On the Tuesday before Christmas, the Mitch Watkins & Dianne Donovan Quintet live-streamed an intimate 90-minute set from East Austin Piano Shop. It looked cozy from where I was sitting in West Austin. In fact, the audience stretched all the way to Jersey: “Hello from Hoboken” found its way into the comments section.
At one point, vocalist Dianne Donovan sang the ever rueful “Christmastime is Here,” making mention that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the first time she ever saw a child depicted as sad.
It was a sad kid kinda Christmas, but even so, the group did a gorgeous job with the usual holiday fare. “We Five Kings,” born out of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and “We Three Kings,” was especially clever, complete with a 5/4 time signature drum solo by Masumi Jones. Also featured were Sean Giddings on piano and John Fremgen on double bass. At times, Watkins, while playing guitar, quietly fixed the face mask falling off his nose.
Maybe it was the Hi-Fi streaming quality, maybe it was the beautiful tones coming from Watkins’ guitar, but it felt as if we were all in the same room, processing the same year.
The Tuesday night concert series started this past spring as a collaboration between Monks Jazz Club and Austin Jazz Society for Project Safety Net, a fundraising campaign in response to COVID’s economic impact on local jazz musicians. To date, the project has raised almost $100,000.
Prior to the pandemic, Monks Jazz Club was known as a mobile venue with pop-up events around Austin. The series began back in 2016, when founder and jazz pianist Collin Shook found the perfect spot to hatch his idea: an old tire shop turned art gallery on East Sixth and Chicon streets.
The space was able to accommodate his 5’7” grand piano, which he’d roll out from a corner he was renting as storage, and play to a listening room audience a couple times a month. It was the kind of thing he’d seen in New York City and in small clubs throughout Europe, and wanted to create in Austin after having been in Tucson for several years.
That first night, 90 people showed up.
Monks had over 25 shows in the gallery space, charging a nominal cover, serving drinks from local sponsors, seating folks at tables Shook built himself. Each night, a new quartet or quintet would be featured, playing two sets which stuck to hard bop jazz stylings. If someone got too loud, the room would applaud when they were told to leave.
It broke from the typical bar scene dutifully living up to Austin’s hype as the Live Music Capital of the World. And it was made possible by a month-to-month lease devoid of an actual bar. The art gallery was always destined to be demolished, Shook tells me. After eight months, they tore down the old tire shop and made way for a mixed-use commercial space.
Monks found a new east side home at Fast Folks Cyclery and played another 25-concert streak. Same set-up, same listening room vibes; there was even a piano on the premises. Then the landlord bought the shop owner out of her lease early. Hard bop was getting harder to come by. A bit like Sisyphus, Monks rolled its boulder of a piano over to Revival Coffee and did 30 more shows.
“I revel in the DIY nature of a venue,” says Shook. “I am all about jazz that teeters off the edge of a cliff.”
Low overhead and funky off-hour venues have allowed him to stay true to that vision. Though local sponsors provide drinks, drinking isn’t the main draw, and his loyal fanbase knows this.
“Anyone who has a liquor license is trying to sell their $3,000 on a good Friday night. We can’t ask a venue to shush their customers when they’re selling them alcohol.”
Monks Jazz has been able to keep the listening experience pure in this sense. Who needs a swanky club when fraying duct tape works just as well, he shrugs. For Shook, it’s more important to create the conditions which allow the motion of the music to derail while the drummer holds on and the bass and piano scramble; traveling to exotic places rhythmically, sonically, and harmonically.
“There’s always going to be people who play ‘Girl From Ipanema’ at a very medium tempo and try not to push.”
Shook says he’d rather get into the grit. There are musicians in every scene playing “background GB (general business) jazz,” but Monks has been able to thrive precisely because of its pop-up nature. “There’s a magic in variety and spontaneity.”
Since the pandemic began, Shook has moved into the most unlikely listening room of all: YouTube. He’s been live-streaming shows from his East Austin Piano Shop, a homey space which reads well on a screen. He’s looking forward to doing in-person pop-up events someday soon, but recognizes there will be gradual phases in returning to normal. “A lot of people are shell-shocked by this experience.”
Ideally Monks will resume in-person concerts once a week once the coast is clear, with a live-stream component as well. Maybe like an MTV Unplugged type thing, he says. But really, it’s so hard to tell. “The pandemic has changed the intimacy of the experience.”
I ask Collin how he would describe Austin’s jazz scene. “There’s a feeling that it’s about to boil over. In a place like New York, it’s already boiled over so many times, that people just keep getting pots.”
He brings up another interesting byproduct of 2020: music has always been married to alcohol, but the pandemic has called that holy union into question. There’s been this imperative to sell alcohol, to make enough margin, to make the music happen, Shook points out. But a venue transforms into a little dojo when it costs $10 to come in — and you’re paying that $10 for the music.
It’s true, watching Mitch Watkins and Dianne Donovan Quintet perform their holiday concert, without the competing clinking of glass, was a different kind of listening experience. As was Shook emceeing the whole thing online, thanking the virtual audience, encouraging people to donate to Project Safety Net.
“Use those emojis,” he cheered. “Show us your digital applause!”