The Corona Blues

The coronavirus has disrupted the lives of musicians all over the world, bringing performances, rehearsals, and recording to a complete halt. Michigan has been hit hard, and the worst outbreak is in Detroit and surrounding areas, endangering the lives of many of our jazz musicians. With deep concern for the people we love and admire we reached out to two participants in the Detroit scene to see how they were coping with the pandemic. Sandy Schopbach spoke with artist John Osler, and Ira Lax interviewed drummer RJ Spangler.

John Osler

Covid-19 has brought a New World. And no sector of the economy has been harder hit than entertainment, with restaurants, bars and clubs — including jazz clubs — closed for months, whether in Paris, Tokyo or Detroit, three havens for jazz musicians. In the East Detroit/Grosse Pointe area, the Dirty Dog is the place for jazz.

The Dirty Dog is owned by Gretchen Valade, heir to the Carhartt empire, founder of the Detroit Music Factory label with a focus on jazz, and also a generous philanthropist who has not only made a large grant to Wayne State University to create its Jazz Center but also has kept the Detroit Jazz Festival alive and well ever since Ford Motor Company pulled its funding in 2005.
The club’s restaurant has reopened with half the previous seating but isn’t offering music yet. (The first show is supposed to be Gene Dunlap in early July.) To find out more, I called my old friend, artist/photographer John “Spike” Osler.

For about fifteen years, Osler has been taking photos at The Dirty Dog once or twice a week. A long-time jazz lover, Osler took to visiting the nearby club once it opened, sitting at the bar. One night he got talking with Carl, the bartender, and Willie Jones, the manager. He showed them his poster artwork and asked if he might take some photos of the musicians to use as “models” back in his studio. They introduced him to Gretchen and she agreed. Since then, she’s been hanging his photos on the walls, a visual record of the many jazz artists who have performed there. From that grew a weekly blog, complete with his photos.
Osler’s love of jazz goes back as far as he can remember. His father, a renowned artist working in design, would play jazz after the children were put to bed, the music carrying up the stairs. In college in the 1950s, he and friends would drive from Cornell University to New York City, to places like Eddie Condon’s and Birdland. Summer jobs took him to Los Angeles, where he remembers hearing Chet Baker play in clubs. “Jazz had a lot of force to it,” he says. 

After graduation, he worked in design back in Detroit, where he listened to jazz at Klein’s Bar downtown or caught gigs by Marcus Belgrave sitting in at the Sierra Station on Mack Avenue. Ann Arbor horn player Paul Klinger was also a jazz friend. “I gravitated towards jazz all my life. I was lucky. I was always in the right place at the right time.”

Jazz is an interest Osler passed on to his son, who played drums as a teenager. The basement was always swinging with young musicians like pianist Scott Gwinnell, guitarist John McLean and bassist Rodney Whittaker, whom he often drove home late at night.

Some of the moments Osler enjoys the most at The Dirty Dog happen in the green room, where the musicians welcome him. They like his photo work, too, and he’s always generous to them with it. “The players from out-of-town always love Detroit. They say it’s a dream to come here because everyone knows the tunes.”

ABOVE: Painting by John Osler of Mark Gross