Isolation Drills: St. Clair Simmons

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Simmons: As of this writing, it’s been 103 days, and it doesn’t seem like the gigs will be coming back anytime soon. Gratefully, I was able to work for my teaching job at Play On Philly through the end of my contract, doing some online programming with our students. But the performing gigs just went away. 

Ever since I decided I wanted to make a career in music, I’ve definitely considered myself a jazz trombonist, but most of my recent gigs (pre-COVID) have been playing party-time music at weddings and other places, playing popular music from the past few decades with the Morning After Band (ask for Dom). Those gigs paid the bulk of the money I was making from gigs. Unfortunately, all of our gigs have been postponed until next year, as well as the rest of my and everyone else’s live, in-person music-performing opportunities. 

I was playing some jazz gigs, including a handful of swing dances and lindy-hop festivals around the northeast with Chelsea Reed And The Fair Weather Five, on whose new album, Carolina Lullaby, I’m playing trombone, singing and whistling on. I was also performing some more intimate gigs in West Philly (like house shows and stuff). I’ve played with this band Interminable for a couple years now, and involvement in that band has opened the door to so many new friends and acquaintances who are all very social-justice oriented, and that’s been nice.

Interminable was going to play some shows on a mini-tour this summer, after a hiatus while the bandleader Ximena Violante was in Mexico for a few months. Those shows, naturally, are on hiatus. I played a bunch with Martronimous, playing a trombone/trumpet duo over his sick beats, and even sat in on some shows with Upholstery, who was featured in this series in May. I haven’t seen any of the people I was playing with since maybe March 6 (except Cliff—thanks for the sanitary wipes!).

Yeah, COVID life has come with some changes. I read and watched stories about it on the internet as its impact drew closer and closer to home in the weeks preceding the actual stay-at-home order in Philly, yet the shift from going to rehearsals, gigs and my teaching job to being at home and going to the store sometimes felt abrupt. I was initially very paranoid about the whole thing and was, in my head, playing out the prologue of the latent doomsday/fantasy novel I apparently have burrowed away in my mind. My girlfriend moved in with me, I was worried about my grandpop (who I was taking care of), and I was worried about not having any gigs. 

I was fortunate that I was still getting paid from my teaching job through May. I recorded an original piece written by Danny Gouker for the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy Of Music COVID Artist Relief program, and I played a remote happy hour for Kieran Timberlake, an architecture firm.

I have, for a while now, been an avid watcher of cooking videos, and I’d probably say the volume of cooking videos I watched increased when COVID started. I haven’t been making crazy Pinterest-style-Kitchen-Master-Supreme recipes or anything, but I would say I have leveled up in terms of some general cooking skills through cooking more. I do prefer eating at home all the time to grabbing a Soylent Cafe Chai at CVS to satisfy my hunger, thirst and need for caffeine in between teaching and playing. Of course, I prefer being able to do all of those things to not being able to. With that being said, I like video games, and video games are at home.

What with running around and living pre-COVID life, practicing can often feel like a necessity—if it is to learn music for a gig or to get better to get more gigs. Since all the gigs have gone, practicing has become the entirety of my playing opportunity. During this period of time at home, when I’m practicing, I do feel a lot more relaxed in how I personally progress with playing my instrument, learning songs, etc.

I’ve gone back and checked out some old jazz recordings I’ve been meaning to check out, learned some tunes I’ve been meaning to learn and recited some scales I’ve been meaning to recite. I am remembering the difference between practicing for gigs and practicing to improve (at jazz styles and improvisation), and I’m planning to have my chops in top shape for when I apply to some master’s degree programs, in whatever state that universities will be in. I also imagine that some cognitive practice will help in all other areas that I play in. 

I look forward to when those “other areas”—and other areas in general—open up. I anxiously await knowing what the music scene will be like in the next year and a half.