Hanging In The Gallery: How A 75-Seat Jazz Club Became A Dominant Livestreamer

As with analog live performances so goes digital performances.  With a daily flood of livestreams, most fixate on the biggest artists from the biggest genres: Chris Martin on Together at Home, Blake & Gwen on The Grand Ole Opry, Erykah Badu battling Jill Scott on Verzuz, Neil Young tramping around Colorado with Daryl Hannah on his Fireside Chats, etc. But what about all the other great music from smaller but vital genres? Specifically, one predicated on the live experience like few if any others? 

Over the two decades Rio Sakairi has programmed New York’s Jazz Gallery, she has always felt ambivalent about the internet and its relationship with live music.

For jazz to work, she says, “I believe you need to be in the same room as the musicians.” To her way of thinking, ”the internet is a weird place – it can feel really close yet distant at the same time,” yet it became the only option to maintain a cash flow once doors closed following a well-attended, five-night run by Tyshawn Sorey’s band the first week of March.

After just 10 days of being dark, The Jazz Gallery, a 75-seater in the Flatiron District, launched Happy Hour Hang sessions that allow a small group of fans to chat via Zoom with a jazz musician; singer Saschal Vasandani and pianist Aaron Parks were among the early participants.  

In mid-April, Sakairi started the Lockdown Sessions, wherein she asked four musicians per show to provide 15- to 20-minute videos that she followed with a Zoom Dance Party series with musicians as DJs. On July 9, with the city in stage 3 of reopening, she started a weekly livestreaming series from the Jazz Gallery stage. Ravi Coltrane and his quartet was the first act to perform and each of the first three shows pulled in between 400 and 500 viewers paying $10 apiece. (Members get in for five bucks).

“The thought process when the pandemic hit was ‘how do we retain members?’ and it actually increased our membership because people who don’t live in the city joined – we now have members from all over the States and overseas,” Sakairi says. “We quickly realized this was the silver lining, the next best thing-ish. When the artists created videos, I saw that some of them were very thoughtful and very effective in communicating who they are.”

The silenced epicenter of jazz has seen its various shrines turn to the internet to maintain some connection between artists, venues and fans. Jazz @ Lincoln Center staged its annual spring gala virtually in April and offers weekly archival concerts, posts new performances and conducts educational summer programs online. On June 13, the Village Vanguard, operating since 1935, started streaming two or three live shows a week from its stage; Small’s in Greenwich Village has been offering live afternoon  performances for donors since mid-June and  Uptown’s Smoke did its first livestream July 17. Roulette in Brooklyn offers archival concerts.

The newly formed Jazz Coalition, created in the wake of the pandemic to hand out $1,000 grants to 50 musicians to compose pieces, had its first premiere online on July 17: Joel Ross’ “Praise In The Midst Of The Storm.” Yet among these efforts, the comparatively small Jazz Gallery was an obvious leader: By the middle of July,  it had already staged 80 online events.

“In April and May, people were so starved for content that anything was acceptable,” says Sakairi, who has a three-person crew to  handle the live broadcasts. “Now, they expect perfection. Sound went out for 5 minutes during Ravi Coltrane’s show – we didn’t know why – but people were really upset. I said, ‘Look, we’re not a TV station.’”

To get the streaming programs underway, The Jazz Gallery had to upgrade the venue’s internet, bring in new audio-visual equipment and, of course, adhere to new safety standards. Right now, bookings are  limited to trios and quartets because of space limitations, and while Sakairi takes great pride in the range of her bookings, she says “I’m more mindful now of what works online.”

As venues start to reopen, she anticipates continuing to host one livestream, one lockdown session and a happy hour per week. If possible, she would like to explore pairing young musicians with college students majoring in film, art and design to create videos for the site.