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Coronavirus scare spreads uncertainty for live performers

By Matthew Worley

LOS ANGELES, March 16 (UPI) -- As nightclubs, bars and theaters close in an effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic, many performers face the specter of desperate financial straits in the months ahead.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered Sunday the closure of all such venues and limited restaurants to take-out service. But many of the city's cabarets and supper clubs voluntarily shuttered last week.

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"Career momentum is definitely going to be disrupted," said James Tormé, an LA-based jazz vocalist and son of the late pop legend Mel Tormé.

"We have a saying in the music industry that I got from my father: 'If you rest, you rust.' This is what's on the mind of a lot of artists I know. Not only are they concerned about losing the flow of what they're doing, but they're also wondering where their next rent check is going to come from. Nobody knows exactly how they're going to subsist over the coming period, however long that may be."

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As cases of the virus continue to spread in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday recommended that events and gatherings of over 50 people scheduled for the next eight weeks be canceled.

New York banned large gatherings last week, including Broadway shows.

Tormé said that unlike corporate employees, performers are mostly independent contractors who don't have unemployment insurance.

"It's a huge source of stress," he said. "Because doing regular local gigs is all they know, in terms of feeding themselves and paying their bills."

One such musician, Bill Cantos, frequently performs throughout the Southern California club scene, with regular gigs at several of the area's top venues. In addition to his solo work, his compositions and arrangements have been recorded by notable stars.

Cantos, who last performed March 9 at Feinstein's at Vitello's in Studio City, said all his bookings have been canceled for the next two and a half months -- many of which are being rescheduled for fall.

"I'm in touch with so many musicians I see on Facebook -- people just keep posting over and over about the gigs that have been rescheduled, canceled, everything," he said. "I'd been watching the Facebook posts from many of these same friends as they planned those bookings over the last six months -- people talking about them and anticipating. Then, all of a sudden, it's all out the window."

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Cantos said his canceled bookings include "a week in London, a bunch of dates on the East Coast, and 10 or 11 days in Canada - so literally going into the first week of June. And now, all gone."

"Also my wife and I were supposed to play the jazz festival in the Philippines. That also is not happening. That was in the end of April, and so hopefully that'll get rescheduled. We'll see."

Another performer facing the crunch is Jumanne Smith, an LA area jazz vocalist and trumpeter who last performed Thursday evening at Herb Alpert's Vibrato Grill in Bel Air -- one of the final holdouts in LA's supper club scene. But even that club had voluntarily closed in the days leading up to the city's official moratorium.

"We went ahead with the show on Thursday night, and we ended up streaming it live on Facebook. Obviously, the attendance was very poor and a lot of people pulled out at the last second because of the situation. It's a crazy time to be a freelance musician, I'll tell you that."

In addition to his club work, Smith performs regularly as trumpeter for pop crooner Michael Bublé, who also recently announced the cancellation of an upcoming U.S. tour.

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"I've had a full tour with Michael Bublé postponed, only in the last couple of days. I was supposed to be leaving for that on Monday, and so that was three weeks of work that vanished.

"But aside from myself, I've seen all my colleagues around the world, they're just canceling everything too. There's no type of assistance for freelancers. We're sort of screwed at this point."

"This is a potential disaster for the community," said Lauren White, a Los Angeles-based jazz singer who performs regularly at Feinstein's at Vitello's and Catalina Jazz Club -- two of the city's most prominent cabaret venues.

"Many of these people cannot afford to go very long without gigs and bookings. And the clubs will suffer terribly as well," she said.

"This is a very caring community -- bound together by love of music -- and I think there will be some creative thinking going on in terms of ways to mitigate the impact of this."

Cantos said he hoped everyone understands the impact this has on local artists, music and theater.

"It's important that after we all do the wise thing and really see this short season through, that people understand that we'll need them more than ever. It's a whole community that really will need support."

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Luke Carlsen, a rising star in the LA jazz scene, said he thinks now is a good time to compose, write original music and do arrangements -- then record and release them on streaming services like YouTube.

"People aren't going to be really going out as much. So what are they going to do? They're going to spend a lot of time on the internet," he said.

Billing himself as a "big band crooner for the 21st Century," Carlsen fronts a traditional 12-piece big band called The Fresh Rhythm, with regular bookings at Disneyland, as well as Long Beach's Queen Mary, and Bel Air's Vibrato Grill.

"I think focusing on writing and recording is probably the rosiest thing that could happen for musicians right now. It's like, 'All right, well, more time in the studio.' So, I think if we take that attitude, we could really see some creativity happen.

"I think a lot of people are in a panic, but I just refuse to do that. And I'm going to make the most out of it."

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