COVID Speakeasy: Hunting for Live Music in the Pacific Palisades

The Pacific Palisades is a tony community just off the tail end of Sunset Boulevard, before it dead ends into the Pacific Ocean. Depending on one’s perspective, the neighborhood is either nestled into the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains or about to slide off into the canyons. Either way, it is sparsely populated and difficult to get to. Not a natural environ for concert halls or jazz clubs or outdoor music festivals. But this is 2020 and, to find live music, you have to go looking in odd places.

It might seem strange to be thinking about live music in September 2020. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed more American lives than the Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq wars, and Afghanistan combined. It comes right at a point when cities are inflamed by protests over police brutality, and our ability to hold a national election in November seems in doubt. A paucity of live music might seem a tad down the list of present concerns.

But live music is what I want, and on this particular night I find it in a Pacific Palisades “back alley,” which might be a disingenuous way to refer to a driveway in an affluent community.  The driveway in question serves a townhome development of eight units built in a row along a graded hillside. It’s wide enough to allow two cars to pass comfortably between garages on one side, and another townhome development on the other. The driveway runs from the street entrance to a retaining wall and hedge. The canyon sits just beyond.

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On this particular Saturday evening, the hedge served as a backdrop for a band consisting of keyboards, guitar, electric bass, saxophone, and trumpet. I arrived shortly after five, about an hour before showtime. Band members were busy moving amps and speakers and running cables across a herringbone-tile-pattern driveway with the help of a few volunteer roadies. Each musicians’ station was carefully positioned at least six feet from any other, and band members ran measuring tape to demarcate a safe distance for the audience and to reserve a small area for dancing. Over the next hour, a slow pilgrimage of couples and families sauntered from the street up the driveway, lawn chairs slung over their shoulders and coolers dragging behind them.

The audience was welcomed by Jens Lindemann, a Canadian of Polish Jewish descent, tall, with a high forehead, white hair, and sporting a loud blue paisley shirt. Lindemann, who lives in one of the townhomes that shares the driveway, was the evening’s host. He warmed up the crowd in the time-honored vaudeville tradition, telling jokes, talking to individual audience members, and loosening everyone up. For those that know Lindemann the classical trumpeter, the one-time member of the Canadian Brass and in-demand concert soloist, it might be a little incongruous to see him hamming it up on the stage. “You may or may not know,” Lindemann told the crowd at one point, slightly mischievous, “but I did attend the Juilliard School of Music.” This elicited applause, chuckles, and some good-natured boos from several graduates of other schools of music in the audience.

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The concert promiscuously mingled classical, jazz, and pop. After opening with the third movement of Franz Josef Haydn’s Concert for Trumpet in E flat with Lindemann on trumpet, the band fired up the old 1920s standard “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”

 “I feel inspired tonight,” said Lindemann, “by our Germans in the front row.” Several Germans were apparently in the front row, and they raised their hands above their heads and applauded enthusiastically. “The Germans love jazz, as you probably know,” Lindemann continued, “and they love making jazz their own. So tonight, I’m going to make my singing debut, and give you the German rendition.” Lindemann paused. “The trouble is that ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ in German is,” Lindemann here affected a German accent worthy of Franz Liebkind, the hapless writer in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, “Aufwiedersehn, Aufwiedersehen Schwarze Vogel!” The crowd roared.

Lindemann has a gift for connecting with an audience. He can loosen them up or draw their attention to something serious, or transition between the two in a heartbeat. With the crowd now supple, the band turned Bye Bye Blackbird inside out. A lilting saxophone solo, snappy drum phrasing, an easy-going bass. Heads bobbed, children danced. People kept a reasonable social distance and stayed mostly masked up. It was a moment of giddy levity and supreme musicianship. Lindemann thanked the audience, and then made a promise.

“I’m turning the microphone over to a real singer for the next part of the concert,” said Lindemann, and he turned to indicate the man on keyboards. “We’re lucky to have Matt Catingub.” Matt Catingub (pronounced KATTing-oob) leads a Las Vegas big band and has conducted pops and classical orchestras around the country, including the Macon Pops, which he co-founded. His jazz chops are serious—he toured with Dizzy Gillespie at the age of 17. He’s a Samoan chief and looks every bit the authority figure, at least until he starts in on the keyboard and turns delicate and playful. Lindemann continued: “When I first called Matt, I asked him if he wanted to drive in from Las Vegas to play in a back alley, and he said what? But he came out. And then he came for another concert. And then he called me and said when can I play in the Palisades back alley again?” The crowd ate it up. Lindemann grinned and passed the microphone to Catingub.

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“How many people have been to Vegas in the last six months?” asked Catingub. No one answered. “Good, good,” he replied. “You don’t want to go there right now. It’s a hotspot.”

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but it’s been a disaster for performing musicians. One summer music festival after another was canceled. Social distancing also erases the concert hall and will decimate the upcoming season. The jazz club might be better in terms of volume, but for the fact that aerosols are the major form of transmission for COVID-19, especially when they are trapped in indoor spaces. Woodwinds and brass players face the prospect of becoming superspreaders by virtue of their craft. With no gigs in sight, it’s no wonder that Vegas band leaders are looking to play back alleys in the Pacific Palisades.

By now, the band was fully warmed up and rolling. Matt Catingub led them in Nat King Cole (“Paper Moon”), Bill Withers (“Just the Two of Us”), and Toto (“Rosanna”). Lindemann added a short solo in the middle of Rosanna borrowed from the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” which he performed on piccolo trumpet. “It’s an extraordinary difficult instrument to play,” Lindemann told the crowd. “I make it look easy, because I. Am. Excellent.” He paused to let the audience laugh. “And you get to see it.” Lindemann made one of his pivots from comical to serious. “You get to see it, but don’t think it’s free. I have a website, and if you go there, you will see a donate button down at the bottom. And you need to go make a donation. All donations tonight go to these fantastic musicians that you are hearing tonight.”

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Passing the hat at concerts is nothing new. Musicians have always needed patrons, and being a patron means opening wallets not just at concert time. But it’s a nervous ask these days. With state budgets decimated and a federal treasury emptying, the prospects for future public support for the arts is dim. Not that there was much before the pandemic, as the United States is dead last when compared to western European countries. Foundations, corporations and private donations make up some of the ground, but precious little. Now the shutdown looms. The already fragile ecosystem of live music in America, whether classical, jazz or popular, is facing a shock from which it may not recover.

But the wolf is at all our doors. The virus has disrupted us at the core, and that has (predictably) unsettled everyone holding on for dear life on the margins of the American economy. And it’s not just musicians. It’s service workers, first responders, health care professionals, graduate students. And economic insecurity pales in the face of the human cost. The virus has claimed 200,000 lives (that we know of) and will take more. The emotional and mental toll? There isn’t an index to measure that trauma.

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“This is how the Palisades back alley concerts started,” Jennifer Snow told me, in between band numbers. Jennifer Snow is married to Jens Lindemann. She is a virtuoso pianist in her own right, and is currently the CEO of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy. If her husband is most at home with the microphone in hand before a crowd, Jennifer exudes the kind of cool calm of someone firmly in charge.

“Overnight, musicians lost their livelihood,” she was saying. “It wasn’t just about losing all of our work. We lost our identity.” She paused for a moment. “If you think about 9/11,” she said, “artists ran right into that crisis. But this pandemic is different.”

It was hard to fathom, at that point on a late summer evening in the Palisades, that it had been nearly six months since we had all gone indoors. It feels, simultaneously, like yesterday and like a lifetime ago. How did we react in those first few weeks? Many dismissed it, others hid in fear. Some enjoyed a rare stretch of time at home, others lost their jobs and wondered how they would pay rent. We all did something. We all needed to cope, even if we couldn’t figure out how. And one way to face down crisis is simply to do what you do, however you can.

“We started on our balcony, out of sheer survival instincts,” Snow explained. “We just started playing out into the canyon. I played the piano and Jens played the trumpet. The same time every afternoon for an hour. And people came to their balconies and listened. They cheered. They loved it. They needed it.”

Snow is passionate about the necessity of music. Music, she tells me gravely, is not decoration. It is essential to our humanity, and our survival. The powerful response of their neighbors to music played into the canyon confirmed this. “We decided that we needed to do this for the community. We talked about doing it in the driveway.”

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And why not a driveway? “When people first showed up, they looked like they hadn’t been out of their houses in months. They were so hungry for that uplift, that community.” That the driveway (or back alley) concerts have morphed into a concert series is precisely the kind of aggressive thinking that Jennifer Snow embodies in her leadership of the Frances Clark Center. The only way for music to thrive, she argues, is to adopt a growth mindset. Concert halls closed? Play in a back alley. Patrons of the arts can’t attend Disney Hall? Get them to invest in community music.

On stage, Jens Lindemann was thanking the crowd one last time. “We have one more song. It’s more than a song. It’s our theme for these concerts. Oscar Peterson’s ‘Hymn to Freedom.’” Peterson’s 1960s civil rights anthem is patient and introspective, written during another time of anxiety and upheaval. It’s the kind of closing number you program when you are asking the audience not just to escape the present, but to grab hold of something inside. To dig a little and think. And to experience the sublime. As the musicians took turns riffing on the theme, you could almost feel the air was lighter, as if we all had all gained some kind of silent solidarity. It was difficult to tell if anyone was smiling, because most were wearing masks. But I suspect they were.

Author: H. Robert Baker

Robert Baker teaches at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, Georgia. He lives in East Point, Georgia. He is not originally from Georgia.

One thought

  1. A very segregated wealthy white people by the beach LA experience. Maybe go into the neighborhoods and barrios of working class LA people who don’t live by the beach, and tell some stories about those places, where music has always been a survival resource, where cops beat the heck out of innocents. Not Pacific Palisades.

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