Gary Smulyan (64) is one of the great Baritone Jazz Saxophonists of our time. He won countless awards (Down Beat readers’ baritone saxophonist of the year 2019). His last CD is “alternative contrafacts”, his latest performance dates from August 2020 at William Patterson Jazz Room Series. Gary is a Covid survivor and a musician who looks at a grim future.
Hi Gary, happy new year! we are in Switzerland since November. The pandemic is going wild here. How are things on your end?
Happy new year, to you, too. It’s a hard time of the year for people. They want to be together, having dinner and do all this stuff After Thanksgiving we were going into a crazy period.
I want to explore with you how a great musician lives through the pandemic. What does it do to you and your art?
I hope my story is a lesson learned. To be careful, you know.
So, what happened with your tour in Europe back in March?
March 6th and 7th, I played at Smalls in New York with Frank Basile, another great baritone player, David Wong on bass, Ehud Asherie on piano and Mark Taylor on drums, we played the music of Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin.
Smalls is a small place in a basement.
I was a little nervous about playing at Smalls. When we played at Smalls the club was packed. It made me a little nervous to see all these people packed in that space, you know, talking and drinking without wearing masks of course.
Nobody wore masks then.
At that point the CDC was even telling people not to wear masks because they didn’t understand the science around the mask at that point. The place was packed wall to wall, people were talking to me close up which made me a little agitated, you know. But there was no sign of what was to come.
You were scheduled for a tour in Europe, we had plans to meet in Switzerland.
Ralph Lalama, the tenor saxophonist, and I were supposed to go to Europe for a two-and-a-half-week tour, with Bernd Reiter who we play with often. This was when the virus was kind of starting to come to everybody’s attention. The only country that was really seriously impacted at that point was Italy, and Iran I think at that point was pretty bad. I was following the CDC website multiple times a day to check on Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and France. They said to wash your hands, stay away from people if you can, be careful. But the CDC wasn’t telling people not to go. And none of our gigs were cancelled. So, I was figuring, well ok, musicians show up and play. Nobody saw down the road what was going to happen. That was a Friday and a Saturday. Sunday, Ralph and I flew to Paris, the plane was about half full. We played at the Duc des Lombards on March 9th.
You did a recording there a few years back, “Royalty at le Duc”.
The club was not very well attended on that Monday night. People started to stay away. But we played two sets. The next day all of us got into a car and we drove nine hours to Passau, Germany. We had the night off, and then Wednesday March 11th we played at this very nice theatre at a modern art museum in Passau. Not very well attended. This is Wednesday night; we have been in Europe two days. So, we play the gig. It didn’t feel unsafe, but people were starting to get a little antsy about it. At this point, gigs started to be cancelled in Switzerland. The tour was starting to fall apart at this point. It was getting worse in a way we didn’t foresee. If we had known this was going to happen, we wouldn’t have gotten on the plane and come over there. So, we play Wednesday night in Germany and at two o’clock in the morning in this very nice hotel in Passau, Ralph Lalama comes knocking on my door. I say, “what’s going on”, and he says “I’m watching CNN and Trump is closing the borders. No more flights from Europe to New York as of Friday”.
What did you do?
This is Thursday at two in the morning. All the travel offices are closed, United’s website was crashing because so many people were trying to get home. Flights were filling up, it was starting to get a little tricky, you know. So, my wife and Ralph’s wife, they were able to get on the computer and get us a flight Thursday, on Lufthansa from Munich. One of the last flights that day. We got two seats, it cost us 2200 Dollars a piece to go home.
2200 dollars – that was economy, no?
Yeah. We had no choice. The flight was packed because everybody was trying to get home. In the airport it was a crazy scene. Thousands of people everywhere trying to get home. But luckily, we had two seats. We got home around six o’clock in the evening, to Newark. In Newark airport there were thousands of people, everywhere. I didn’t know what was waiting for us when we got back into the United States. I kept thinking, with Covid we might have to quarantine, they might take us to a hotel or asking us questions. It turned out to be nothing.
We got our bags and the immigration just let everybody pass. They didn’t ask me any questions. They didn’t ask me whether I had a fever, where I was, there was no control. Basically, they let thousands of people into the New York area. There was not a lot of intervention or questions, at least not on my part. That was the whole thing of bringing the virus back from Europe. The spike in New York was European driven, not Chinese driven, with thousands of people coming in from Europe. Ralph and I were part of that wave of people trying to get home. I kept thinking, wow that was really great security.
So, you got home safely.
I got home, Ralph and his wife got home. My wife cooked some pasta, my daughter came home from Boston the same night, we all ate. That night, I spiked a fever. The night I got home, I got sick. I knew right away that’s it. I said to myself, oh man, there is nothing else that it could possibly be. It was a pretty high fever, probably 102, high for an adult. I told my wife, I’m going to the music studio. We have a pull-out couch there.
There you had your quarantine.
I said I’ m going into this room, I’ m quarantining right now. So, I went into the room. The next day I was able to get a Covid test. At that time there was not a lot of tests available in New York City or Yonkers where I live. I went to a hospital; they had a triage tent in the parking lot doing Covid testing. There was just me and one other person who got tested there.
Only two people?
Yes, this was still in the early stages. I knew I had it, but I did not get my results for twelve days. A positive test results. At that point I was well into the disease. I had a fever for a week, sometimes it got pretty high, but I didn’t have any other symptoms affiliated with it. I didn’t have any difficulty breathing, I didn’t have any cognitive issues. At this point they thought it was a respiratory issue.
Did you experience loss of the senses of smell and taste?
I didn’t lose my sense of smell or taste. So, I got sick on a Thursday and then three days later, Ralph Lalama got sick. He was three days behind me. Both of us caught it either at the gig in Paris or on the plane, or when he came to Smalls to listen, we don’t know.
What happened after the fever went away?
It really is scary because you know people say it’s the flu, but it was nothing like the flu. It didn’t resemble the flu on any level really. Basically, what it was, I had a fever for a week, the fever broke, and then it would come back in these waves. I would feel really sick and really down and bad for a couple days and then I would feel pretty good for a day. So, I would say OK this is over, and then the next day I get sick again. The tricky part was that I never knew when it was over.
And you would still remain in your room?
Yes. I ended up staying in that one room in my apartment for 17 days, and I didn’t leave the apartment for 21 days. My wife would open the door, slide my food in and close the door. I would slide the dishes out and close the door. I didn’t leave that room other than to use the bathroom for 17 days.
Did your wife and your daughter catch the disease?
Neither of them got sick. Staying in that room, I kept them safe, and they took really great care of me. I think staying in the room, staying isolated and not interacting with my wife and my daughter was really helpful. I was super, super conscious of being safe and not exposing them to this even though we had to share the space. It’s actually kind of incredible that neither of them got it.
So, you didn’t see a doctor?
I saw a doctor just when I got my test, but no, I did not see a doctor again. I didn’t really feel like I needed it for there’s nothing they can do. It is a virus. You have to ride it out.
Did you take any medication?
The only thing I took was zinc, high levels of zinc, and vitamin C. I think the virus can’t survive in an alkaline environment, so I’m trying to get my body in an alkaline state by taking zinc and vitamin C and avoiding any kind of sugar, you know, foods like that. I guess that worked. I don’t know. I never once felt like I was gonna crash and burn and have to go to a hospital.
How did you know about the zinc?
I have an acupuncturist who does a lot of work on immunological responses to diseases. She told me about high levels of vitamin C and zinc. Also, I was trying to stay hydrated. I drank hot liquids ’cause drinking cold is not good apparently, so I was just drinking lots of hot water and lemon and tea. Unless you had it, it’s a hard thing to describe what it is. If you have the flu you can say my body aches, I have a running nose, you can describe the symptoms. But this is just basically feeling terrible. It’s a general feeling of being low. Like low energy, not feeling good, and there would be multiple periodic episodes of this up and down feeling, sometimes many times in one day. So, you know I have a good hour and then I crash again for three hours, then I feel good for another hour or two and I’m feeling OK well maybe this is done, and then I crash again. This went on for a month. I was sick for a month.
Could you practice?
Yeah. I was practicing. Because at this point it was still very much thought of as a respiratory illness, so I was doing yoga, I was doing breath yoga, I was practicing. I was trying to keep my lungs moving in doing lots of breathing exercises. The only thing I couldn’t do was walking because I couldn’t leave the room. I didn’t walk really for 21 days, I was on my back sitting up in bed, so my legs started to atrophy a little bit. After 21 days I left my apartment, and I did just a couple of laps walking on our really nice, very large deck, and that was really all I could do. A couple times a day I would walk for just a couple of minutes until I felt I could go a little further and a little further and little further, and now I’m walking a couple miles a day. I pretty much make sure I walk everyday. So, I’m back to normal. I don’t I don’t have any longg-term health issues at this point.
How about Ralph Lalama who got sick at the same time?
Same with Ralph. We spoke multiple times every day, I checked in to make sure he was OK. We had the same exact symptoms and the same exact reaction to Covid.
He had the same spells of feeling really down?
Yes. We had exactly the same trajectory, the up and down, and it lasted the same amount of time. He was sick for about a month as well. He was really inspiring to me because he would practice more than me and he would just say tell me “go out and play”. He got me to practice which was great. He was practicing a lot forcing himself to play. Even when he was feeling not great, he was practicing.
How long would you practice per day when you were sick?
Not very much. As time went on, I would probably be able to do 45 minutes at a time. In the beginning, I would get tired after 10 minutes.
Even when you had those good moments?
Then I could play more. But I was also conscious not to overdo it because it’s physically tiring. I was trying to get as much rest as I could. Like I said, it took a long time to finally realize it was overr. There were longer and longer periods of feeling good, and then the feeling bad just totally went away.
How do you feel now?
It is kind of crazy. This was March and now is November, and I have to tell you I’m still spooked. I’m feeling very anxious about being around people. I did test positive for antibodies a number of months ago when I went for a complete physical with my doctor. He did the complete blood work just to make sure that there were no lasting physical issues as a result of Covid, because there are people who are still sick and just don’t get better. My heart goes out to all those people. This is a scary new illness, and we still don’t know a lot about it. I go on with the assumption that I’m not immune. I can get it again. You know, reinfection doesn’t happen very often, but it is possible, and believe me, it’s an experience I don’t want anybody to go through. And when I see people who don’t wear masks, all I can think of is I hope you don’t get this, because it’s a horrible thing and it’s a lot easier to wear a mask than to get it. But I can’t make anybody do that, so I just protect myself at this point. I’m still very anxious around other people. I I don’t feel comfortable being with people at this point.
When we were talking a while back you said that you experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yeah, I fell like I have PTSD. Physically I feel fine, but emotionally I feel that it’s affected me in a kind of a deep way. I was never this way around people. I love being around people, going out to dinner and hanging out and having a couple of drinks at a bar after the gig. I never felt uncomfortable or skittish or worried or nervous or anxious around other people and now I really do. If somebody gets too close into my space it makes me very anxious.
Does this also create a problem for you to play with other musicians?
I feel that way about everybody. But I think generally musicians have been extraordinarily careful around this.
Their living depends on being careful.
Yeah. I actually did play once; we did a live stream and that actually felt really safe. We were on a very big stage, eight musicians. We were five horns on the front line, very far apart, and we had a plastic shield between us. The rhythm section was behind, very far apart, they all had masks. There was no audience, just a cameraman and the sound man and people kind of doing the technical part.
How did it feel to play live?
It was a relief. It felt so great to play, it was wonderful. That was the first gig since March, back in October, and so far, I don’t really have much going on until spring of next year. So, it will be like almost a year with one gig.
And you cannot know what happens next spring, they are cancelling events in Europe already.
Sure. Honestly, I I don’t really want to get on a plane. I’m OK not going anywhere at this point. You know I love to play, it’s my life. And I just feel like one of the most important things that defines me as a human being is being taken away. And it’s not just me. My heart goes out to all musicians everywhere in the world but also stagehands, all the peripheral people whose livelihoods have been impacted. The entertainment world, restaurants. This is shattering a lot of lives. We’re gonna have to kind of redefine what being a musician, what owning a restaurant is like. All kinds of work are going to be reshaped and redefined by this virus.
Last time we were speaking, you were talking about the jazz scene in New York, the Clubs. How can they make they money they need?
That’s a very difficult question, and right there is the dilemma. I mean it’s not gonna be like it was before. I don’t think you’re going to be able to get 140 people into a club like the Village Vanguard sitting shoulder to shoulder downstairs underground unless they do some serious ventilation work. I don’t know. No one has a crystal ball. I just don’t see people feeling relaxed and comfortable, even with a vaccine.
And the whole point of being in a club like the Vanguard is being close to the musicians and the audience.
It’s the best feeling in the world being with a group of people in the club listening to music like that. It’s the best. So, where it’s going to go, what the impact is going to be, what the future looks like, nobody knows. In the United States 1000 people a day are dying. Ssomeone said that’s like two 747 airplanes crashing everyday. And yet it’s like we just accept – I don’t’ know whether we are just accepting it, but you know with the election and all this stuff going on with President, well Ex-President Trump refusing to leave office and all the chaos he’s still creating in the administration – trying to deal with all of that, it just seems like the world is completely defined by chaos at this point.
There is a lot of hope projected in the new President, Biden.
He doesn’t take the Presidency until later this month, so we still are in the grip of this current administration which basically is doing nothing to keep the virus under control. At this point, I think people really have to hunker down and wear a mask and social distance. They have to do the things that they really have to do, but there’s such a battle over masking in the United States.
The same here in Switzerland. In October and November, I was in the US, driving from Florida up to New York, and from what I saw I think the American people are better with masks than the Swiss. I was totally surprised about the Americans.
Well, that’s nice to hear. For me, I always llook to Europe as the the model for fighting the virus, because for a long period of time you had it way more under control.
It was so last summer. We were down to maybe 10 or 20 cases a day for 8,5 million people. Now we are up to the thousands.
You cannot take it for granted, and you just have to do all you can to protect yourself and people around you.
What’s in store for you as a musician? You can’t play live. Your music lives of people playing live and being in a group and interacting. Is it not?
Yes. The lifeline to music is an audience. Playing for other people and playing with each other in a live situation. That’s the heartbeat of music right there. Right now, what is going to be like I don’t think anybody can answer that question. I don’t want to be pessimistic or dark or negative, but it’s hard to see things returning to the way they were before. I don’t see that happening. And I totally hope I’m wrong. Because I miss playing on a deep cellular level – I mean music is what defines me as a human being and as a person, and without that I don’t know. Maybe I won’t be able to do that anymore. Maybe I have to kind of figure out what the next thing is.
I’m trying to put a positive spin on that. I mean I love music, but I also love other things. I like books, I like cooking. There’s a lot of things I enjoy doing, you know. I’m trying to keep it in perspective in terms of what life throws your way and how you deal with that. Maybe we have to figure other things out after this.
That’s a very healthy attitude, but it’s also very sad.
I find it sad, of course. But I’m just trying to look at things through some kind of a clear lens and see what the realistic situation is going to be. I mean, I can’t really financially survive for another year without working.
That’s the other part.
Luckily, I have a teaching position. I’m half-time but they pay they pay my health insurance, and they pay my benefits, so I’m blessed and fortunate and thankful every day that I have that. But I really haven’t worked since March, not made any money playing since March.
Where do you teach?
Purchase College, which is part of the State University of New York system. They have a conservatory there, and they have a fantastic jazz program. They have a great music program in general, but their jazz department is stellar.
Where is that?
It’s in Purchase New York, near White Plains in Westchester County.
Not far from where you live.
It’s only a 20-25-minute run by car, it’s very easy, and they have great students, great faculty. It’s a wonderful program.
Can you teach? Is the College open?
Yeah, it’s open. There is a limited amount of people living on campus. Some classes are live, face-to-face, the ensembles are are live for small groups, and I think they’re doing some limited orchestral playing, and the big band is live. The private lessons are kind of half and half, they call it hybrid, part face-to-face part online. Most of the classes are hybrid, mostly online. So, it’s a mix of online and face-to-face. The last semester has been very good because everybody gets tested every two weeks on campus, faculty and staff, and there have only been maybe 5 positive cases since the beginning of the semester. So, it’s been very good.
How many students are there?
In non-Covid times probably 3000, but now there are some students who commute and live at home. I think last semester there were only about 750 on campus.
How did this school manage to stay safe and open?
Everybody has done a terrific job of staying safe. Nnobody thought we were going to get through the entire semester without shutting down, because a lot of the other schools in the United States tried without success to stay open.
Does your college show that if you keep discipline and do the right thing, you can stay open?
I think so. The thing about Purchase college is that there’s not a town nearby so you can’t really walk to a bar. There is not a lot of places to just physically hang out, so people are basically being on campus. It’s a little isolated, especially without a car. A lot of these other schools are in a college town where there is a nightlife and more places to hang out. And at Purchase you don’t really have fraternities where groups of people hang out in a big house together. And big athletic teams, we don’t have a lot of that. A lot of the Covid-related spikes are the result of athletics and sports events. The situation at this particular school has made it a little easier to kind of stay on top of the virus. And I think people are really trying to be very careful, you know they practice, and they are just really into their music and their art and not getting involved in risky social situations. I really have to give it up to the students, they took it seriously.
What’s your experience with the online teaching?
I teach lessons online and I have some classes online. I think it’s challenging to teach music because you don’t have the interaction, the communication. But there are certain things you can do. You can listen to music, listen to records. You can’t play at the same time, but teaching lessons is OK because basically the student plays and then I critique, or we talk. I think everybody’s trying to figure out this learning curve.
Well, good luck, Gary. We hope to see you play in Switzerland after this is over.
Yes, if it ever gets to the point where things settle down.
One more thing: You said you like to cook. What’s the menu tonight?
Let’s see, tonight I’m gonna make some osso bucco. The other night I made chickpea and spinach Curry with couscous and roasted carrots.