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Bryan Nichols: ‘The way forward isn’t at all knowable, but at least I can still play the piano’

For the next four Mondays in August, Bryan Nichols will be programming and playing on the Icehouse patio with a number of Twin Cities musicians.

Bryan Nichols will curate the music and play at Icehouse every Monday in August, something he agreed to do before COVID.
Bryan Nichols will curate the music and play at Icehouse every Monday in August, something he agreed to do before COVID.
Photo by Benny Moreno

On Monday evening, Aug. 3, Bryan Nichols sat down at his red Nord keyboard and played an on-the-spot jazz version of “I Hear a Rhapsody,” followed by Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” Sharing the outdoor stage – the western end of the Icehouse patio on Nicollet – with saxophonists Peter Goggin and Brandon Wozniak, bassist Jeff Bailey and drummer JT Bates, this was the first time he had performed in public since March 7, five months earlier.

It was his longest gap in 33 years. “I’ve been doing paying gigs since I was 16,” he said earlier this week. “And before then, band concerts and piano recitals since second grade. So that’s how long it’s been. It’s pretty crazy.”

A pianist, composer, and educator, Nichols is not, in his words, “the busiest musician in town.” He picks his projects carefully and has earned a reputation as someone worth going out to see. Even when he’s playing a tune you know, you can’t predict where he will take it.

An outstanding improviser, part of a close-knit community of musicians that, thanks to COVID-19, includes the Jazz Dads (more about that below), Nichols was awarded a 2010-11 McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians. A sideman on dozens of recordings, he has released two albums under his name, “Bright Places” with his quintet (2011) and the solo outing “Looking North” (2016).

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Nichols was born and raised in Minneapolis, spent four years in the Chicago music scene while his wife, Marcie, went to college there, then moved back to the Twin Cities, where she owns a business and they have two young sons. They recently added a puppy to the family.

Nichols will curate the music and play at Icehouse every Monday in August, something he agreed to do before COVID. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What was last Monday night like for you?

Bryan Nichols: It was great! JT and Jeff are some of my oldest musician friends. I’ve known both of them for 25 years. Brandon I haven’t known for quite as long – 15 years. Peter’s young, but I’ve known him for a while now. He’s a brilliant musician.

You want to play with some dudes you’ve known for decades, and then you want at least one person to be like, “Hey, guys, stop doing the dumb stuff you’ve been doing for decades.”

Icehouse
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Sharing the outdoor stage – the western end of the Icehouse patio on Nicollet – with saxophonists Peter Goggin and Brandon Wozniak, bassist Jeff Bailey and drummer JT Bates, this was the first time Bryan Nichols had performed in public since March 7, five months earlier.
MP: Has not playing been hard?

BN: The thing you do for work, or at least the thing I do for work, is part of who you are. In March, April and May, I was having stuff canceled left and right. I was feeling bad both because “Oh, it would have been fun to play that gig!” and “Oh, I don’t have any work anymore. That’s not ideal.”

Plus there was the distance learning. I went from being a full-time professional musician to a full-time first- and third-grade teacher.

Those things in combination were very, very difficult at first. And then I got used to gigs being canceled or just not manifesting at all. I got used to helping my kids out. They got better at it, I got better at it. We all just kind of settled in. We got into summer and we’re just kind of hanging out.

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It’s less hard now because I’m used to it. There’s still the absurdity of not knowing whether I’ll be able to do my profession for the rest of this year, plus the rest of next year. I don’t know.

The nice thing about this Icehouse gig is we can have reasonably safe times outdoors. For now, right? The five Mondays in August are the focus of my entire summer performing. It’s good to have a few gigs when there’s no gigs. But maybe these five gigs will be the last I play this year.

MP: What was your life like before mid-March?

BN: I was playing probably two to four gigs a week. I teach a half-dozen students between private students and my students at MacPhail. Most of my days would be spent on practicing, doing whatever business stuff needs doing, composing, and long-term planning for a music career. Then you’re making records occasionally, going into the studio with people.

I pick and choose the stuff I want to be involved in, stuff I enjoy and feel invested in. But I keep busy with it. To have everything disappear is jarring.

MP: At Icehouse the other night, you mentioned the Jazz Dads. Who or what are the Jazz Dads?

BN: There’s a group of us – me and Chris Bates and JT Bates, Brandon Wozniak and Zacc Harris and Cody McKinney. People who have known each other a long time, who regularly play jazz and have kids.

Bryan Nichols performing at the Dakota in November 2019.
Bryan Nichols performing at the Dakota in November 2019.
We’ve all been in kind of the same boat, so we’ve been bouncing stuff off each other in texts and Zoom calls, from “Hey, how are you guys feeling about life?” to navigating the unemployment system. We talk about things like “What are the records that are keeping you engaged in music?” and “How are you making creative time when you have these little kids in your business?”

We’re in a worldwide pandemic that doesn’t care if we’re sick of it. We have the horribly egregious mishandling of the pandemic response. And we’re at the epicenter of this radical, amazing social change that’s happening. So I have a bunch of musician friends I talk to, and a bunch of friends who are non-musicians I talk to, and Marcie is in there, and we’re keeping each other sane.

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MP: What is your biggest challenge now?

BN: Figuring out where to go next. Normally, I have these performances, or I’m trying to get these performances, and I book these people, and I write these tunes, or I take these tunes I’ve already written and arrange them accordingly. Now there’s none of that. There is no more deadline for anything.

The music world has been changing ever since I’ve been a professional musician. It’s always been in flux. But there were gigs, and you could plan your schedule around “Here’s how I will make my money,” “here’s how I will get my artistic fulfillment” and “here’s how I will increase my artistic output or level.” To have all of that just disappear is weird, and it’s on the tails of the entire recording industry mostly collapsing, thanks to streaming music. And now we don’t know when performing will be back.

MP: What are you doing to stay motivated?

BN: The nice thing about piano is there’s hundreds of years of literature. I’ve been going back and playing some classical music again. I’ve been trying to practice some technique stuff. When you’re not spending musical energy on preparing for the next performance, you can take a longer view and say, “I’m going to practice my Hanons exercises and my Czerny etudes this week. And next week, maybe Bach chorales.”

Technical stuff falls by the wayside when I’m in my usual playing gigs/thinking about gigs/ writing music for gigs mode. I just never get to it, especially post having kids. So it’s been nice to feel like I can really get acquainted with the piano again, with some literature I haven’t done in a while.

Even though the recording industry is in horrible shape, people are still putting out cool records. There’s a lot of music I’ve been inspired by and continue to be inspired by. I can put on some music in the morning, then go to the piano at some point and sit down, and my ears are pretty fresh, and I’m not thinking about gigs. And now I can approach this in a different way. The way forward isn’t at all knowable, but at least I can still play the piano.

MP: Have you gone back to Bach?

BN: I never left Bach. I took classical lessons for 10-11 years when I was a kid. I did a hard break when I was 18. I did not play classical music anymore, except I continued to play Bach.

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Bach is so present in so much of the music sense that you just continually use it. It’s like, these cadences are amazing. These songs are beautiful. These lines make so much sense and are so gorgeous.

I love going back to Bach. And I’m not skilled at it. I can’t play like a classical pianist. But it’s fun to do, and it’s fun to know that people have been measuring themselves against this music on some level for hundreds of years. I think it’s the first perfect and complete music.

MP: How are you keeping your spirits up?

BN: I spend a lot of time with my kids and my wife and the puppy. Thinking about how much time I’m getting with all of them that we wouldn’t get otherwise. Having a family around me is a constant support system.

All of my friends who are musicians, obviously, we’re in the same boat of no gigs. But we’re all keeping each other relatively optimistic about the future.

Left to right: Bryan Nichols, Michael Lewis, Jeff Bailey and JT Bates at the Dakota in November 2019.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Left to right: Bryan Nichols, Michael Lewis, Jeff Bailey and JT Bates at the Dakota in November 2019.
It’s easy to get on the doomscrolling train. The pandemic has been so much worse than it had to be. No one’s going to school safely, and I could never have imagined the complete disappearance of my entire industry, and the refusal of our leaders to take it seriously. What if all the artists and all the venues can’t do any of this anymore? That’s horrible, right? No one’s taking it seriously.

I try not to go those zones very much. Instead, I think, “OK, this is the time to slow down. This is the time to work on stuff. This is the time to hang out with my family.” We go to state parks and take walks.

MP: What keeps you up at night?

BN: Thinking about when we will get back to some semblance of normalcy, and how much death and pain we’ll see before that. People are dying. Families are getting sick. All of us who have the privilege of not having that experience at least have to think about that. Yeah, I hope the music industry survives and all of my friends survive and thrive, but that’s not what it’s about right now. There’s a lot of death and pain.

MP: What will you do first when you can do whatever you want?

BN: Oh my god, I just want to give people hugs! There are so many things.

I want to go to a restaurant where I can sit at a table and not feel bad about making someone risk their own health to serve me. I would have an amazing meal and everyone would feel good and safe and healthy. And then I would go to a live music event packed with people and that’s OK. And see everyone and give people who walk up a hug.

MP: That used to be the simplest thing in the world.

BN: Maybe the silver lining is we’ll never take that stuff for granted again. I remember doing stuff in February and thinking, “Ohhhh, I’ve got to do THAT thing.” Now I would pay a thousand dollars to do it.

***

For the next four Mondays in August, Bryan Nichols will be programming and playing on the Icehouse patio with a number of Twin Cities musicians including Jeremy Ylvisaker, Jacqueline Ultan, Eric Fratzke, Michelle Kinney, Davu Seru, Zacc Harris, Chris Bates, JT Bates, Cedar Thoms, Cody McKinney, and Lars-Erik Larson. As of this writing, the final Monday, Aug. 31, hadn’t been nailed down. Go here and scroll to view events and buy tickets.

What is Nichols listening to these days? As of Thursday, this was his shortlist:

Run the Jewels 4

Phoebe Bridgers: “Punisher”

Redman/Mehldau/McBride/Blade: “Round Again”

Moses Sumney: “Grae”

Brad Mehldau: “Suite: April 2020”

Ambrose Akinmusire: “on the tender spot of every calloused moment”

He added, “I’ve been listening to a bunch of Ray Charles records; Ray was someone I’d never spent much time with before quarantine, and he’s got a deep discography, so that’s been really fun to discover. There’s a bunch more stuff that I’ve checked out, since I probably have more music listening time than ever. But that’s a good core.”