Hearing live jazz has long meant stepping into one of the intimate, dimly lit clubs where the music thrives. With their limited capacities and slim profit margins, such venues have been among the casualties of the COVID pandemic, with some rooms now shuttered permanently and many others soliciting donations to try to stay afloat.
Now six venues, including Scullers Jazz Club in Boston, are teaming up for the inaugural East Coast Jazz Festival Saturday. Viewers can spend the evening club-hopping from one virtual stage to another to catch sets by 18 bands. The Scullers stage will stream sets from bands led by regulars keyboardist Christian Sands, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and saxophonist Tia Fuller, a Berklee professor who provided the saxophone sound for one of the animated characters in Pixar’s “Soul.” Boston pianist Yoko Miwa will perform a pre-recorded set for the Blues Alley stage in Washington, D.C.
“We’re looking to show the camaraderie among jazz clubs on the East Coast,” says Scullers general manager and artistic director Jan Mullen. “And it’s the one-year anniversary of when most of us had to shut down. Without the entire circuit of clubs, none of us could get by, because I can’t have the same act at Scullers every week. If an artist plays for us, they need to have other places up and down the East Coast to perform at.”
The festival also includes stages sponsored by New York’s Birdland and Smalls, Baltimore’s Keystone Korner, Philadelphia’s Chris’ Jazz Cafe, and Blues Alley. All six have frequently presented streaming concerts while their doors have been closed. The East Coast Jazz Festival will be free with a “pay what you can” option.
“The clubs have all found that when you have a pay-per-view stream, it really restricts the audience,” says Mullen. “You just don’t get the viewership that comes when you leave the stream open.”
Sands, who earned a 2021 Grammy nomination for best instrumental composition for a track from his album “Water,” says he’s playing the festival to show his support for small jazz venues. “With clubs, you get to meet the people that come to the set and create a relationship with your fans. You see familiar faces.”
Although Sands’s pre-pandemic tour schedule included plenty of festivals and large theaters, he says what sets jazz clubs apart is that “when you’re playing them you get this immediate reaction to the music. You can see the audience, and see their faces, and see how they’re responding to what you’re playing. We might be playing something new and the audience responds in a different way than what we expected, so it lets us gauge how the music is reaching people.”
Scullers continues to host weekly live performances on its Facebook page. “We don’t make any money off of them — all of the donations go directly to the artist. It provides a place for our artists to gather, and we’ve gained a lot of followers and positive feedback” says Mullen.
Mullen hopes that Scullers’ doors will reopen this fall if music venue capacity limits are expanded. As a part of the DoubleTree Suites hotel, the club has the rare luxury of not having to pay rent while closed. “It would actually cost us more to open, so until we are sure that we can put on a feasible show, it doesn’t harm us to remain closed, unlike most venues with rent and ongoing expenses that they have no way of covering without live music,” Mullen says. “In that way we are fortunate for sure.”
EAST COAST JAZZ FESTIVAL
March 20, 5-11 p.m. Tickets: Pay what you wish. https://page.inplayer.com/eastcoastjazzfestival/