Annenberg Radio

How the pandemic changed jazz

Thornton jazz faculty and students share how musicians in the genre have adapted to the pandemic and found their own sound

When the pandemic hit, musicians of all genres took a hit, too. But one genre in particular — jazz — has suffered pretty hefty blows. Yet, despite the industry losing musicians, jazz clubs and gigs, there’s an upside to all of this. With young musicians embracing emerging platforms and production skills, music is blossoming in people’s own rooms. The pandemic is creating a new generation of musicians, ready to share their music with the world, strictly jazz or not.


Music plays from a Thornton Jazz combo in early 2020 (video shared by Will Buckser-Schulz, jazz guitarist at USC).

That’s a Thornton Jazz combo playing in early 2020.

Music stops.

Before COVID shut everything down. When the pandemic brought live music to a halt, students had to quickly learn how to play together over Zoom, share audio files over Google Drive and artificially layer each part together. Stages to share were out of the picture. Everyone was in their own room, now. Jordan DeTiege is a sophomore jazz studies student and saxophonist at USC. He misses the way playing with other musicians in the same room used to feel.

“When I was back in school, it was always a good hang. Like, you get to learn each other’s play styles. You get to jam and socialize, like musically socialize was just more open to communication opposed to what it is now.”

For established musicians in the jazz scene, though, there’s more at stake than nostalgia towards in-person collaboration. Without the money from gigs, performing artists have lost a large chunk of their potential earnings. Edwin Livingston is an adjunct jazz professor at USC.

Music plays: Edwin Livingston Group at the Blue Whale.

For years he’s been a professional double bassist, performing on tours and at jazz clubs. That all got taken away when the world went on lock-down.

“More than two-thirds of my income is from live performance, you know, and when all that money is taken away, it is traumatic and scary, you know.”

Livingston says he has been stressfully getting by with his teaching income, but he misses the energy and collaboration of live performance.

Music plays: Edwin Livingston Group at the Blue Whale.

“And jazz is so much built upon this aspect of improvisation. You can’t get that when you’re trying to play via zoom. We would get our energy from the audience. You know, If there’s no one out there, I mean, who’re we going to play for?”

Audience applause from the Edwin Livingston Group at the Blue Whale.

Livingston used to play at the Blue Whale, an intimate jazz club here in L.A and a favorite among musicians, but it closed because of the pandemic.

“It was the spot where everybody wanted to play. It was like the last real jazz club in L.A.”

Lila Forde is a singer and jazz studies student at Thornton.

Lila Forde sings during the Thornton Jazz combo performance in 2020.

She really misses the blue whale.

“Jazz clubs were already on the brink of extinction before the pandemic and then so the pandemic really just sunk it.”

But just like in the past when jazz has shifted and bounced back from historical hardships, there’s another change happening now. And it’s all happening in people’s own homes.

“Quarantine is like the birth of the home studio, really. It’s either you adapt or you get left behind.”

That was Thornton saxophonist Jordan DeTiege again. He says the pandemic has given him time to hone in and make strides on his practicing —

Music plays: Jordan DeTiege practicing “Blues for Alice” on the saxophone during quarantine.

— not to mention get better at recording and producing music, too.

Professor and musician Edwin Livinston says he’s noticing a change in sound in a lot of his students. He thinks it’s partially because of the way collaboration unfolds less organically when done virtually. In Thornton ensembles and classes specifically, musicians can no longer bounce musical ideas off of each other in the same room.

“It has to be more predetermined now, so you have less of that, quote unquote, jazz aesthetic of improvisation.”

And now with musicians isolated at home, they’ve got more time to make music. They’ve been turning to platforms like TikTok and Instagram to get their music out and music listeners have had the time to discover their work, too. It’s a silver lining that Lila sees as helping out jazz as a whole.

“The Internet has given so much visibility to a genre that was pretty much dying. We had nowhere else to go. And so people just started creating stuff online and more people started to see it and so it just kinda created a snowball effect.”

With all of the extra time, Lila released her first album “In Another Life” last January, recording the whole thing in a home studio with a handful of jazz students.

“I don’t know if I would have a record out if it weren’t for the pandemic, honestly. You know, we were all just forced to be inside in the house with lockdown. I was like, OK, why don’t we just do it?”

Music plays: “Good Morning, Brother” from Lila Forde’s recent EP In Another Life.

For many of us, music got us through quarantine. For musicians, it’s what got them through it too. And when the pandemic finally comes to a close and quarantines are a thing of the past, everyone can agree that people will flock to live music, more than ever — and things might sound a bit different. Young jazz musicians like Jordan Detiege attest to that.

“We’re all in this isolation and we’ve all been practicing. We come back, it’s going to be a whole different wave.”

For Annenberg Media, I’m Cari Spencer.

“It’s going to be a bang.”