‘Change is the most constant thing we got’: D.C. artists reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they’ve recovered

In early 2020, the COVID-19 virus began to spread worldwide, quickly transforming the lives of billions across the globe. November will mark the six-month mark since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended their public-health emergency declaration, putting an official bookend on this chapter in our history. Now that this world-altering event is in the rearview mirror, we’ve decided to take a look at how the D.C. jazz community was impacted, how it responded, and how its musicians have kept on keeping on.

During the pandemic, our daily realities shifted from face-to-face interaction to sheltering in place and navigating new ways of existence and survival. Many experienced obstacles with virtual and distanced living — sometimes without needed infrastructure around sustainable employment, financial support and health safety. More than 3 million lives were lost worldwide to the coronavirus in 2020 alone. Because of social distancing, countless people were unable to mourn their loved ones, further complicating this wave of grieving. COVID-19 and its aftermath continue to highlight intertwined themes in our lives, including urgency, isolation, survival, reinvention, renewal and togetherness.

Live music and those involved in its creation were hit hard during the pandemic. Venues abruptly closed — which meant cancellations of local gigs, festivals, concerts and international tours. The significant loss of income left performers with the dilemma of establishing supplemental funds and other sources of employment. Although transitioning to virtual performances created pathways to building new audiences, the unique experience of live performance enhances the connection between performers and audience members. The live bandstand is often a place where innovation and legacy give way to deepened expressions. 

In addition, we lost many beloved musicians during this period, including — in the D.C. area — saxophonist and scholar Andrew White, drummer Howard “Kingfish” Franklin, saxophonist and educator Brother Ah, and too many others. Their contributions to the institution of jazz will be felt for decades to come. 

Musicians have continued to adapt. Some have relocated, some have pursued different careers, and many others have returned to the bandstand. Still, reflection and pause are necessary to digest such a cosmic shift.
CapitalBop spoke with several artists by phone to discuss their reflections on the pandemic, where it has left them, and how their lives have unfolded amid a global recovery.

Trae Crudup, drummer

CapitalBop: Can you share with us how the pandemic changed you professionally? 

Trae Crudup: It made me think about things in a more strategic way—especially when it comes to making money as a musician. When the pandemic hit, a lot of gigs and shows got canceled. I was out of work. When the pandemic hit, I moved to Alabama with some of my family because I didn’t have money for rent. I worked at Walmart for a few months before I started driving trucks. Before the pandemic, I would’ve never thought I would be driving a truck. I pretty much did what I did to survive. The pandemic humbled me. You never know when something like that is going to happen again. I need a nest egg so that I won’t be out here struggling.

CB: Talk about how it impacted/influenced you artistically. 

TC:  It made me think about how I could still do shows. Luke [Stewart] and I were doing virtual concerts. I’d never done a virtual concert before. Artistically it had me thinking about how I can make music sound organic in front of an audience, but from the comfort of my own home without anyone around. Also, I spent a lot of time practicing and coming up with songs and melodies. It allowed me to dig deeper to see how many things that I could bring out on the drums and push myself.

CB: Can you speak on how the pandemic era impacted you emotionally? 

TC: As an artist and musician, most of our work is social—when we’re playing shows, concerts, touring, etc. For that to drastically change almost overnight, it was like wow. I’m not around my comrades and other musicians to share this music with. It was a little bit of a shock. But it was good in a sense because I got to spend some time by myself and deal with my inner being, in a sense. When the pandemic first happened, there was a void, and something needed to occupy that space. The space was of being social and vibing off people’s energy. I asked myself what I could do as an artist and musician to fill that void. For me, it was getting into meditation and listening to spiritual music. I had to work with it and deal with it. It was the situation that we were in.

The pandemic strengthened my hustle mentality and got me in the mindset of trying to make it. You must be humble and do what you need to do to survive. I got my CDL to drive trucks. At any point, I can jump back in the truck.  

Editor’s note: Shortly after this interview, Crudup relocated from D.C. to New York City, where he is now living.

Marc Cary, pianist

CB: Can you share with us how the pandemic changed you professionally?

Marc Cary: I’ve always figured out a way to reinvent myself. I lost a lot of money because I had just invested in the Life Lessons album. That didn’t give us a chance to explore, travel, or tour. We lost momentum on a three-year project. With those lasting effects, I don’t really sit and think about them because they’re depressing. I keep it moving. My wife/partner in business had to reinvent herself in terms of all the tours she was working on had folded. 

Other things that changed are the way I make money and the way I rebounded and explored the possibilities of teaching from a remote location. That experience had its ups and downs. But the ups about it were that I could still communicate and provide a service as a teacher. I could also share things that I didn’t have access to in the classroom before—like sharing quotes from books, cassette tapes, and performances that I wouldn’t do in a classroom. Those things became valuable moments. I learned a lot. 

I experienced a lot of losses. A lot of people died that I planned on working with or had worked with. I could cry a whole book of tears in being able to find my way. I bought a house during the pandemic. I had to move because of the sense of my well-being in New York. So many people were not taking this pandemic seriously. That enabled us to see past the limitations we had in New York. That was a big one. During that period, I got some grants that I’ve never been able to get before. I’m thankful for that. Change is the most constant thing we got. The moment you start relying on anything, it’s liable to slip and fall through your fingers. I’ve learned a lot in being able to recover from that and deal with solitude. 

CB: Can you speak on how the COVID-era impacted you emotionally?

MC: I go through a lot of changes because I’m away from my kids now. I live here (DC/Metro area). Emotionally, it’s been a trip. Sometimes you forget—because so many people died—that we’re somehow connected. I pretty much kept doing my rituals in being mindful of myself and others and trying to be in the moment, and not living other moments and wishing that I was there. Being here in the present-day and right now—this very moment—is very valuable in what we do as musicians and creatives. You’ve got to practice being present. You’ve got to practice the practice like [it’s] medicine. 

Amy K Bormet, pianist and vocalist

CapitalBop: Can you share with us how the pandemic changed you professionally?

Amy K Bormet: Right before the pandemic, I had won a South Arts Touring grant which I wasn’t able to use. It was the first grant that I’d won. I started looking into what type of funding was available. Before the pandemic, that’s something that I wouldn’t have had time to do because I was grappling from one gig to the next gig. Then I got unemployment and that was amazing. It gave me faith that there’s some money coming in. It gave me an opportunity to think about how I want to structure my life differently. Now it’s completely different from what I was doing in 2019/2020. 

Before the pandemic, I had planned an entire Washington Women in Jazz Fest. It got canceled due to COVID. When everything stopped, it allowed me to have some space to reconsider the way I was existing and making music. It shifted me from the direction that I was going. But it was a big shove from being in a gig side-band hustle to doing more larger-scale projects. 

CB: Talk about how it impacted you artistically?

AKB: Two of my friends started a songwriting group. We have a weekly songwriting session where someone will share a prompt and then we meet back and share our songs. I’ve been able to write a ton of music in the last two years. Another friend, Jen Shyu, started a group of people who were part of her Patreon. They were talking about grant writing—that helped me with looking for funding from different sources. Songwriting and grant writing opened new avenues. They were both completely online because of this open space that we needed to have [for] community and conversation. 

CB: Can you speak on how the pandemic impacted you emotionally or brought about a new awareness? 

AKB: I feel a lot softer. There’s a vulnerability in my relationships with other people that I didn’t have before—especially [with] comparing yourself with images on social media and seeing all the successes of what people were doing. Nobody was being real about trauma and anxiety and all the things that we were feeling. Now I feel there’s more of an openness there. For me personally, I feel more welcomed and confident in sharing what I need to accommodate myself. When I’m working with other people and being more aware of how others are feeling and trying to create space around that. It’s hard in general being an artist; it’s a difficult process to get everything moving and so many emotions are tied up in what you’re creating. There’s a relationship between the value you have in your creative work vs value you have as a person. 

I work with women a lot. In my brain, women take on everything because we’re used to taking on everything. Having that space for women has been crucial for me. I do so much in that realm of women musicians—just to feel that support in a different way. 

CB: Are there certain obstacles that you’re experiencing post-COVID?

AKB: A lot of venues closing has been difficult. Connections have disappeared. Out of my contacts, 30-40% went somewhere else. Accumulating those relationships took a lot of time, money, and resources. But it’s exciting that people are figuring out different things and taking risks and maybe moving in a slightly different field, or different place. It takes a little bit more to plan and find the right connections when you’re trying to book something. 

Kweku Sumbry, drummer

CB: Can you share with us how the pandemic changed you professionally?

Kweku Sumbry: When the pandemic hit, I was still living in NYC and I was at The New School. I did a 5-year program there for Jazz and Contemporary Music (Bachelors) and Arts Management (Masters). I was there from 2015-2020. I graduated in 2019 with my bachelors; and then I had one more year to finish. I was living in Harlem when COVID came up. When the virus came out, I was in Ghana visiting my father. I made it back to the states before the US shut its borders. I flew right back to DC. Luckily, one of my classes was already meeting on  Zoom. I went to NYC, got some stuff, and came back home to DC. I have a 5-year-old daughter who lives in the DC-metro area. Her mother at the time was in the Army. I came home to make sure everything was okay.

During the pandemic, I was in school virtually. Then luckily, I got a job virtually teaching African percussion in different schools. I was able to earn a little money while I was living here—which really did me good. During that time, it was crazy because I was still in college. I’d been on the scene for a while. The influx of gigs was coming my way. I was supposed to play the Village Vanguard in May or April 2020 with Gerald Clayton and that got canceled. I was supposed to do residency at Jazz Gallery and a do week at Jazz Standard in NYC. I was also slated to go to Japan and then to Europe in March. I thought it was over. I figured I needed another way to make ends meet. I didn’t know what life was going to be. It was daunting and I was scared. I have a huge village here in DC. 

CB: Talk about how it impacted you artistically? 

KS: It’s given us time to be alone which has been one of the main inspirations behind me doing solo sets.  I’ve started doing these solo sets once a month, which I’ll do for the entire year. I’ll compile all the recordings, video and audio, for an offering next year.  I’m a firm believer of governing yourself before you govern others or be a leader. That’s what a bandleader is. A bandleader is somewhat of a governor or a mayor or the person who makes the rules. I’d like to establish myself as a solo artist first. 

The pandemic showed me that it’s okay to be alone and make music. I never feel alone when I’m by myself because there’s so many different parts and voices that I have. Being and doing these solo sets has given me the opportunity to shine light on those voices. 

CB: Can you speak on how the COVID-era impacted you emotionally?  

KS: I’m still recovering emotionally. I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around it. During the pandemic, I picked up meditation—it’s become a major key in my life. I meditate every day for at least 15 minutes. The pandemic brought that gift to me—the gift of solitude, meditation, and inner work. I picked up yoga and am looking forward to getting back into swing of things in terms of my practice as a yogi. Emotionally, I stay to myself since the pandemic. You won’t me going on Facebook making rants. I don’t necessarily express my emotions to the world as much as I did before the pandemic. I let those emotions out on the bandstand. 

Dior Ashley Brown, vocalist

CB: Can you share with us how the pandemic changed you professionally?

Dior Ashley Brown: Fiscally, there’s not as many opportunities as there were before COVID.  You have to look for other opportunities and find different ways to situate yourself as a professional. A lot of up-and-coming artists are having issues with relationships and programming. Before (COVID), venues could thrive off their regular performers or attendance. But it’s so unpredictable now. The pandemic also affected people’s desires to attend shows. It’s hard to get folks to come out like they used to. Now, people are very careful about how often they’re out and attending shows. I’m also finding that there are not enough racially inclusive spaces.

CB: Talk about how it impacted you artistically, during COVID and afterward? 

DAB: I naturally find time to be alone and be centered. COVID took it up a notch. It helped me go inwards and see what was truly serving me. I am very intentional where I am—where I’m present. It was interesting that I got so creative during that time. I have a greater appreciation and deeper sense of my purpose. That’s part of my journey.  

Coming out of COVID, I was exhausted because my days were longer. I was working a lot to inspire people and keep us mentally healthy and sane. There was a lot going on. We all kind of came back into a new world. The congestion of availability of time and meeting up with people was something that I never thought could become exhausting. Now I find myself balancing that. I work out every day and meditate regularly. 

CB: Are there new ways that you connect/collaborate with other musicians and artists now vs before COVID?

Energy is everything. My relationships mean even more now than before. I love building with people. I believe in divine timing and that everything that is meant for me will come. Even when I meet someone in the same field, I let them know that I’m an emcee. I’m not mad if the relationship doesn’t happen. There’s so much energy in a relationship that continues the cycle and gives back. A lot of us don’t understand that we have to be activists and advocates for what we do—or we won’t push the needle forward. A lot of us need to get behind these legislations and be included in these institutes and spaces so that the culture is there. I want to continue to be around curators and people who care about taking this further.



About Majeedah Johnson

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Majeedah is a blogger and author of mystery novel, Jump the River. She received her B.S. in Biological Sciences from Loyola University in New Orleans. Reach Majeedah at [email protected]. Read her work on www.fearlessartistry.com. Follow her on Instagram @suchnsuch_experiment.

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