Book review

Sammy Stein – ‘Pause, Play, Repeat’

Sammy Stein – Pause, Play, Repeat “The real impact of COVID-19 on musicians (mainly jazz)”.

(Self-published – purchase link below. 156pp. Pb and e-book. Book review by Jon Turney)

Chances are, if your artistic life is devoted to jazz, you’ve given a lot of thought to why you do it, and how to make some kind of living. So jazz players might have been better placed than some to cope with a pandemic that has shaken up lives and livelihoods. For them, like many of the rest of us, everything from daily routines to deeply personal priorities has been up for reconsideration. And they are, after all, supposed to be good at improvising.

But how do you improvise your way out of a sudden emergency when, if you mainly play live gigs, your principal income and artistic fulfilment is just gone, overnight? The votary of an art form outside the mainstream may feel even more marginalised in this crisis. Mass infection, rising death tolls, and economic paralysis matter more than when one might next get out for a few pints and a couple of sets of good music.

Sammy Stein’s useful investigation gives a nice overview of how some musicians have risen to these challenges. She offers interviews with 18 artists, so it’s a small sample, quite a few of whom also work in other genres – as her subtitle puts it, she was after “The real impact of COVID-19 on musicians (mainly jazz)”.

The presentation gives responses from each musician to the same set of questions – unobtrusively edited so their verbatim answers are all coherent. This, inevitably leads to repetition, so there’s a temptation to skim the second half of the book. The stories go like this – really busy; suddenly not busy and a little lost; re-grouping; accomplishing new work in spite of it all; still hoping to play live more one day; in the UK Brexit is going to make life harder even if the pandemic is over. The author doesn’t say how the interviewees were chosen. The selection leans toward vocalists. And the voices here are mainly from London, with a scattering of players based in the US and Canada. But the testimonies here have enough in common to support some useful generalisations.

Here are some. Everyone misses playing with others, musically and socially. The absence of studio sessions or even rehearsals is felt keenly, but the connection with a live audience is when music-making is complete.

Income has often melted away, and some leaders who had tours booked lost heavily when advance costs were written off. Online teaching, continuing part-time work outside music, supportive partners, a few commissions: all have been handy to have. State support, though often late or lacking, features in some answers too. Most people seem to be getting by, so far.

And for those, a fair few here, for whom playing live never brought much income, the frustrations of the enforced break from the road have mostly been weighed against some benefits. There is time for reflection on what matters most creatively, for intense practice, for digging into theory, for investigating work by new composers or players, for online masterclasses, suddenly available in profusion. Several mention going back to longer or more ambitious compositions, long neglected in the hurly-burly of touring. The reason most jazz pieces are short, it appears, is that they tend to get written in bursts on the laptop in hotel rooms or airports.

When it comes to recording, rehearsing and performing, the pandemic has deepened existing trends. Those already using technology to work remotely, accustomed to file-swapping and mixing, have used it more; others less adept have mostly learnt how. A few tried live streaming, then gave up. Most have done it more and more, and expect to go on doing so. Some heartening reports come from those who have forged stronger relationships with existing fans, and found new audiences online. Either way, after some initial queasiness about holding out the virtual hat, punters can be reassured that electronic tipping is very welcome.

Those are some key findings. There are more, and plenty of nuance in the individual interviews. Anyone who wants to start thinking through how these things will affect the future of music will do well to read the whole book.

The most striking thing is how positive most of the interviews are. No-one seems to be seriously re-evaluating their career choice. There have been good things along with the bad, and some of them will endure. No doubt a second year without much in the way of contact with audiences could be far more demoralising than the one just gone. So could the persistent feeling that no-one knows what is going to happen next. But as Stein’s interviewees point out, uncertainty is a way of life for people in jazz. I finished reading feeling that being wedded to a marginal form could turn out to be an advantage of a kind. No-one here is going to be affected by decisions about festivals that draw hundreds of thousands of people. Perhaps jazz can creep back to public performance via dates in large venues that will only be able to cater to modest audiences for a while? Perhaps we can all take comfort from the guitarist Peter Bernstein’s notion – cited here by recent emigre to Helsinki Chris Bestwick – that “jazz is too small to fail”.

LIST OF INTERVIEWEES: Ray Gelato, Tony Kofi, Ivo Perelman, Emm Gryner, Collette Cooper, Adrian Cox, Tara Minton, Champian Fulton, Graeme Flowers, Chris Bestwick, Camilla George, Alex Ward, Elise Morris, Grace Garland, Esther Bennett, Jennifer Lauren, Claire Cope and Beatrice Betley.

LINK: Pause, Play Repeat is available from Amazon

Categories: Book review

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