The Jazz Gallery, Which Built a Vibrant Online Community, Opens the Door to a Livestream

Jun 25, 2020

Rio Sakairi, Artistic Director at The Jazz Gallery, didn’t exactly come running into the age of virtual concert presentation.

“If I’m speaking honestly, I’m only doing this because people have been asking for it,” she says of the club’s new livestream, which kicks off tonight with a set by the Joel Ross Trio. “I’m not crazy about it. But I know the musicians are craving to play with each other, so for that, it’s great.”

Credit courtesy of the artist

Sakairi, one of the most influential arts programmers of our time, comes by her skepticism honestly. As she articulated in a recent blog post, it’s a function of her deep reverence for the experience of hearing improvised music in a physical space. Live streaming, by her assessment, offers a disembodied and denatured experience: “In my opinion, it’s not ideal under the best of circumstances, let alone under the current situation.”

To hear her talk about it, you might not realize that Sakairi has cultivated one of the most robust online communities for jazz during the coronavirus pandemic. It happened step by step, with a lot of microadjustments, but it has been a bright spot for musicians — and a lifeline for The Jazz Gallery at a deeply uncertain time.

Yesterday, the existential peril facing jazz establishments was hammered home in a Facebook post by Spike Wilner, owner of Smalls and Mezzrow in Greenwich Village.

The Jazz Gallery is in a somewhat different position because it was founded in 1995 as a nonprofit organization, sustained by grants and charitable giving. (Wilner’s SmallsLIVE Foundation was incorporated two years ago, and has assumed a more prominent role during the pandemic.) In fact, it was The Jazz Gallery’s membership model that led to Sakairi’s first foray into quarantine content, in March: a “Words & Music Happy Hour” with musicians over Zoom, limited to about a dozen guests.

“Happy Hour initially started out as a way to retain our members,” Sakairi says. “Our first concern was, what if everybody wants refunds? That’s going to really mess up our finances.” But the series, featuring artists like saxophonist Melissa Aldana, also proved a morale boost during the pandemic’s disorienting early phase. Sakairi soon added a weekly dance party, with jazz musicians moonlighting as DJs.

All the while, Sakairi observed the jazz world’s transition to live streaming with a critical eye. “I noticed a lot of people had started doing solo concert from their homes, and the quality was really bad,” she recalls. “Hardly anybody was prepared to have proper internet bandwidth or microphones setup or interface, none of that. It was just not the best presentation of who they are.”

Of course, there have been valiant efforts to transcend these limitations, most of them featured in our Livestream Hub. As you may recall, The Checkout recently hosted a “Live and in Lockdown” concert by Aldana, pianist Dan Tepfer and others. Sakairi held out a while longer — focusing instead on a similarly titled series, The Lockdown Sessions, a gathering of musicians who are encouraged to share new works-in-progress, under more controlled conditions.

“I always like feel like putting a visual aspect to the music really elevates the whole experience immediately,” Sakairi says, and most artists taking part in The Lockdown Sessions have embraced that idea, producing videos to go along with their music. (One session with guitarist Lage Lund, beaming in from Norway, featured a riff on home schooling, with charming commentary from his children.)

All of which has yielded an organic form of community engagement, for artists and others in the jazz ecology. “The Jazz Gallery’s Lockdown Sessions have been extremely meaningful to me because they have truly brought the NYC jazz community together in this diaspora-like state we are in,” attests publicist Matt Merewitz, founder-proprietor of Fully Altered Media. “This is so important because the Gallery is a place where jazz people (not just musicians) congregate. Rio’s artistic direction has given us the feeling that we are a family and we can count on the family coming together on Saturday nights.”

The Jazz Gallery has also joined organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center in releasing full concert footage to its YouTube channel. Among them is Joel Ross’ Being a Young Black Man, a commission that premiered in 2017.

Ross, a vibraphonist whose spectacular ascent on the global jazz scene was prefigured by years of workshopping on The Jazz Gallery stage, is an appropriate artist to inaugurate the club’s livestream. He’ll perform in a trio with Or Bareket on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums, playing single set that starts at 8 p.m. EDT. Nonmember admission to this virtual event is $10; for members, it’s free.

In the short term, tonight’s event signals one more crucial New York venue entering the livestream ecology, in the same month that brought The Village Vanguard and Smalls on board. In the longer term, The Jazz Gallery Online, as the whole suite of web content is known, will likely form an important support beam for the organization.

“We actually gained members since the quarantine began, which I wasn’t expecting,” Sakairi says. “There are a lot of people around the globe who know of us, but they had no reason to be a member before. But now that we have online activity, we have members in Europe and L.A., Miami, Mexico, all sorts of places. So I’d like to keep doing things online.”

That’s not to say she has changed her tune: Sakairi is still anxious for the moment, whenever it comes, when people can safely gather at The Jazz Gallery again. “I always want to present the artists that I’m working with at 100% capacity,” she says. “A livestream, for whatever reason, cuts it down to, I don’t know, 85% or 80%. You can make a first impression only one time, and I don’t necessarily want people to think ‘Oh yeah, I heard Joel Ross. Yeah, he’s cool.’ Whereas if you heard him live, he’ll be amazing. But given the constraints of the current state of the world, this is the next best thing.”

For more information, visit The Jazz Gallery Online.