Ron Davis is one of the best jazz piano players I’ve ever seen and heard. The guy tickles the ivories and the sound that emerges just warms your soul. It makes you tap your toes, snap your fingers, smile, dance — it’s just totally groovy.
Davis has released 13 albums over five decades in music. He’s won awards and delighted audiences and has nothing in his bank account to show for it. That’s the reality of being a jazz artist in Canada.
Here’s the other reality. Because of COVID-19, he hasn’t played a gig in more than a year; as he looked to the future, he realized the club scene probably wouldn’t realistically reopen until 2022. Maybe late 2022.
So he made what had to be one of life’s toughest decisions.
“I am out of professional music,” Davis emailed me the other day. “I got my Juno nomination, then everything hit. Junos cancelled. Performances cancelled. And I realized that I had said everything I had to say in music, I had no savings, and maybe I should think about that.”
Davis is an unusual jazz artist inasmuch as he did have something else to fall back on that actually could pay the bills. He’s been a lawyer since 1984 and worked part-time since 1986. Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, he’s become a full-time litigation partner at the Toronto firm Fogler Rubinoff.
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“And I haven’t touched a piano since then, which is perfectly fine,” he insists. “No regrets or qualms.”
Strangely enough, Davis seems a lot more at peace with his decision than I am. I truly cannot imagine the province’s jazz scene without him. And, yet, he’s surely not the only one upon whom the pandemic has forced this moment of professional reckoning.
A survey of musicians out of Great Britain shows that more than six in 10 are considering getting out of the business entirely, because work has dried up and they simply cannot afford to wait for it to come back.
Brielle Goheen, a Hamiltonian who’s played with the Blazing Fiddles for 20 years, released a YouTube video earlier this month in which she also speaks to the struggle artists are facing.
“By the time this video is released,” Goheen said, “many of us will have been completely out of work for 14 months, living on savings or debt accumulation. When you have a generation of artists who have been specifically taught to never show the dark side of making a living from creative work, then this is what will happen. The artists will disappear.”
Goheen predicts artists will go back to school to learn a more practical trade, then just fade or move away. An entire generation of musicians will disappear.
“I do know anecdotally that I am not alone,” Davis says. “Many musicians are out of the biz.”
If one extrapolates from Davis’s example, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Ontario’s music scene has either lost or is on the verge of losing centuries’ worth of talent in the blink of an eye. Yes, intimate, in-person concerts will presumably come back some day, but when they do, the cast of characters will be totally different. And Davis seems quite philosophical about it all.
“Like a prairie forest fire, COVID has burnt down much of the standing forest, only to make way for new growth,” he writes.
The good news for Davis is that his legal career is proving to be quite fascinating. He’s working on interesting cases — some very high-profile ones, such as the $1.7 billion lawsuit between Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and developer John Ruddy — and beyond that, for the first time in his life, “I am earning a pay cheque. A PAY CHEQUE, Steve!” he emails with excitement.
But the news is not all good. Davis predicts the province’s jazz scene is unlikely to come back to pre-COVID levels. “Lean-back music consumption in clubs and halls will be less, much less prominent, compared to more immersive and participatory settings,” he says. “Music, instrumental music anyway, has evolved from a handcrafted aural art into a technological visual, verbal, multi-sensory art. The times they are a-changin’.”
This all feels heartbreaking to me, and while Davis, in the decades I’ve known him, has always been one of the most upbeat people I know (no pun intended), he acknowledges some sadness at this turn of events.
“Heartbreaking?” he asks. “Only in the sense that the music biz itself is heartbreaking. Ninety-nine per cent of us put in a lot and get back relatively little. But the putting in and the little we get back are still so much, that there are no regrets. It’s heartbreaking that the biz is like that. But leaving the biz? Not heartbreaking at all. The movie was great, the credits rolled, on to the next thing.”
Ron’s taking this a whole lot better than I am.