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What happens to musicians when all the gigs stop?

Artists who once had stable careers in music are struggling to fill the void

For trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, the launch of his latest CD just over a month ago coincided with his busiest stretch of travel for 2020. A CD release tour that began in Germany Feb. 28 was supposed to include gigs in five nations before concluding this week in France.

It proved to be the worst time for a tour for Pelt, as COVID-19 began to take a firm hold on Europe.

“We were supposed to play some dates in Italy, but I pulled the plug on Milan when I heard they were beginning to catch cases,” said Pelt, who has performed with numerous music legends, including Grammy winners Cassandra Wilson and Roy Hargrove. “It’s amazing that early on in the tour in Germany and Switzerland, when they only had a few cases, people were walking around like it was the safest place in the world.

“Now, we’re all in a dire situation,” he said. “The entire world feels like the zombie apocalypse.”

Music has the power to heal. Scientific studies have proven that, and DJ D-Nice put that power on display March 21 when he attracted more than 100,000 viewers to his virtual dance party, which allowed listeners to temporarily push aside the stress of facing a global pandemic where nearly a billion people around the world are being asked to stay home.

But for every successful artist like John Legend, who participated in a COVID-19-inspired #TogetherAtHome concert series organized by Global Citizen from his luxurious home, there are musical artists whose once stable careers might soon have them transitioning to the life of a struggling musician.

The financial losses for some of the musicians who spoke to The Undefeated: tens of thousands of dollars. One musician put his losses for canceled shows at $30,000 and climbing.

There is a union for musicians: the American Federation of Musicians. But a call to that union by The Undefeated went unanswered, with the website of the American Federation of Musicians providing a link to unemployment information, and another link to contact Congress. (Note: None of the artists interviewed for this story were members of the union.)

“When I hear the president say this could go through July and maybe August, that honestly makes me feel unsettled,” said Pelt, who lives in New York but opted to travel to his mother’s home in Virginia to self-quarantine and keep his children safe after returning to the United States from Paris on March 12.

Warren Wolf, the talented vibraphonist who has performed alongside a long list of world-renowned musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spaulding, decided to end his forced hiatus by organizing a trio that performed March 20 at the An Die Musik venue in Baltimore. State restrictions on public gatherings meant the show had no audience aside from the business owner, camera operator and techs who helped stream the 52-minute concert.

“This is depressing because no one has ever dealt with anything like this, so it feels good to be able to get out with some of my friends and perform,” Wolf said of the show, which charged viewers $5 with the proceeds split among the performers. “Clubs are closed, restaurants are closed, now the gyms closed and this isolation is tough.

“But a friend of mine told me that if Nelson Mandela could endure jail and isolation for 27 years,” added Wolf, who has offered online lessons on his social media page, “we can hold on for a few weeks.”

The last time Wolf was on stage for a show was March 10, when the group that was backing Grammy Award-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant was in the midst of a soundcheck at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. The conductor was called from the stage during the soundcheck, and within 30 seconds the group was alerted that the show was canceled.

That was just the beginning of a nightmare for Wolf, whose cancellations by the end of last week totaled 35. His string of CD-release shows at the Jazz Standard in New York beginning April 16 are still on the books, but Wolf knows those shows — and future shows — are in jeopardy.

“My musical career has come to a halt, just like the careers of people in other fields,” Wolf said. “I teach and my wife’s working, so I’m OK. But a lot of my friends who don’t teach and who solely depend on live performances and recording sessions are now forced to get another job. But where are they going to go to get a job when everyone is laying people off?”

Tia Fuller, who once toured with Beyoncé as the saxophone player in the megastar’s all-female band, is one of those musicians who maintains a steady stream of income as a professor in the ensembles department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. But the number of shows that she’s had canceled is growing, as well as the appearances she had scheduled at colleges as a guest lecturer.

Jazz musician Tia Fuller, on alto saxophone, leads her quartet in a performance at the 19th Annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park in New York on Sept. 23, 2011. The original concert had been rescheduled due to Hurricane Irene.

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

“What’s causing the high level of anxiety for a lot of musicians is the uncertainty of how much worse will this all get,” Fuller said. “Here at Berklee, part of the allure of our program is students having one-on-one contact with their teacher. Are those students going to start asking for refunds? Will that lead to the potential of slashing salary?”

Fuller has gone through her accounts, canceling some subscriptions that can be sacrificed. “I don’t mind cutting back,” Fuller said. “But if all of my income was based on performances, you would be talking to a different person right now.”

Carl Allen, a Brooklyn, New York-based drummer, is trying to take a long-term approach after seeing cancellations that included a residency in Utah, concert dates in Poland and an entire tour through the Midwest and South, where he was to play with the saxophonist Bobby Watson.

“It’s numbing, bro,” Allen said. “But I’m at the point where, starting today, I need to believe in this concept of measurable progress in a reasonable time. When this is all over I need to look back and ask myself, ‘What did you do during this time? How did you make yourself a better person?’ ”

Allen, who lives in New York, feels fortunate that his wife is employed and brings home a steady income. “But I’m from the old school, and think, ‘I’m a man, and I need to be doing more,’ ” Allen said. “My wife keeps assuring me to be cool, and everything will eventually blow over.”

Trumpeter Etienne Charles would normally be able to lean on his position as an associate professor of jazz trumpet at Michigan State University, but he’s currently on hiatus as he played tour dates in West Africa and recently in Trinidad during Carnival. Charles was supposed to be at Blues Alley in Washington this week, but those gigs have been canceled, as well as tour stops in Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania that would have taken him to the end of April.

“I’ve lost six weeks already, and it seems every day I’m getting calls with more cancellations,” said Charles, who lives just outside of East Lansing, Michigan, in the town of Okemos. “I’m just hunkering down and preparing for the worst. I’m cutting down on what I eat, just to be prepared if things get drastic.”

Charles said that musicians are members of a tightknit community that usually looks out for one another when someone needs help.

But where does the support come from if everyone in that community is adversely impacted, from the musicians on the street who sing and perform for tips to the superstars in the business who are suddenly seeing lucrative guaranteed dates disappear?

“I really don’t know,” Charles said. “This crisis has impacted all of us: musicians, bartenders, servers at restaurants, mechanics.”

Asked what would be a worst-case scenario, Charles paused for a long moment before answering.

“As long as I have running water, I’m going to be fine,” Charles said. “But if this goes on for a long time, a lot of people are going to be forced to learn how to survive.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.