As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shelter-in-place orders have had a huge impact across all sectors of the economy. Some of the hardest hit workers have been those in the hospitality industry, and that includes professional musicians. I am grateful to be included as a member of that tight-knit community, having played bass in several well-known Monterey Bay Area bands.
One fine spring morning in 2020, we woke to the news that all the venues where we typically perform were shuttered. Indefinitely. Full stop. As the song goes, that was the day the music died…or did it?
The career of a performing musician has always been one of uncertainty, but as a group, these artists tend to maintain a positive, optimistic world view. They are also highly creative individuals and most have found innovative methods and workarounds to keep their muse alive, frequently taking full advantage of 21st century technology. I spoke with a cross section of Monterey Peninsula area musicians to learn how they’ve been keeping the music alive, both for themselves, their students and their audiences.
Lee Durley, Vocalist
I was very busy before the lockdown. Singing with Ray Paul as Brotherly Love, we worked 15 to 20 shows a week at assisted living facilities. Now we’re down to one or two. We are outside and the patients are indoors with the windows open. It’s not that we must do it, it’s that we get to do it. The monthly Sunday jam sessions I led at Embassy Suites are on hold, of course, but we’re anxious to get back to that as soon as possible.
I’ve also been doing a few things on the side, recording background vocals for an album by Barbara Wagner, an amazing 13-year-old singer, and I’ve done a couple of things with Dennis Murphy and his church. I also did one of his online shows, singing “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man.”
Something I’m excited about is that we’re in the planning stages for reviving the Monterey International Blues Festival. We’re going to be doing at least a virtual show for now until we can get back to the arena at the Monterey Fairgrounds.
Things are different now, but they could be a lot worse. I’m grateful and appreciative for what I have and for what I’m able to do.
Grammy nominated multi-instrumentalist and co-owner, Dennis Murphy School of Music
From the beginning, the COVID lockdown gave me the time to hone my recording and editing skills. I’ve recorded more than two dozen videos with a wide range of local singers and musicians like Julie Capili and Roger Eddy. Also, I have more time to meditate and get to things I never had time for before.
The school is hanging on. Most of our teachers are still working, giving lessons on Facetime and Zoom. Paula [life partner, Paula Arnold] and I see a light at the end of the tunnel.
I think one can think either positively or negatively. I choose to be positive. You look at what others are going through…people are struggling. We consider ourselves to be fortunate.
Lauri Hofer Romero, Vocalist
Early on, there was some confusion about whether we could have live music, so there were gigs happening. Bruce Forman, Roger Eddy and I played at the Coffee Bank in Carmel. It was wonderful. Then the health department stepped in and put a stop to live music.
My sisters and I have been going to see our mom in memory care and singing for her when it’s been possible. Music was the key to keeping her peaceful and positive and somewhat focused.
My ukulele and I have created a bunch of music over the past few months, but in general I’ve found it difficult to behave in a musical way—singing loudly, soulfully, joyfully—in the confines of my own home. Looking forward, I’ve spent some of my stimulus money on musical gear so that I can be ready when things open up again.
I think a lot of people have realized how much live music means to them. People are starved for music. That gig at the Coffee Bank was an absolute love fest. After things return to “normal,” I hope that some minds will have changed about what live music is worth and how important it is.
Bruce Forman, Jazz guitarist, teacher
In normal times, my go-to line is: “I’m just trying to keep from going sane.” That’s especially true now.
My focus during these unprecedented times has been to make the most out of it, to be enlightened, dig deep and do things I haven’t had time to do because of my travel and work schedule. I was on the road a third of the year before the pandemic. A big part of that time was working and teaching at USC in LA.
I’m playing at least four hours every day. I’ve been able to practice and play the guitar like I did when I first started at 13. It’s been a constant love affair, and every day I’m excited to find the sounds that are inside the instrument and pull them out. My playing has become more orchestral now that I’m playing solo as opposed to working in a band.
I’ve tried to stay tech savvy. When the lockdown hit, I realized the online world was all I had to perform, produce music, teach and be involved in my community. As much as I prefer the real world, I just jumped in and got into it. I teach on Zoom and Facetime and have a strong YouTube, Facebook and Instagram presence.
My goal is to continue to progress and produce things and take advantage of the quiet time to work on projects as well as keep my community intact and build on it. I’m a jazz musician. People give us changes and we play on them. This is just another set of changes and we need to play on them.
Donnie Dickman, Keyboardist, vocalist, saxophonist
Before COVID, I was playing with nine different bands, going to rehearsals all week and playing gigs Friday and Saturday, usually with two different bands. I’m not sure I want to extend myself out that much again.
I’ve been laser focused on writing original music. Just jamming on my keyboard, coming up with ideas and lyrics and recording on my iPhone. I have been rehearsing a little with a couple of bands—socially distanced, of course, but it’s hard to sing with a mask. The original band I’m in, MeeZ, recently released a new record. “Things in Place.”
I’m still working my day job, Don Dickman Painting. That keeps the wolf from the door. The construction trades didn’t really drop off like hospitality and entertainment did.
It’s kind of weird to not be able to play live in front of people. COVID has shaken up the whole music scene. I think new bands are going to form and venues will change. It will be a positive thing for the future.
Gary Meek, Saxophonist, pianist, teacher
When the shelter-in-place order came last spring, I was optimistic that we’d all be working again soon. Then my friend [drummer] Andy Weis came down with COVID. Here was someone I know well in the ICU on a ventilator. It became obvious this was here for a while. So, I started doing virtual collaborations with other musicians, Andy being the first. He played brushes to “The Touch of Your Lips” while he was still in the hospital.
I just kept recording things, featuring local people like singers Claudia Viella, Julie Capili and Scotty Wright, plus some of my students. I realized the recording quality I could do at home was quite good, so I’m recording a new album of mostly original tunes, co-produced by Mike Lent, who’s also playing guitar.
I was doing exclusively one-on-one teaching prior to COVID, but I’ve discovered that you can have a good, productive teaching vibe online. That said, I’ve lost about half of the students I had. Some just aren’t comfortable with it.
I’m in a fortunate position in that I can wear a lot of hats, I love teaching and am able to teach a lot of instruments, can arrange and write, do session work. I can find a way to make ends meet. If I were only a sax player I’d be in trouble.
Janice Perl, Vocalist, teacher
At the beginning of 2020, I had three choirs going, including the Monterey Jazz Festival Honor Choir. We were about four weeks away from opening “Guys and Dolls” with Trinity High School in Monterey and as vocal director, I was in preparation for “Shrek the Musical” at Carmel’s Pacific Repertory Theatre. All that went by the wayside.
Right now, I have about a third of the students I would normally have, and that’s given me the time to record my first album in 30 years. I’ve chosen to do rearrangements of songs that meant a lot to me when I was first getting into music, songs that shaped the musician I am today, including Freddy Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” with lyrics by Al Jarreau, “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka” and Vanessa Williams’ “Starbright”. My friend, pianist Bill Spencer, is producing and has done highly creative work re-harmonizing them to make them sound unique. My brothers Dave and Mike Marotta Jr. are also on the record. My daughter Miranda Perl contributed very hip jazz background vocals.
I think that when restaurants can open a bit, some will most certainly feature live music again as they’re able to afford it. I’m ready to start again.
John Wineglass, Emmy Award winning composer
Just for contrast, in 2019 I was in 15 countries, most for work, some for pleasure. I’ve written quite a few commissions since 2017 and had four major symphonic premiers in the 2018-19 season. That was a remarkably busy and fruitful period. I did a Christmas piece for the Portland Symphony Orchestra (in Maine) and performed a concert with the San Bernardino Symphony in February. When the COVID shutdown hit, I came to a standstill for a while and was able to just slow down and relax a bit in March and April. I had truly been hitting on all cylinders for several years.
But I didn’t stay inactive for long. Since COVID, I’ve gotten six new commissions. I’ve been in talks with the Monterey County Symphony about being a Composer in Residence. They’ve never done that before. Stanford University has reached out about a teaching position. I also have two other major works that have been in the works, but because live choir and orchestra performances are on hold, I got an extension for those. Locally, I’m doing virtual performances for Compass Church in Salinas a couple of times a month. It’s been nuts.
I’m grateful that my career has continued, but in a way, I’m glad that I got a break. I would never have given myself the time to sit, reflect and chill out a bit. It’s also wonderful that since I’m not traveling, I get to spend a lot more time with my wife and daughter.
John Nava, Percussionist
When this hit in March, my band the Latin Jazz Collective was right towards the end of recording sessions for our second album, “La Bahia.” It’s in postproduction now. We decided to focus the idea on Monterey Bay where we make our home. Most tunes are originals by saxophonist Stu Reynolds and bassist Steve Uccelo. We’ve also included a couple of covers in tribute to my Latin jazz roots.
Other bands I’m in, Red Beans & Rice, Everyday People and others, all had good schedules lined up for the summer but unfortunately, all that was put on hold. I think it’s going to take a while for people to feel comfortable going to shows, both for audiences and the musicians. I understand. It hurts, but it is what it is. I’m one of the lucky ones in that I’ve been working for the County of Monterey for more than 20 years and am still making a good living.
If I could say one thing to people, it would be this: please continue to support local musicians. If you hear that someone is streaming a concert, please support that. If they’ve released a new record, try to buy it. That’s the kind of beauty we need now more than ever. And my fellow musicians and I are still putting that out into the world.