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How Artists And Performers Survived The Pandemic

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Even after all these months, it's hard to calculate the crushing toll that last year took on life and livelihoods - jobs wiped out, kids in school struggling over Zoom, front-line workers pushing to stay strong, and artists watching the stage lights go dark. In our series on resilience this morning, we see how performing arts and artists dug deep to keep on going.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

JAY LENO: Please welcome Patrick Stump.

(CHEERING)

MICHAEL DAY: Artists create because we have to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That's Michael Day, a professional musician in Los Angeles. He appeared with singer Patrick Stump on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," has collaborated with Natalie Cole and Loudon Wainwright III and laid down tracks for films and TV scores.

DAY: The only thing that mattered to me as a kid was that music-making and music-learning was its own reward. I never got into music looking in the bathroom mirror, envisioning stardom or red carpets. I saw my heroes lugging their own gear and, like, talking about what records that motivated them and sitting around and obsessing over how a chord progression resolved. And so when COVID hit, the resilience that I found was that music-making was still and will always be its own reward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CAROL NOONAN: (Singing) What's done is done.

FADEL: Singer Carol Noonan tapped resilience in many ways over the years. A career as recording artist is a tough climb, so she opened a venue to welcome artists, such as Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Mavis Staples and Brandi Carlile.

NOONAN: I'm the owner, along with my husband, of the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, where I am a musician and a cook and everything else that (laughter) goes along with running this crazy place. I think artists are so used to having to be resilient. It's always an uphill battle financially, artistically in every way. And if you do make it, you're really lucky. But so many of us are still trying to make it or making it just enough. We're used to having to fight back, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL DORF: Thank you so much for coming out everybody.

(CHEERING)

FADEL: For those involved in creating the experience, like the founder of the City Winery venues, Michael Dorf, the resilience and synergy with audiences is an impressive force.

DORF: I've seen the artist's reaction when it's been their first show after a 12-, 14-month hiatus. They love and need and they try and harvest the adrenaline that flows when you have multiple people in the space watching them perform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ART GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

(APPLAUSE)

DORF: I remember talking to Art Garfunkel pre-pandemic, and he was explaining to me the importance of adrenaline for him to read certain notes when he sung. Singing "Scarborough Fair," he says, I can't hit that note unless there's like 20, 30 people there. I need the adrenaline from live audience in order to activate certain vocal chords to achieve that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: In Harlem, artist and bandleader Michael Mwenso found a new outlet as a visiting professor at the University of Buffalo. And during a time of both pandemic and protest, he also found healing.

MICHAEL MWENSO: I was born in Sierra Leone and then raised in London, then saw my stepfather die. My mother went through that, you know, at 10 years old. She was driving. He was sadly killed in that car accident. She was then sadly deported back to Nigeria. I was then very blessed to live with an incredible man called Tom Bluford, a white English man that loved Black music and used Black music to heal me through that trauma of losing my stepfather and my mother being deported. So Black music has always been a retuning of sadness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Go tell it on the mountain.

MWENSO: You use the music. You use the ancestral music, you use the jazz, use the blues, you use the Ray Charles, you use the Mahalia Jackson, use the Bessie Smith to heal you, to guide you. You listen to the Black music not only as music but also as spiritual-coded messages to guide you, to get you out of depression, to also be your therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hallelujah, Lord.

FADEL: The university curriculum that Mwenso helped design is called Protest, Hope and Resilience through Black arts - a reflection of loss during the pandemic overlaid with the horror and reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd.

MWENSO: It changed the world for all of us. It changed the world for all of us as people, as artists. It pushed us. It moved us. It gave us concentration. Why was it - because we were inside? We were shaped by the pandemic. We could only look at this man being murdered in front of us. But out of that came this other newness that we're in - this hope, this aspiration, this desire, this new space that we're living in. So we see how this thing happened with this pandemic, this reckoning, and now where we are. It was all shaped.

FADEL: For Mwenso so and for so many others who find resilience in and through arts experiences, it may come down to something more elemental.

MWENSO: You want to still find love. You want to still give love. And also, I was loved by my godfather, who looked after me. I was very loved by James Brown. I was very loved by a lot of these artists that I was able to meet as a young child, whether it was James Brown, meeting him at 11 years old, or meeting B.B. King and trying to get on stage of him and going to Scotland with the trombone, and he says, no, you're not ready yet, son, but keep it going. You know, I was given love, so it's still to find it. It's still to aspire for it but also to be comfortable that you do have the love. And I find it in the music. But you still want to give it out, and you still want it in your life, too.

FADEL: A universal yearning that makes artists and their art a timeless and resilient force of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MWENSO: Thank you so much. God bless you.

(CHEERING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.