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.

RJ Spangler

Longtime Detroit drummer RJ Spangler has led and toured with blues, R&B, and jazz bands since the mid-1970s, earning his first Motor City Music Award in 1982 with the Sun Messengers. With groups like Planet D Nonet, RJ & Tbone, and others promoting the revived careers of Detroit blues and R&B greats, he peaked at over 300 gigs a year. Now at age 63, he recently cut back to half that, but still had a few 25-gig months!

That world came suddenly came to a halt with Covid-19. As RJ puts it, “my last performance was at the Ypsi Alehouse on March 12 with Tbone Paxton, Matt LoRusso and Jeff Cuny, a working group.”

“At nine a.m. the next morning I had my first gig cancel, by dinner time six more cancelled. By the end of the week, the month was done, no more gigs. I’ve not had a performance since then.” RJ is also missing his gigs at libraries where he performs and educates about the music he loves for jazz fans and many who are just curious, which, he said, “is great for me.” He appreciates the support of The Jazz Foundation of America, who “helped galvanize that direction for me, and through this pandemic, they send me a small check each month.”

Besides the artistic and economic shock from the pandemic, some welcome changes have occurred. RJ’s girlfriend lived with him for the first two months and they enjoyed doing puzzles, taking walks, bingeing Netflix, reading books and the Sunday NY Times, and cocktail hour. “I have never in my life had two months off.” And the very busy musician appreciated getting lots of rest with no stress. But money has been tight as he has not received PUA funds from the government, although his band mates have. His main income right now is from CD sales.

RJ has been using his time to work on his memoirs, building on a chapter he already wrote on his life with Alberta Adams for M.L. Liebler’s Heaven Was Detroit (WSU Press, 2016), about the Detroit music scene. Now he’s working on a chapter on Joe Weaver, which will be followed by others on Johnnie Bassett, The Motor City R&B Pioneers, Paul Carey and the Rhythm Rockers, and the Sun Messengers/Kuumba. But, until a vaccine is found and we all can mix freely, RJ, Tbone and a couple others have booked a gig at an outdoor deck at the Rec Bowl in Mt. Clemens on July 15 for the Greater Detroit Jazz Society, plus one other show in August. “Taking it SLOW” for now.