition cameras and a new recording studio were installed to facilitate the live-streamed concerts that Chris' owner hopes will allow the 31-year-old venue to survive.

All that to accommodate tiny crowds that on one recent weekday totaled four at lunchtime and 21 at dinner.

“And our capacity is 180,” said Mark DeNinno, owner of the club just off Broad Street. “COVID-19 has really kneecapped us.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s jazz cats are back on stage, live-streaming from an iconic, empty club

For jazz in Philadelphia, this was a silent spring and summer. When the few venues devoted exclusively to jazz closed, so did the bars and restaurants where it was played more sporadically. Big-name players lost touring dates. The weddings, festivals and private events that sustained side players disappeared.

“I was in Taiwan in February when I started reading about COVID,” said Tony Miceli, a vibraphonist who also teaches at Temple and the University of the Arts. “I came back and all the schools shut down. Then I lost all my travel gigs, my local gigs. Except for a couple of online things that paid $50-$75, I had zero work from the middle of February to August.”

But now the tune at last seems to be changing. Throughout a city where such legends as tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner honed their chops, a nearly moribund jazz community is again stirring to life.

» READ MORE: Coronavirus and the indie venue crisis: How long can Philly music clubs last?

What’s fueling this re-emergence, performers and club owners said, are relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, new safety measures, an increasing reliance on technology and, above all, the creativity of the musicians themselves.

“We’re still very much in the middle of this pandemic,” said Tim Brey, a pianist who teaches at Temple. “But one thing that’s clear is how resourceful musicians have been. I’ve been surprised at how much is going on.”

Renowned pianist Orrin Evans, for example, was staging regular Sunday concerts on the patio of his Mount Airy home, paying the musicians in part with a grant he received from Citizens Bank and the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. The performances were streamed live on his record company’s Facebook page, Imani Records, where there was an option that allows viewers to donate.

“We started out inviting five or six people with masks on,” Evans said. “Now we might be up to 20. We put out some chairs. People bring their own masks and sanitizers. I pay these artists just as I would have paid them pre-COVID. It’s a gig and at the same time it’s giving back to the community.”

Evans’ final concert was an all-day affair last Sunday, Oct. 4. It can be accessed at

» READ MORE: Philly’s jazz scene is having its big meetup virtually, with Christian McBride, Arnetta Johnson, and many more

Artists and clubs increasingly are utilizing social-media sites such as Zoom and Facebook to generate revenue through live-streamed performances. South Jazz Kitchen, which has reopened but not yet for jazz,, live-streamed the Philadelphia Jazz and Soul Festival on Sept. 12. Chris' has produced more than a dozen on-line concerts.

And when local musicians aren’t playing to virtual audiences, many are teaching classes or offering private lessons online.

“I started an online school for those who play my instrument,” Miceli said. “And I’ve given hundreds of Skype and Zoom lessons.”

Chris' recently reopened, with capacity-limitations that have been increased to 50%. DeNinno is counting on new equipment, part of the club’s $150,000 renovation, to enhance the virtual music productions he thinks will be the short-term salvation of jazz venues. Right now, capacity is capped at 30. Weekend patrons purchase a dinner-and-show package whose price varies depending on the performer. There’s a $10 cover during the week.

“Live-streaming is how we’re trying to create a second revenue stream for the restaurant,” he said. “Otherwise, at 25% or 50% in Center City Philadelphia, it’s not going to happen.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s jazz musicians have a new leader looking out for them as COVID-19 rages

Salvation might be necessary to counter an atmosphere still infused with anxiety. Even reopened clubs are discovering that many would-be customers are still reluctant to occupy enclosed spaces. And walk-in business has disappeared.

“People are picking a destination, going to that destination, being smart and safe and then going home,” DeNinno added. “You don’t see people walking around, bar-hopping, seeing the sights. Our biggest customers were the 500 public defenders on the corner. They really drove my lunch and Happy Hour business. Now there’s maybe 10-15 people in that office. The other day we had four people at lunch.”

Although many live-streamed performances are amateurishly done, seemingly recorded with a surveillance camera, DeNinno’s club has placed a premium on production values.

An emcee warms up the crowd on video-conferencing. Everyone on stage is masked, except for the horn players and vocalists who are isolated in Plexiglas. Four cameras frequently shift vantage points. A soundboard engineer and video technicians make constant adjustments. An on-stage map pinpoints the location of audience members.

“At one show,” DeNinno said, “people in 20 countries were watching. From what I’ve seen of these live-streams, we’re the benchmark.”

Other clubs are trying the same. North Philadelphia’s South Jazz Kitchen hasn’t yet resumed live performances, but this week presented a live-streamed event. Its sister venue, Warmdaddy’s, intends to do the same when it reopens soon in a new location.

“We see it as the new normal for us and other jazz clubs,” said Wendy Wolf of Bynum Hospitality, which operates the two clubs. “It’s the only way we can come close to having a full audience and generate enough revenue to pay the musicians.”

Chris' has already live-streamed more than a dozen events by Zoom and recently, for a first time, utilized Twitch, an alternate social-media platform that has been popular with gamers.

“Things were really dead for a long time,” said Miceli. "But that’s starting to change. What Chris' has done, the money they’ve spent and the vision they have, is something that might help us revitalize. Mark’s a hero. He could easily have brought a few big-screen TVs and called his place a sports bar.

“We need these clubs open. Musicians have to get on social media and hustle. I hear stories about guys playing here and there and nobody comes out because they don’t do social media. Right now we need clubs with people in them and we need club owners paying their bills. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia jazz great John Coltrane’s house ‘at risk,’ preservationists say

Some of these COVID-related concerns and other issues are on the schedule of this weekends Jazz Philadelphia Summit. The two-days of concerts and discussions, sponsored by Jazz Philadelphia, a consortium of local musicians, presenters and music educators, are being conducted on-line. Viewers are being asked to contribute between $15 and $250 and registration information is available at https://rb,gy/q2t3wp.

However it all plays out and whatever shape the post-COVID jazz scene assumes, nothing substantive is likely to happen until there’s a safe and effective vaccine. Until then, out-of-work musicians and idled club owners will need to employ the ability to improvise that’s always been jazz' hallmark

“There are some clubs that won’t make it,” Evans said. “There are musicians not making it. We’ve got to think outside the box because only the strong are going to survive.”