What Enhanced Unemployment Benefits Mean To Jazz


Bassist and bandleader Matt Ulery has been playing outdoor gigs around Chicago recently, a way to retain creative energy during the pandemic.

(Photo: Jacob Hand)

The last time Chicago bassist Matt Ulery played a club gig was March 11.

Since then, like most musicians, he’s found ways to continue refining his craft during the pandemic shutdown that’s left performers across the world bereft of income. Recently, that’s meant Ulery’s been playing out-door gigs in a residential neighborhood on the north side of Chicago with some folks he met at the open mic he previously co-hosted with drummer Quin Kirchner at The Whistler.

With enhanced federal unemployment benefits set to expire after July 31, an adjustment to the $600 supplement could reshape the jazz industry. Republican lawmakers on Monday presented the HEALS Act, which replaces the current benefit with a $200 weekly payment added to basic unemployment support. The bill also includes a second round of $1,200 checks to be sent to tax payers. Regardless of what kind of aid package eventually is passed, though, there’s likely to be a lapse in payments.

“It absolutely changes [the jazz ecosystem], but I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” the bassist said Friday, a few hours before he was set to play an outdoor set at Chicago’s Navy Pier with Greg Ward’s Rogue Parade. “I have this sort of gambling approach—and faith and hope that I just keep trying to put something forward with music and with art, rather than making some kind of crazy life-changing decision in the time of a tragedy, a time of chaos.”

“Some people are doing that,” continued Ulery, who has been receiving the enhanced unemployment benefits extended to freelance workers as a part of the CARES Act. “Full-grown adults are moving back in with their parents and getting day jobs, and working at FedEx. They’re doing what you gotta do. And that kind of thing is certainly not out of the question [for me] in the future—that kind of career change. Like, ‘Oh, maybe I can’t make a living playing music.’ I’m not quite there yet, because things are popping up. And I guess I’m super fortunate as a bass player that, if there are busking concerts and front-yard shows this summer, I’m gonna get called for it before some other people.”

Marc Ribot, a proponent for extending the benefits, was on the other side of the world last week. While in Croatia—one of the few places where the guitarist was able to meet his long-distance partner, who lives in Italy—he stressed the importance of extending the supplemental unemployment payment as part of a larger strategy to make the pandemic workable for jazz players.

“We’re seeing a very slim slice of the American population that’s being set up in a disastrous situation,” said the guitarist, whose last proper gig was March 8 and has been receiving unemployment benefits. “Some people are doing just fine, but the people who are really suffering, it’s very unpredictable. The musicians who are the most marginal sometimes have day jobs that might be able to continue after the pandemic. The ones who are hit hardest aren’t at the top and aren’t the most marginal.”

In May, House Democrats passed a $3 trillion relief package that’s been referred to as “DOA” in the Senate. A separate piece of legislation proposed by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) earlier in July would set up a tiered system that adjusts the supplemental benefit based on individual states’ unemployment rates over time.

Ribot—who’s a member of the Music Workers Alliance, a group that backs the Democrats’ May proposal—went on to say that it’s the “musical middle class” being most dramatically affected by economic fallout around the pandemic. He also pointed out that a part of musicians’ reliance on benefits like those set to expire this week has to do with digital copyright and compensation from streaming platforms: “We can’t sell what’s being given away for free.”

Some performers have, in fact, been insulated from economic anxiety, whether it’s been because of their standing in the music before the coronavirus or because of an influx of new opportunities and significant planning.

The past two years have been career-defining for Chicago composer and clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, who said she hasn’t applied for unemployment benefits. In 2019, she released her debut full-length on International Anthem, The Oracle, a disc that met with plaudits from within the jazz scene and from far beyond. More recently, she issued Transition East, a 7-inch single.

Bat Dawid’s also started hosting a radio show on NTS and has remained busy finalizing a range of disparate projects.

“I was really booked for the rest of the year. I had a European tour [last] November, and it went really well, so a lot of places wanted me to come back in the summer,” said Bat Dawid, who was set to return to the continent in June. “All of that was canceled. I have to say, I’ve been really blessed: A lot of other doors and opportunities are opening for me. Doing stuff from home, like people asking me to score films. Some people were putting out a compilation and asked me to contribute a track. Someone else says, ‘Hey I’ve got a song for you; can you add clarinet?’ So, basically, all these requests are kind of coming in for me, and then, of course, I’m working on my own music.”

In addition to fielding new opportunities, she’s also been building out a home studio; technical know-how amid the pandemic clearly has become paramount.

But musicians’ lives always have been deeply affected by external decision makers, even if that’s only more recently been put on full display.

“I’ve been kind of used to living and budgeting my life in a way where I’ve been able to survive, not just depending on touring,” Bat Dawid said.

For most performers—and just about everyone else—planning for anything like the pandemic and what the world’s going to be like afterward wasn’t a consideration several months ago. Things that previously have seemed to be part of the jazz scene’s fabric just might not be there in a few months.

“We’ve been hosting [the] Monday night jazz jam session for two years at The Whistler, which has been great,” Ulery said, discussing what a post-pandemic world might look like for him. “I don’t think that’s coming back. I mean, I don’t know ... . I can’t imagine going back anytime soon to hanging out with 40 musicians a night.” DB

Updated July 28

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