Column: ‘Musicians need audiences, and people need music.’ Jazz drummer creates impromptu band to play free gigs in senior living parking lots

Ethan Kogan, 29, was a jazz drummer in search of a band to play with and an audience to play for. The coronavirus stood in the way of both.

Norberto Kogan, his father, is the co-founder of a company that provides elder care for seniors. He’s in the business of providing companionship and community, and COVID-19 stood in the way of those, too.

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The two Kogans were talking on the phone one April night — Ethan in New York, where he lives; Norberto in Wilmette, where he and his wife, Loryn, live and raised their family — when they realized they might be uniquely positioned to help one another out.

“Musicians need audiences, and people need music,” Ethan Kogan said. “It just seemed like there was a way for musicians to do what musicians do and bring that to people in need.”

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His father’s company, Home Care Assistance of Greater Chicago, provides nonmedical care (meal preparation, personal care, help with chores) for seniors who live independently at home or in assisted living facilities.

“We’ve seen how tremendously isolating coronavirus has been for our clients,” Margalit Tocher, president of Home Care Assistance, told me Wednesday. “The isolation is just devastating.”

After hearing some of his dad’s stories, Ethan Kogan started calling musician friends in Chicago. He wanted to fly home and play some free gigs in parking lots or outdoor spaces of nursing homes. He imagined the music doing what music does so well — serving as a portal to places visited, people loved, emotions buried.

A nurse looks on as Jazz musicians play for residents and staff at the Villa at Windsor Park in Chicago, Thursday, June 11, 2020. Social music at a social distance. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune)

A nurse looks on as Jazz musicians play for residents and staff at the Villa at Windsor Park in Chicago, Thursday, June 11, 2020. Social music at a social distance. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune) (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

He got a couple of no’s right off the bat. People worried about inadvertently transmitting the virus to an especially vulnerable population, or picking it up themselves. A guitarist friend said he wasn’t comfortable playing, but he’d be happy to loan equipment from a music store he helps run.

A third call, to trumpeter Chad McCullough, turned everything around. McCullough was in. Saxophonist Rajiv Halim was in. Pianist Joan Hickey was in. Bass player Ethan Philion was in.

“People started to get really excited about it,” Ethan Kogan said.

He flew to Chicago on May 28. With the help of his dad’s associates, he set up a seven-show senior living tour in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. It started June 2. The final shows took place Thursday — in the morning at Villa at Windsor Park in South Shore and in the afternoon at Selfhelp Home in Uptown.

The musicians call themselves M.A.S.Q. (Musicians Aiding Seniors in Quarantine), and they played songs from the Great American Songbook that, they hope, struck a chord with residents. Every concert has featured a slightly different group.

“Jazz music, as a tradition, prides itself on the ability to get together with people you’ve never met before and just play,” Ethan Kogan said. “One of my teachers in New York City, this legendary drummer Marvin ‘Bugalu’ Smith used to say, ‘I never call the same band twice.’ For me, this has been a lesson in that whole concept.”

Their first show took place at Belmont Village in Buffalo Grove. Bass player Marlene Rosenberg joined the group that day — the first time she and Kogan played together since a 2016 gig with Wallace Roney, a protege of Miles Davis. Roney, a mentor of Kogan’s, died from COVID-19 in March, and the band dedicated their Belmont Village performance to him. Kogan’s grandfather lived at Belmont Village for a time, which made the moment all the more poignant.

“The whole thing has been really beautiful,” Kogan said.

Tocher, who has been attending the concerts, said the live music has made a particular impact on residents struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

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Jazz musicians (L to R) Brent Griffin Jr., on sax, Ivan Taylor, bass, Dave Miller on guitar and Paul Bedal on keyboard play for residents and staff at the Villa at Windsor Park in Chicago, Thursday, June 11, 2020.

Jazz musicians (L to R) Brent Griffin Jr., on sax, Ivan Taylor, bass, Dave Miller on guitar and Paul Bedal on keyboard play for residents and staff at the Villa at Windsor Park in Chicago, Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

“One of the last parts of the brain impacted by dementia is the part of the brain where music is stored,” she said. “You play music from when they were in their 20s and you see them come alive. Music is so much more than what we see and know. It touches people so deeply.”

With Thursday’s concerts wrapping the series, Ethan Kogan will soon return to New York to wait out the pandemic. Eventually, he’ll go back to playing gigs in clubs. Eventually, senior centers will be able to ease their restrictions on visitors and volunteers and the other folks who connect residents to the outside world and remind them that they’re loved, remind them that they’re part of a community.

And when we look back at this period of grieving and fear and trauma and guesswork and longing and reinvented togetherness, we’ll have this pairing — musicians with the people who need music — as an example of the grace and resourcefulness and generosity of heart that carried us through to the other side.

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