All that Jazz: The music lives here

All that Jazz: The music lives here
Postpandemic, the audience at Tago Jazz has been growing bigger and becoming better listeners. —PHOTOS TAKEN IN 2022 BY ERNESTO V. ENRIQUE

Second of two parts

Perhaps the most resolute of the bar owners is Nelson Gonzales, drummer and owner of Tago Jazz on Main Avenue in Cubao, Quezon City, which is turning out to be jazz’s permanent home address. Open from Friday to Sunday for evening shows, Tago is the stage to be for jazz musicians of all generations and the place to be for the growing number of enthusiasts. 

The wiry and self-effacing Gonzales, 49 in July, is not easily discouraged. Since Tago’s birth 13 years ago he has parented it with equal parts patience and tough love, defending its choices no matter how unpopular, despite the odds. Its regulars, which in the early days already included a handful of media practitioners, have seen it grow in both sound and spirit. 

Its headway, however, was cut short by the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. While businesses big and small scaled back operations or shut down completely in the two years that followed, Gonzales kept his business afloat by pivoting it online: He sold food for a good part of the first year and, when it was deemed safe for small groups to congregate, he livestreamed shows from Tago.     

Looking back on “those horrid and hopeless times,” Gonzales refuses to give up on his mission to “remind people that jazz is alive and well in spite of everything.”

Survival steps

Musicians foundered too, perhaps more than others, given the face-to-face nature of their livelihoods. 

To survive, composer/arranger/keyboardist Elhmir Saison taught music online. Bassist Dave Harder sold his car and the kitchenware that was lying idle, and resold meat products. “I practiced, rested my ears and mind, and unlearned,” says Harder, who also did recording studio work when restrictions loosened somewhat. Guitarist Riki Gonzales had the misfortune of catching the coronavirus on board the Diamond Princess, a luxury cruise ship he had been working in as a musician. He used the downtime to practice his guitar and compose a song. When he returned home with no place to play, he sold seafood online. Drummer Jinggoy Balane taught online for a spell and started a small business, but shortly quit both when neither gained any traction.

But it’s not as if gigging were completely cushy before Covid-19 either, although Saison thinks that compared to the present, gigs then were more easily accessible and offered highly competitive rates. 

Over the last decade and a half, jazz bars have opened and closed and opened again, only to shut its doors a second time (Monk’s Dream, the jazz place in the ‘90s). The speakeasy-esque Ten 02 off Timog operated from 2008 to ‘12, and was instrumental in showcasing rising jazz musicians who have since become recording session artists. Balete@Kamias, an art-deco house turned jazz-bar-under-an-ancient-balete-tree, where, since 2013, the AMP Big Band played Monday nights to a full house, closed permanently after the lockdown. 

Being a jazz musician in the Philippines—and, really, most anywhere in the world—will never be enough to live like Croesus’ handyman. And while it is easy to go all wistful for a return to the glory decades of the ‘70s through the ‘90s when places that served up jazz were always packed—Birds of the Same Feather on Tomas Morato, Vineyard on Pasay Road, Calesa Bar at the Hyatt, Tap Room at the Manila Hotel, and Papillon in Makati—and at least three Manila jazz radio stations kept the music playing night and day, scanning the horizon would better serve the task of mapping the future for jazz and its bearers.

The only reason

Tago Jazz
Pianist Joey Quirino and saxophonist Tots Tolentino share the Tago stage.

“We need jazz,” says Nelson Gonzales, “and that is the only reason we are here—to make it available and, we hope, to allow the community to thrive again.” At the same time, it needs all the help it can get because “the old are busy being old, the mid-players are busy making ends meet.” 

Thus, Tago hopes that exposing more people to the music will help develop sensibilities especially among the younger ones. 

And it’s happening. The Tago audiences are getting younger, and more attentive and curious. Says Harder: “Jazz is a small market, but it is improving. We’re playing and listening better now. If anything, the pandemic also taught a lot of people how to listen, watch, eat, and read better stuff.”

Tago Jazz in Cubao
Isla Antinero and Dave Harder

To be sure, streaming platforms have also contributed to the dwindling live jazz venues and professional fees. Writing in 2017 for the website, Michael Pronko, a Tokyo-based “writer of murder, memoir, and music,” reminds us: “In this age when people record all manner of experiences, unrepeatability becomes more precious, valuable, and beautiful. Live music, especially jazz, is unrepeatable… Unrepeatable experience has even more value in this age of recorded, retweeted, shared, YouTube-ized life… Technology lets us pretend we can control everything. Live music reminds us of the value of submitting humbly to direct experience, to give up our pause buttons and volume controls. Live music reasserts the importance of submission as a listener to the power of creation as a performer.”

We slog on, do what we have to do to keep on playing what we love to play seems to be the formula for musical longevity.  Musicians that have played in ships or abroad for extended periods invariably return to face the music at home—quite literally—perhaps to renovate their houses or send more children to college and, where possible, play some more. Less for the money this time than for the sheer joy of co-creating music with an audience.  

Gonzales, Tago Jazz
Nelson Gonzales on the drums

Sustaining this wave of returning talent will help ensure the genre’s continuity, as will providing performance spaces they can share with next-generation jazz musicians in our midst. 

Saison, whose greatest takeaway from the pandemic is the magnificent impermanence of life vis-à-vis God’s eternity, accedes that the rush from doing something new, in the moment of a live performance, trumps all worry and fear over the next paycheck. Some days are happier than others. On the whole, he says, “it’s not so bad.” 

But it could certainly be better.

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