Coronavirus: Australian jazz on the edge

Musician and teacher Adam Simmons provides an excellent case study into the impact of COVID-19 on an art form, talking structural stress and reasons for hope.

Finally! It has all come together perfectly – it is early March and I’m excited to announce an international year of touring activity across Europe and Asia for my trio, Origami; the release of three self-funded albums; and launch of a new festival linking creative contemporary Australian musicians with an international industry network. But wait – what’s the news on that virus?

Two weeks later, COVID-19 caused the shutdown of all artistic activity, international travel and now, all non-essential activity. All of my performances have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, with massive loss of income and opportunity for myself and others, and I am suffering debilitating panic attacks and clinically depressed. And I am not alone.

Multiply this across the entire jazz and art music sector and there will be scores of similar stories. All aspects are affected: festivals, clubs, presenting organisations, venues, labels, studios, media and of course the artists at the core of this industry who create, produce, present and teach. We are all in this together across all sectors of society, though with varying levels of support to cushion the blow.

Swift and broad support is required immediately for all artistic activity including jazz and art music. The whole arts sector needs certainty and reassurance from our leaders that we are valued and will not be forgotten in their promise to help all Australians ‘across the bridge and get them to the other side’. The jazz and art music sector is not unique in this need but existing structural issues makes it particularly susceptible during these extraordinary times of disruption.  

Jazz (a term I will henceforth use in a broad sense in this article, with a focus on jazz being an attitude rather than limited by style) sprang from the fringes of American society before establishing itself as a popular music, but now covers a range of sub-genres. Despite the artform’s vibrancy and versatility, there is a general lack of industry engagement and organisational support for jazz in Australia as outlined in Victoria’s Jazz Industry Strategic Action Plan (2019) and in my submission to the Victorian Government’s Creative State 2020+ consultation last year.

Read: All that jazz: in search of an Australian style

As has happened to me, due to the global spread of the coronavirus the rug has been collectively pulled out from underneath the entire music scene, including jazz.

For artists, the work that has dried up includes concerts, musical theatre, functions such as weddings, recording sessions and teaching – everything:

Howard Cairns, a bassist and stalwart of the scene working with diverse groups such as The Red Onion Jazz Band, Way Out West, Margie Lou Dyer and my own trio, Origami states bluntly, ‘Three overseas tours and all gigs in the book are gone, essentially four-five gigs per week… previously booked till July… it looks grim.’

Xani Kolac, a jazz-trained violinist was about to go on a two-month tour in China with the musical Come From Away, an album promotional tour with Clare Bowditch, as well as her presenting her own projects but has now ‘had all live gigs cancelled until June except for one.’

Emerging saxophonist and Lebowski’s co-curator, Flora Carbo, has also lost all of her work for the next couple of months, saying, ‘it will undoubtedly have a hugely negative impact.’

An uncertain future

In Melbourne alone, many venues closed down when the initial recommended limit for gatherings of 500 was imposed, despite most only having capacity for 20-200 people. This is in stark contrast to how some other sectors have tried to maintain an ‘open for business’ approach. But as Melbourne based composer and pianist, Ade Ishs points out, there is no certainty they will all reopen: ‘Some dining cafés have laid off staff and closed down in a matter of days,’ he said.

Presenting organisations across the country have all suspended live concerts. Sydney Improvised Music Association’s (SIMA) General Manager, Amy Curl, is thankful they are in a rare position to ‘feed a cancellation fee back to artists’ but ‘most hit were the venues, who rely on the trading from the event to cover their rent’.

For Martin Jackson, Artistic Director/CEO of Melbourne Jazz Co-operative, ‘the main impact is directly on artists,’ and as ‘currently we have neither State or Federal funding for the first time in our 38 year history… we may wind up at the end of 2020.’

Geelong’s New and Experimental Arts Laboratory (NEAL) ‘has become a vital performance outcome for regional, national and international new music and arts-based performances,’ according to Vicki Hallett, NEAL Co-curator. But with the closure of its host venue, Platform Arts, due to coronavirus, all NEAL events scheduled in 2020 are now either cancelled or on hold.

In the past week Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF) and Castlemaine Jazz Festival (CJF), have both cancelled with the intention to retain as much of this year’s programming for their 2021 iterations. As MIJF CEO, Hadley Agrez states, ‘This is particularly relevant for local artists who have invested a great deal of time into new projects that were due to premiere at MIJF 2020.’ But Agrez admits the toll of coronavirus on MIJF is great.

‘Our organisation has already suffered a significant loss in terms of finances and human resources. We are entirely dependent on ongoing support from major government partners to ensure the future viability of the festival at this stage. Almost all support from corporate and education partnerships has been cancelled as these companies deal with the impact of COVID-19 on their own businesses,’ Agrez said.

‘We are entirely dependent on ongoing support from major government partners to ensure the future viability of the festival at this stage.’

– Hadley Agrez, CEO, Melbourne International Jazz Festival

Artists and organisations are quickly scrambling to see what can be developed through these uncertain times, to continue being active for reasons of both creativity and survival.

Online streaming is the principal response, which may just hasten an inevitable shift in long-term strategies for promotion, performance and teaching. Agrez proclaims: ‘Digital mediums such as live streaming will provide immediate opportunities for artists and organisations to remain active in these unprecedented times.’

Similarly, The Boite have just presented the first of their ‘Adapt, not cancel’ digital series via YouTube and the Make It Up Club will be presenting their virtual events very soon. SIMA’s Amy Curl is excited for the potential of online teaching, saying, ‘We’ve all been ‘discussing’ digital platforms for some time, and we’ve dipped out toes into streaming from time to time – but now there is no option.’

Creativity will flourish during this period. As Cairns points out, ‘there will be ample time for woodshedding this winter.’ Carbo is even optimistic that ‘this space will be good for me to reflect, think and create, looking forward to the future of my career as a composing/performing musician.’

To encourage artists, SIMA are looking to providing a number of micro-commissions, offering an artist some income, ‘enough to subsidise a few weeks rent.’

For CJF’s return next year, President Calum McClure is confident that ‘our volunteer workforce will enable us to work through these tough times.’ But ultimately this will have to change. As highlighted in Victoria’s Jazz Industry Strategic Action Plan, ‘the jazz industry is run predominantly by dedicated volunteers who are in short supply.’ This is endemic across the board. Support for organisations to ensure all participants are properly remunerated for their services would begin to address issues of sustainability. Musicians have long known the flexibility offered by the ‘gig economy’ is actually a way to sell insecurity as something desirable. 

Musicians have long known the flexibility offered by the ‘gig economy’ is actually a way to sell insecurity as something desirable.

– Adam Simmons

A step further would be recognising that support for ensuring the health of the whole-of-eco-system is vital – the current crisis shows up the existing societal deficiencies. Support could be realised through an artist’s living wage/subsidy or implementation of a Universal Basic Income to help underpin financial security for the whole of society – there is currently an international push for an emergency UBI in the fight against coronavirus as well as local support for the concept promoted by The Greens.

In some of my conversations, there is optimism that appreciation for music will develop in the community during this crisis, with hope that a collective voice can be established to advocate for these innovations. Kolac suggests: ‘If we all band together we could see very positive changes to our community such as rallying together to demand an increase in wages across the board, a better and stronger union, stronger sole traders and more community spirit.’

Agrez agrees, noting this event has highlighted the need and ‘great opportunity for development within the jazz sector and far greater collaboration between key stakeholders. It is difficult to advocate on behalf of a sector unless it has a unified voice.’


I am recognising I have spent my working life in constant ‘flight or fight’ which has helped me to survive in the arts through constant innovation across my various activities. I am now seeing the effects of this long-term stress upon the jazz sector and I am seeing it play out across society now, as evidenced with the irrational hoarding of toilet paper. But the current crisis is pushing all of us to breaking point – a mix of demoralised despair, wildly ambitious plans to change the world or an inability to stop staring into the headlights.

How can jazz survive this crisis, with such an unprecedented shutdown of activity impacting an entire eco-system, including allied industries such as recording, manufacturing, accommodation, radio, retail, travel and hospitality? Through the resilient and resourceful nature of its supporters and practitioners as it adapts to the new paradigm, that’s how.

But support is needed right now for a group of people who are often the first to step up in times of need, as Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues’ General Manager, Leanne Mulcahy explains. ‘Take the most recent example of the Bushfire Recovery Concerts. It is now the turn of government and the community to give back to and support the sector so it can survive and emerge the other side to continue with the important contribution it makes to the culture, economy, community and mental health and wellbeing of Australia,’ Mulcahy said.

Leadership that questions, listens, supports, shares, understands and unites in order to lead is what is currently required. This is what I am trying to do for myself, within my family and among my professional circles. Jazz as an attitude to life is what has taught me these things – and it may be that by understanding what jazz actually does, that its community may find its own collective strength. And then in turn the ‘doing of jazz’ might serve as a model for a new society.

Adam Simmons
About the Author
Adam Simmons is a composer, multi-instrumentalist and educator, involved across many different scenes within Melbourne and beyond, performing jazz, punk, new music, traditional Japanese honkyo-ku, funk and free noise/improv. He regularly performs internationally, working with artists from USA, Japan, Poland, France, Germany, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Greece and New Caledonia. His ensembles include Origami and the renowned Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble. Adam has curated events including Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues, Festival of Slow Music, 100:25:1 and The Usefulness of Art Concert Series. Adam teaches shakuhachi at University of Melbourne. Adam offers mentoring, grant-writing services and consultancy via The Usefulness of Art. He is currently acting in a pro bono role to help develop a model for supporting Victoria's jazz industry as outlined in Victoria’s Jazz Industry Strategic Action Plan (2019).  He is Artistic Director of TiNJ Fest – due to launch in August 2020 but now postponed. Adam is endorsed by Forestone Japan (saxophones), Selmer (bass clarinet) and Temby Australia (flutes).