Live & Lost: Dispatches From the Venues Shuttered by Covid-19

We’ll never forget the jazz clubs, supper joints, dives and mid-sized rooms we lost to the ongoing pandemic. Here are excellent concert recordings from a handful of them.

Sam Cooke at the Copacabana in 1964. Credit: Ben Martin/Getty Images.

It’s safe to say we’re all kicking ourselves for years of “Sorry, I work super-early tomorrow! Have a great show!” texts to our musician friends. After 10 months of little to no live music, even the most excruciating open-mic with the loudest espresso machine sounds pretty good. 

The economic struggles inflicted by the pandemic have resulted in more than 80 venues shuttering across America. With so many other stages threatening to follow suit, it’s incumbent on music fans to keep them standing. If we don’t want our favorite punk-rock watering hole or century-old jazz club to become an acai-bowl joint, we can support organizations like #SaveOurStages and pro-live-music legislation, and pay for live-streams whenever possible. (And, of course, stream our favorite artists on TIDAL, and buy their vinyl and merch to keep their lights on.) The future doesn’t have to be hyper-gentrified and artless, but the choice to reverse course is partly ours. 

In the meantime, as we mourn the loss of beloved spaces like Jazz Standard, the Copacabana and the Blue Whale, let’s tip our hat to a selection of the clubs, halls and cafés that went out of business during the Covid-19 pandemic via these live recordings.

Sam Cooke
At the Copa (1964)

Cooke tears a hole in the firmament on One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; on At the Copa, he’s surprisingly subdued. Here, he mostly sticks to standards like “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “Frankie and Johnny”; he even lowers the heat on the barn-burning “Twistin’ the Night Away.”

The Manhattan nightclub the Copacabana, which opened in 1940 on East 60th Street and moved four times until its final (for now) location at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 47th Street, featured headliners like the Supremes, the Temptations, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and later became a locus for salsa.

At the Copa functions more as a curio than as an authentic representation of Cooke’s dynamism onstage. Contrast the “Twistin’” here with the violently swinging version on One Night Stand, where Cooke sounds like he’s tossing chunks of meat to starving lions. The hair on the back of your neck will stand on end.

Further listening: The Temptations — Live at the Copa (1968), The Supremes — At the Copa (1965).

Guy Clark
Keepers: A Live Recording (1997)

Clark was a songwriter’s songwriter, and it takes one to know one. “Guy is the kind of writer who is too strong to fade out,” John Hiatt proclaimed in 2013. “His songs will remain long after he does. They get in your heart and mind, and they become part of you.” 

Where better to hear transformative songs than a hole-in-the-wall like Nashville’s Douglas Corner Cafe, which hosted everyone from Townes Van Zandt to John Prine to Neil Diamond before closing in March? Thankfully, it appears there’s still hope for the live-music institution: “There’s a possibility that it won’t be gone,” owner Mervin Louque told a local news station in May. “There’s a possibility I’ll turn things around, and I’ll keep it here and keep it going.” 

At any rate, Keepers serves as a reminder of the brilliant music that emanated from the joint. Backed by a spare ensemble, Clark performs much of his most demonstrative material, like “Texas 1947,” “Like a Coat From the Cold” and “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”

Michael Thomas Quintet 
Live at Twins Jazz, Vol. II (2009)

If you dig small groups with big-band fire, like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Live at Twins Jazz, Vol. II, captured at the homey D.C. club, deserves repeated streams. The quintet — trumpeter Michael Thomas, tenor saxophonist Zach Graddy, pianist Darius Scott, bassist Kent Miller and drummer Frank T. Williams IV, plus Andrew White on saxophone — tears through a killer take on Hank Mobley’s up-swinging “The Breakdown” as well as Thomas’ volatile originals “The Little Individual” and “It Is What It Is.”

“If you’re not hip to Andrew, that was also part of what made that recording so significant,” Thomas tells TIDAL of White, the multireedist and ultra-prolific Trane transcriptionist who died last November at 78. “The expanse of Andrew and the association that we had with him over the years.”

Twins Jazz, which Ethiopian twin sisters Kelly and Maze Tesfaye founded 33 years ago, closed its final location, on U Street, in September. Whether it will reopen elsewhere remains to be seen. “We could get to what we wanted to get to there, at Twins, and that’s what made it special,” the trumpeter adds. “You hear the people there; you hear the staff there. You hear Wendy, the bartender. That’s all part of the experience.”

Anthony Jeselnik
Shakespeare (2010)

The Upright Citizens Brigade is a strictly Angeleno institution now. The Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, base of the revered improv-comedy organization that launched co-founder Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon, Donald Glover, Aubrey Plaza and numerous other performers closed last April when it couldn’t afford to renew its lease. (Ditto for its Eighth Avenue training center.) 

A decade before its closing, Anthony Jeselnik arrived in the record market fully formed with Shakespeare, his killing debut album recorded at UCB’s Chelsea location, which closed in 2017. Each of his trademarks appears somewhere in its 45 minutes: hyper-economy, impeccable timing, sneering self-regard, a knack for misdirection and a broken moral compass. 

Whether riffing on such cheery topics as home invasions, kidnappings or fatal car wrecks, Jeselnik can wring more laughs from 17 words than most comedians can from 70. “My girlfriend makes me want to be a better person,” goes one such ouroboros-like deadpan, “so I can get a better girlfriend.”

Mingus Big Band
Live at Jazz Standard (2010)

In December, Jazz Standard announced they would not be reopening on 27th Street in Manhattan. The news rocked the New York jazz community. “Thank you to our team members, our guests and the city of New York for embracing Jazz Standard and supporting us for the past 18 years,” the management tweeted. “We are heartbroken yet confident that we will reunite for some Mingus and Merlot.”

They were alluding to the Mingus Big Band, one of the ensembles managed by Charles Mingus’ widow, Sue. Since 1991, they’ve carried on the Angry Man of Jazz’s legacy, and in 2008, they began a weekly residency of “Mingus Mondays” at Jazz Standard. Their roiling 2010 album at their home base won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. For an idea of what it sounds like, consider Mingus’ dyad of musical influences: Duke Ellington and the church.

Further listening: Frank Morgan — City Nights: Live at the Jazz Standard (2004), Nancy King — Live at Jazz Standard (2006), Russell Malone — Live at Jazz Standard: Volume One  (2006) and Volume Two (2007), Dafnis Prieto — Si o Si Quartet: Live at Jazz Standard NYC (2009), Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra — Live at Jazz Standard (2009), David Gilmore — Numerology: Live at Jazz Standard (2012), Chris Bergson Band — Live at Jazz Standard (2014), René Marie — Live at Jazz Standard (2016), Jakob Bro — Bay of Rainbows (2018).

Jorma Kaukonen
2015-08-09 The Funky Biscuit, Boca Raton, FL (2016)

When the Jefferson Airplane became the Starship in the mid-1970s, guitar great Jorma Kaukonen dipped out to continue with the side project Hot Tuna alongside bassist Jack Casady. Both bands remain active, and Kaukonen also thrives as a rootsy solo performer. 

This 2015 solo set from the Funky Biscuit, which closed last August after a costly attempt to reorient itself for Covid-19, is amiable and approachable. Whenever we can grab a beer and check out our favorite acoustic singer-songwriter without a twinge of mortal terror, it’s sad that it won’t be at the Funky Biscuit. Even beamed into our living rooms during an almost gig-free year, 2015-08-09’s coziness is palpable. 

Julian Lage 
Live in Los Angeles (2016)

For his 2016 trio album Arclight, the guitarist curated tunes by W.C. Handy, Spike Hughes and other early 20th-century writers. “I think there’s something [about] that era, specifically the teens and the ’20s and the kind of early ’30s, you know, before things got kind of codified and slick and refined,” Lage told NPR in 2016. “There was this thing where you kind of couldn’t tell if it was country, if it was ragtime ... if these were the seeds of bebop, if they were showtunes.”

Lage’s choice of material may be stylistically slippery, but he wears his influences on his sleeve — namely, Bill Frisell and Jim Hall. But Lage is no slavish imitator; he’s one of the premier guitarists in modern jazz. On Live in Los Angeles, a companion to Arclight recorded at the Blue Whale, Lage displays his Hall-like compositional acumen, his Frisell-like knack for harmonic atmosphere and a sense of showmanship all his own. This beloved 100-cap performance space, L.A.’s haven for leading-edge modern jazz, closed last December after months of inactivity. 

Whether by voting in venue-friendly politicians, paying for live-streams and drive-in gigs or simply firing a few bucks in the right direction, let’s not let more irreplaceable spaces slip through our fingers in 2021.

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