By Corbie Hill
Gregg Gelb has hustled for 40-plus years.
Driving to this gig. Booking that one. Promoting this other one. Putting in thirty to forty thousand miles behind the wheel annually. Playing with multiple ensembles. Teaching and composing and rehearsing. And rehearsing. And rehearsing.
This is the life of a self-employed musician: a constant state of go. And this was Gelb’s life until March 7. The word now, though, is stop. Every performance since that day was canceled and no more are being booked.
“It really hurts,” says Gelb. “It takes something away from you—not being able to interact with other musicians and with an audience.”
For now, Gelb is waiting. Like thousands of professional musicians nationwide, the Sanford-based jazz saxophonist’s access to the stages that are his primary workspace has been cut off by COVID. Granted, Gelb’s doing better than some — he’s able to bring in some money teaching lessons and writing arrangements for a jazz vocalist — but it’s not the same as the electricity, the energy, and the release of performing live.
Until then, he’ll write, rehearse, teach lessons and bide his time.
“All I can do is just keep expecting and having a hope that things will get back to the way they were to where we’ll be able to play in clubs, play concerts, [and] that I’ll keep my bands together,” Gelb says. “I want to be prepared and have things together for whenever the business picks back up.”
This means daily rehearsals. This means maintaining his level of playing, even if his horn hasn’t seen a stage in nearly eight months as of press time. This means tangling with challenging techniques and progressing on those. Gelb’s been transcribing tunes by New Orleans clarinet and soprano sax master Sidney Bechet for his band The Second Line Stompers and writing music for La Fiesta Latin Jazz Quintet — also one of his bands. And he’s been writing a piece for the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble that processes the sickening feeling he experienced after 2017’s Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and more recent crises such as a homegrown terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.
“I’m driven by emotion,” Gelb says. “When I heard that, I had to write something.”
Artists, he goes on to say, feel deeply. Historically, too, it’s been the artists who interpret and offer emotional feedback on the events of the day. If Gelb can get an audience to consider a social injustice through his work, he likes to do it.
While this saxophonist has focused some of his pandemic time on composing a big band tune with the appropriate name of “Charlottesville,” social critique is only one element of Gelb’s musical life. As a performer, sometimes his goal and his role are to create the right vibe. Sometimes it feels good just to get people dancing. And, really, sometimes advanced techniques are their own means to an end.
“Jazz is entertainment, sure, but it’s also high art at the same level as classical music,” says Gelb. “A lot of times I just want an audience to admire the amount of work that goes into it.”
So while COVID has cleared Gelb’s performance calendar for the foreseeable future, he finds the positives he can. It’s nice to be able to go into the studio every day to write and hone his craft. Gelb is making time to garden and read—that is, to live; to be a person. To that end, he has appreciated time spent with son Chris Gelb. The younger Gelb, a New York City-based jazz drummer, returned to his hometown of Sanford early in the pandemic and has spent most of it with his parents. Gregg and Chris have played together around the house — father and son both biding their time and maintaining their chops.
To that end, Gelb knows he has to pace himself. Live music as he knew it may not be back for a long time. From the start of the pandemic, Gelb was certain artists would be among the last to go back to work. Until that day, he can give lessons, he can write, and he can practice, practice, practice.
“I like rehearsing but it’s nothing like having a job to play for people,” Gelb says. “There’s nothing like it.”