TAMPA, Fla. — It’s now been a year since COVID-19 silently invaded our lives closing down restaurants and silencing musicians who made a living playing live music.
Even with a year living with COVID-19 in the books, and still more uncertainty ahead, live music is making a comeback, albeit slowly.
We profiled two musicians, Fred Johnson, an Artist-in-Residence at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, and Maurice Allen Sr., the founder of the Tampa Bay Jazz Festival and Tampa Bay Gospel Fest. Both musicians finding their way through a year of pain and suffering.
We talked about the power of music in all aspects of life, and how it can bring people of different faiths, backgrounds, genders, races and cultures together.
“I am blessed with the gift of innovation and creativity,” Allen said. “So, as a visionary leader I don’t sit around and wait on anybody doing anything for me, you get in the trenches and you make it happen and so pulling from them we’ve just been creative. It's just like music you gotta improv, you gotta make it work.”
“Yeah, I mean it’s a drag, you know I mean I lost like 17 gigs when the pandemic hit,” Fred Johnson told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska.
Johnson is an Artist-in-Residence at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
“Voice is my first instrument,” Johnson said. “But, I also play a hand percussion instrument primarily west African hand percussion instruments, and I also play a traditional stringer African instrument called the chordophone.
Johnson has performed throughout the United States and globally with some of the most recognized jazz legends of our time. We sat down with him outside the Straz Center on Tampa’s Riverwalk to talk about life as a musician during COVID-19 and the systemic racism that continues to infect many parts of American culture and society.
“Experiences that are not limited by language are great pathways for people to really culturally find new ways to learn each other’s stories and experience each other absolutely music is one of those universal languages that brings humanity together,” Johnson said. "The things that are different about us are what really makes the human experience amazing and the arts is just a magnificent way to exemplify that.”
We were with Johnson as he hosted the Straz Center’s first Arts Legacy Remix series since the pandemic began.
The program is titled “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which Johnson said, “in many circles is considered to be the Negro National Anthem.”
“As the evening unfolds with our with our singers in between each of the performers we’ll kind of take folk on a journey of some of the challenges and some of the victories accomplished by great African classical voices in America,” Johnson said.
At the historic Springs Theatre on North Nebraska Avenue, we met up with Allen. He was rehearsing with his band for a new concert call the “Feed Yo Soul Fest.”
“We want to give you a soul meal, soul music, and a soul message, something that is going to edify you and motivate you,” Allen said. “I believe in the idea of America and I think we are aiming to realize that idea and that is we all are created equal everybody is somebody as I like to say it and we all need each other so together we can truly make this dream happen. It starts from respecting one another learning about each other and appreciating our nuances and putting it together in this melting pot this soul dish if I should it that and enjoying its beauty.”
During COVID-19, Allen taught music lessons via Zoom and is slowly starting to reincorporate in-person lessons. The jazz musician's specialty is his voice and the piano. Allen says he was a child prodigy learning to play the piano on his own at just 2-years-old, and playing professionally since he was 4-years-old. His talents put him on stage with the musical elite. Opening for B.B. King and Olivia Newton-John to name a few. His son, Maurice Allen Jr., is now following in his father’s footsteps.
“My son is the bassist, and I am glad to kind of report he is on his way to Berkley Music School in Boston he got a scholarship there,” Allen said, a proud father humbled to know his son will use music to impact and enrich the lives of others, especially as we continue to rebound out of this pandemic and push to end racism once and for all.
“The possibilities are endless,” Allen said. “This era we find ourselves in with COVID-19. I have been preaching that it has been the great revealer. One thing it has shown the music community and the arts community at large where we stand in the eyes of many I would say not only speaking for myself but the arts community, respect the artist honor the craft support the craft. Because we cant do what we do the way we want to do it, and the way we need to do it without the full community. Support live music support the arts in general cause we help you to make it through the week and help us to make it through the week.”
Johnson and Allen know a lot of artists, including themselves that used the pandemic to tap even deeper into their creative side. Both hope a music renaissance is on the horizon.
“Now, more than ever, being creative and allowing your creative voice to really touch the world is probably really more important now than ever before,” Johnson said. It’s really an integral part of how we define ourselves as a human species.”