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Big Bands in the time of Covid-19

I'm not particularly prone to to writing articles - in fact, since this new section of our web site was started this is the first actual blog that's been written - all other posts are reviews and photographs (excellent reviews though - many from the super Be Bop Spoken Here).

We're lucky.

Unlike many other bands and venues the dosh earned at Strictly Smokin' doesn't directly pay the bills for the musicians who play in it. It certainly contributes to many, but it's nobody's base income. That means after our gig at Flat Caps coffee on Friday 13th(!) March (which we suspect was one of the final live gigs in Newcastle) we were able to shut down and wait it out.

Lots of dates to rearrange and diaries to alter (especially tricky for those functions and weddings we were booked for) - but it was all doable and we managed to get everything in line. And that was that - the plan was to shut down and see how things progressed.

A few weeks in, we had the obligatory Zoom quiz with most of the band and their spouse on screen. It was fun and brilliant to catch up with everyone, but it didn't quite cut the music-making-mustard.

We realised that not only were we missing making the music, but our audience were missing hearing it, so a plan was hatched to attempt some remote recordings with video, and to present some free online streams where each member of the band would play from their own home - we'd have four performers on each stream which would allow enough variety to entertain an online audience for an hour, or so.

This was another of my 'why did I start this' moments - neither of these pursuits were going to turn out to be an easy ride!

Lockdown Videos

Strictly Smokin' have made five remote videos since March, we're happy with them all, but the first and last are particular hi lights for me.

In terms of recording prowess, they started out very rudimentary! Everyone, apart form guitarist Pav (who couldn't help himself but use a DI and mic), used their mobile phone to record both the audio and video. I realised this was probably an okay method of recording something when I saw trombonist Nick Mills' tribute to Horace Silver earlier in March at Cafe Posk in London. Martin Shaw was playing trumpet with Vasilis Xenopoulos on tenor, and I couldn't resist a sneaky 30 second recording on my phone as a little souvenir of the evening. It sounded great... horns up front, rhythm section nicely behind, bass sat great and solos sang through perfectly. Of course, if nothing else, that was testament to those great players. Anyway, I enjoyed listening to it back on the Tube and duly noted in my head that, although not preferable, if I was ever stuck I could probably make the phone work as a half decent recording device. Little did I know that less than a fortnight later thats exactly what would be happening!

We chose Route 66 first because the band are familiar with it, it's not too tricky and it swings! I've done a bit of editing before - but never like this... 18 lines of audio which needed lining up, editing and mixing. I quickly realised that this wasn't something I could do on my own, so called on regular SSBB audio engineer Liam Gaughan who agreed to help out. I would edit the audio and get everything in the right place, and he would mix and master it. Although the editing was time consuming, much of the credit for these recordings sounding half-way decent goes to Liam who managed to EQ our mangled mobile phone audio into something good enough to publish!

We worked on another couple of videos, including 'A Tisket A Tasket', my arrangement of 'I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free', 'Fascinating Rhythm' and finally 'St. Louis Blues' featuring Mike Lovatt - more about that one later.

Live Streaming

In amongst all this we made a start on the live streams. It was horrifically complicated from most angles! I'd seen a few excellent streams from musicians across the globe and really wanted to strike the balance between stream and gig.

The gig part was easy... variety of music, variety of players, a bit of 'banter' with each other when handing between songs etc. But the stream part was hard! Mainly because each musician who took part (there were 13 in the final stream) had an entirely different set up with their gear at home... literally no two were the same! That's like a live gig with thirteen differing and separate PA systems set up in the same room attempting to co-ordinate with each other.

After hours of trial and error (mainly error), and what seemed like endless sound checks we were up and running... miraculously we managed to make Zoom stream to both Facebook and YouTube simultaneously without too many glitches, the musical results were pretty good and the response was excellent. It felt good to be facilitating music making again, the guys were happy to be playing again, and we were back in touch with our audience, albeit, online and through a chat box.

By this time, though, we were in deepest darkest lock down and there were, and still are, serious concerns about the industry. Theatres and venues closed, practitioners across every sector of the arts out of work with incomes suffering and little sign of any resolution - and soon, even though we're lucky to be able to close down without wages to pay or costs to foot, it is going to bite. *

However, there have been some glimmers of hope.

I was thrilled to receive an e-mail from Mike Lovatt asking if we would consider doing a lockdown recording with him. Of course, it was an offer we couldn't refuse and now that we'd got to grips with the audio recording and video editing we went for it. Also by this point many of the guys had acquired proper recording gear which made the job much easier. It took a while to get it together but the final video is great - we're really chuffed with it and over the moon that we got to collaborate again with Mike.

We were also approached by Tyne Theatre & Opera House to perform on their stage - as a full big band, to an empty auditorium as part of a live stream to help raise funds to keep the theatre afloat. We were apprehensive, having not played as a unit for about 5 months, but we committed to that also. And although there were a few hiccups, I'm glad we did because it started our path back to playing together regularly and organising the next phase of Lockdown Strictly Smokin'.

Crowd Funding

As many of you will have now seen, we have organised a crowd funder to help raise the money to record three new albums. Ordinarily these types of projects would be funded through ticket sales and the slow build up of profits from gigs - these endeavours are also the reason Strictly Smokin' branched out into function and wedding work - all of those profits are ploughed back into the big band.

All of these revenue streams have dried up and although Strictly Smokin' would continue to exist as an entity, we'd be forced to sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for something to happen - so we've brought these three recording projects together and we hope they'll see us through until we're able to perform live again.

The biggest advantage already is that we can rehearse again with good reason and had a brilliant session last Thursday working on all new material for Alice Grace to sing on the 'Ella' disc.

The 'Great Day In Harlem' disc is going to take a chunk of our set from the show we produced at Gosforth Civic Theatre last April. It's a story for another time, but our touring plans for GDIH have been scuppered with Covid-19... the story and the tour will have to wait!

Disc number three is going to feature a host of the incredible friends we've made with having guests visiting Newcastle over the last few years - its been humbling to receive such enthusiastic replies from those who I class as top-notch A-listers... Bruce Adams, Alan Barnes, Mike Lovatt and Mark Nightingale to name a few. Most of our guest list are on board, and I'm working on the others!!

Of course, there is still along way to go - as I write the funder is at 11% meaning we still need another £4428. I hope we can do it... having an end point of three studio days has brought us all back together and working towards something... it would be devastating to miss out.

Huge thanks to those who have supported the funder so far - and if you've fought your way to the end of this blog, surely the only logical next step if to chuck a few quid in the kitty [click]!

I'm pleased to say that I think, as a band, Strictly Smokin' has achieved more than most big bands during lockdown - of course, it's not about out-doing one another... but live streams, remote video recordings, actual full scale performance, new arrangements, and large scale project planning has gone along way to driving me absolutely crazy, but keeping me relatively sane during lockdown.

- ML

* For some more in-depth discussion about the effects of COVID-19 and lockdown on the industry, check out Newcastle Jazz Festival's recent panel with Paul Edis, Dennis Rollins, Jo Harrop and hosted by Alyn Shipton.

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