Jazz St. Louis Artistic Director Bob Bennett sat in the venue’s otherwise-deserted lounge one recent morning, talking with audio engineer Paul Hennerich.
Hennerich was about an hour into his new role. The two talked about another job they’d need to fill in coming days, before the first shows at the venue since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
“I haven’t had a team in a year and a half. It’s just been me. So it’s a little surreal, because you’re thinking about bringing a bunch of people back into this room,” Bennett said. “There’s some nerves. There’s also some excitement.”
The occasion for the jazz club’s reopening is Music at the Intersection, a three-day festival spread across multiple venues in Grand Center that begins Friday night. Festival organizers expect as many as 10,000 attendees. The busy weekend is just the kickoff for a full slate of fall performances at Jazz St. Louis and other participating venues.
If everything proceeds as planned, it’ll all add up to more live events this fall and winter than St. Louis has seen in a year and a half.
There’ll be no mistaking the environment for pre-pandemic times. As the delta variant continues to spread widely among people who have not received the COVID-19 vaccine, most music venues in the region now require proof of vaccination or a negative test. Audience capacity is usually capped. The indoor mask mandate is still in effect.
But event calendars will be full once again.
Busy weekend of music
Music at the Intersection will feature more than 60 acts, spread across six stages.
Mike Zito, Janet Evra and the Clark Terry Centennial Project will play at Jazz St. Louis. Roy Ayers, Gregory Porter and Lalah Hathaway headline performances at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Betty LaVette, the Soul Rebels featuring GZA and Tef Poe will play the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries, the Grandel and the Big Top, respectively. The outdoor tent by the Grandel will also feature live music for VIP ticket holders.
The deep lineup also features local artists including Dave Grelle’s Playadors, Tonina, Blvck Spvde, Katarra, Anita Jackson and the Funky Butt Brass Band.
Though venues are gearing up for more action, the pandemic still informs all event plans.
“We’re making sure that these spaces are not just jam packed full of people, both for safety reasons and also because our venue partners need time to get everything back up and running,” said Chris Hansen, executive director of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, the festival’s chief organizer.
For some venues, getting up to speed again includes staffing back up again after cutting payroll when venues went dark in 2020. Job seekers streamed into the lobby of the Fox for a job fair on Wednesday. The organization was looking to hire dozens of people.
Not all of the new employees are needed for Music at the Intersection, but this weekend leads to a full schedule of concerts, comedians and touring Broadway productions at the venue this fall and winter.
“This is really a big moment for Grand Center as a neighborhood to welcome the guests back, turn the lights on, have music, you know, a bit of a homecoming in a lot of ways,” said John O’Brien, the theater’s director of programming.
The Fox “dipped its toe in the waters” with smaller events starting in the spring, O’Brien said, but the pace of performances will soon pick up sharply.
The weekend festival, and all the shows scheduled to follow in coming months, are good news for local musicians who saw their incomes dry up when venues shut down at the start of the pandemic.
Local hip-hop fusion group the Midwest Avengers planned a long-delayed album release show at Delmar Hall in August, but the event was canceled. A sizable portion of its fanbase was turned off by the newly instituted requirement for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, emcee John Harrington said.
Harrington said Music at the Intersection is a well-planned event whose organizers are treating local musicians with respect, but he’s waiting to see if ticket buyers will show up.
“I think it’s great that they’re providing an opportunity for artists, but are the people gonna come? I say we just gotta do it and see what happens,” he said. “It’s a gig for us, you know what I’m saying? So people are excited to get back out there and make some money playin’ a show, and being around people and kickin’ it.”
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