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Underground hosts final Jazz Night of year amid COVID uncertainty

The performance ended a season of hope for a return to live music, anxiety over potential public health risks

Members of one of Western Washington University’s jazz combos listen to their bassist’s solo. The Underground Coffeehouse hosted its final Jazz Night of the year on April 20. // Photo by Finn Kurtz

Jazz students of Western Washington University performed their last concert of the year at the Underground Coffeehouse on Wednesday, Apr. 20, after a winter quarter of public health instability.

Western’s jazz combos are directed by associate professor Kevin Woods, the director of Jazz Studies. Several groups performed a two-hour set to a large audience from 7-9 p.m.

Though the mask mandate ended on Apr. 11, Jacqueline Pham, program coordinator of the Underground for AS Productions, still encourages mask-wearing during events.

“As ASP, we really encourage masks in the Underground,” Pham said. “Some people don’t wear them during the events, and because of the mask mandate, it’s up to them, but we still heavily encourage all of our co-workers and all the staff to wear them.”

Jay Kirry, a third-year Western student and attendee of Wednesday’s concert, said he feels the Underground staff do their best to create a COVID-safe environment for their events.  

“I think this location has taken [COVID] in stride pretty well,” Kirry said. “Western is one of the most well-protected and densely-vaccinated locations in the state. If we’re talking about COVID, I’m not so worried. The entry path here was enough for me and my friends to all get in, and I never felt at any point that there was any sort of unsafe practice or anything that would detract from the experience.”

According to Pham, the spread of the omicron variant in January 2022 reminded her all too well of March 2020.

“Winter quarter, for sure, I was really scared,” Pham said. Over winter break, she had planned out events ahead of time to decrease stress later on. 

“When we came back to winter quarter, everything shut down, at least for the first two weeks. That’s when it really hit me, and I was like ‘shoot, this really could be like March again,” Pham said. “For winter quarter especially, I was thinking ‘most of my events are going to be canceled,’ and they were.”

The hiatus from large gatherings during much of 2020 and 2021 was deeply traumatic to the jazz scene according to Samuel Harris, a trombonist and a  fourth-year transfer student at Western who performed at Wednesday's concert.

“Music programs have suffered severely. It’s easier to get into Berklee right now than it probably has been in the last 40 years, just because there’s not guys playing anymore,” said Harris. “They’re worried it’s going to happen again.”

Harris, a Texas native, trombonist for ten years and jazz musician for eight, was profoundly affected by the suspension of live music, and the experiences still influence his view of performing.

“The week that COVID hit, the initial response was ‘OK, we’re going to put the instruments down for a week, and we’ll see you at rehearsal next week’ — but then, of course, that didn’t happen,” Harris said. “It was pretty devastating. It was the longest time I had spent off-stage since the age of 12.”

The spike in omicron cases and the subsequent shutdown of many events at Western also reminded Harris of March of 2020, and adds to the new COVID paradigm musicians are forced to live with.

“I had to scramble to find a way to supplement my income, in ways I was relying on it before,” Harris said. “It’s a kind of mental thing and an emotional battle. It’s so discouraging to play your instrument and not have an outlet for people to hear you. Whenever I hear about another variant rolling around the corner, a part of me makes me just want to put the horn down.”

Quin Wilder, a pianist, fifth-year student at Western and performer at the Spring concert, took the opportunity of quarantine to teach himself to play piano. 

“I’d been a french horn player, and I’d done jazz trumpet,” Wilder said. “I realized that I had such a fascination for playing improvisational piano, and I took all this free time that I got because everything was online and closing down, and I just started learning a bunch.”

Wilder’s combo played the jazz standard “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter at the Underground event. Learning to work in a group, Wilder said, has helped him grow as a pianist.

“You’re changing the way you need to fill in sound and fill in space,” said Wilder. “When I’m playing in a group, it’s really easy for the piano player to overplay, and I even still struggle with that right now — but the biggest thing I’ve had to face is learning when not to play.”

Despite the uncertainty, Harris and Pham are both resolute to move forward with live music.

“Another part of me now is pretty certain, or at least hopeful that things will keep getting better slowly, even though there will be setbacks,” Harris said. “That’s what keeps me going, but it is concerning and almost exhausting thinking about [shutdowns] happening again because now it’s almost like I see it as a chore.”

“At least now I know what to do, because I had a whole quarter of canceled events,” Pham said. “As for future events, I’m only going to be the coordinator until the end of the year, but I’m still going pretty hard with my events, and planning big things with big turnouts.”

The next event at the Underground Coffeehouse is the weekly Open Mic Night on Tuesday, May 3.

Finn Kurtz

Finn Kurtz (they/he) is the Opinion and Outreach Editor of The Front for summer quarter. He is a history and political science double major and a journalism/news editorial minor in their fourth year at Western. In his free time, he enjoys looking in bookstores, going on walks in the woods, and trivia. 

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