A Different Form: Nick Dunston Speaks

We here at Jazz Speaks chat with Nick Dunston a lot, whether it is the occasion of an album release, group show, or just to catch up between gigs. Our recent conversation found Dunston in a very different space. As COVID is transforming the music industry around us, Dunston is in North Carolina, reflecting on […]

Photo courtesy of the artist.

We here at Jazz Speaks chat with Nick Dunston a lot, whether it is the occasion of an album release, group show, or just to catch up between gigs. Our recent conversation found Dunston in a very different space. As COVID is transforming the music industry around us, Dunston is in North Carolina, reflecting on the New York scene as it once was.

The Jazz Gallery: I was about to ask “How are you,” but that seems like an overwhelming question these days. Let’s start with “Where are you.”

Nick Dunston: I am at my mom’s house in Carrboro, North Carolina. I’ve been here since March 17th.

TJG: Did you go there directly from New York?

ND: Yeah, I did, but that wasn’t the original plan. I was initially going to fly to Berlin to be with my partner. I was on the plane—a direct flight from Newark—and they did the whole beginning part of a flight, the safety video and all of that. Then, they received a message from Germany banning non-EU citizens or residents. So I had to get off the plane. I immediately booked a ticket to North Carolina, and have been here ever since.

TJG: Wow… wow.

ND: Yeah.

TJG: How many other people got pulled off that flight?

ND: It ended up being just me and one other American. A third person almost got pulled, but she was connecting to Albania via Germany so she could stay.

TJG: Madness.

ND: It was crazy.

TJG: You must have been scared…

ND: Scared?

TJG: Angry? Confused?

ND: A little bit of everything. It was a devastating moment. That’s how things are now. We deal the best we can, and be gentle with ourselves about it, ideally.

TJG: So, when you left that flight, what did you have with you? Had you packed to be in Berlin for months?

ND: Yeah. I hate overpacking in general, I usually don’t even check bags. This time, I brought a few weeks of clothes, my computer, a couple of books. When I got here, I was asking around to see if there was anyone I could borrow or rent a bass from, and luckily, Lowell Ringell, who lives back and forth between here and Miami, had another bass he said I could borrow indefinitely. That has been really nice to have around.

TJG: That’s huge. I saw that you just posted some improvisations on Bandcamp. Was that recorded with Lowell’s bass?

ND: Yeah, just that bass, recorded on a Tascam field recorder.

TJG: You’ve been pretty active on instagram and facebook. I know this stuff isn’t great for one’s mental health, all the live-streaming and staring at screens. How are you navigating it?

ND: At first, I did a few live-stream series type of things. I wanted to see what it was like, see if it could facilitate any kind of meaningful interaction with an “audience,” and stimulate some of what we’re missing from live performance. For me, it has not been doing either of those things. It’s a stress-inducing unsatisfactory alternative that doesn’t give me the kind of connection or sense of ritual or purpose that I get from performing. What it does give me is unnecessary stress about sound quality. For me, it’s not working out. Some people have really taken it by storm, it works for them, and that’s great. I would rather sit in the feeling of missing performance, and see where that takes me, instead of trying to frantically find a substitute to give the illusion of normalcy. It would be different if I had someone else to perform with, but I’m the only musician in my house, so it’s not for me.

TJG: Who else is there with you?

ND: My mom and her wife.

TJG: Do you have the space to practice, improvise, and explore?

ND: I do. I’m very happy, and am so fortunate to be here, in a house, with rooms, not just a room, like in New York [laughs]. I have the space to make music when I want to or need to. That’s an enormous gift. The key thing there is “when I need to or want to.” This entire quarantine, I’ve been trying to avoid the ridiculous feeling that this is some sort of artist residency. Some kind of vacation. A gap in time where if we don’t get our shit together, we’re somehow failing ourselves. This is a global emergency. The most important thing we can do for ourselves is rest, be gentle, and kind. If making music or being productive is in direct service of that, then great.

I just think now is not the time to be fixated on the “grind” or “hustle” mentality. Having spent my life in New York, that’s been the predominating narrative of the music economy, in a way. We should now take the time and space we need to get in touch with our emotions, reflect, mourn what we’ve lost. Our collective health is a priority. Ultimately, that is the best thing we can do for our creativity.

TJG: I’ve interviewed half a dozen people since the beginning of the pandemic, and thankfully I’m hearing a lot of that sentiment. Most people are sitting, taking it all in, being kind. It’s beautiful to hear.

ND: That’s a pleasant surprise, and very uplifting.

TJG: Yeah, I know. Even people who are intensely trying to maintain the “grind” mentality, like Melissa Aldana and Dan Tepfer, it holds them together, helps build a framework for their days. Nobody’s trying to get a leg up on the competition.

ND: Exactly, it’s a time where we have to do what we need to stay alive, healthy and sane. It’s not about everyone conforming to one method of survival. Being out of that stream of energy in New York for the last few months, I’m realizing that all of this energy I was putting into my work, my life, my career, was going straight toward survival. I’m thankful for what my musical life has been, but I feel like I’m always on the edge of burning myself out, and for what? To be able to stay there? Obviously, there is so much creative energy, so much inspiration in that environment. But we don’t get a chance to see what it’s like when we’re doing exactly what is best for ourselves without the insane economic pressure.

TJG: By contrast, you’re there, at home, taking it slower. What would the last couple of months and next few months have looked like for you?

ND: Oof. I had a lot on my plate. A lot. I’m still in school, which is wrapping up now. I was going to be doing all of my classes, working on a thesis, all of that. I had two gigs as a leader with two separate new projects. I had a few mini-tours, a few one-offs around the country. Oh gosh, it’s all rushing in now. Summer, I would be in Europe for most of the time, doing festivals, hanging out with my partner. I had a teaching gig in the Redwoods. Within the span of a week, it all trickled away.

TJG: What was that “trickling away” feeling like?

ND: A constant oscillation of despair and relief. The financial instability is devastating. I am very much feeling it. I get worried, panicked if I think about it too much. But when the sense of choice is taken away, when the neutralizing effect is put into place, it makes it easier to accept what I can’t control. It’s out of my control. I don’t feel the same kind of despair as I would have when, for example, a big gig would get cancelled and I’d have to scramble to make up the funds. I think I’m finally settling into a sense of acceptance. And in light of that acceptance, I can begin to imagine new possibilities for how I want my life to be. That is empowering. But for me, it has required acceptance, and mourning, of what is lost.

TJG: I know The Jazz Gallery is a big part of your New York life. As the 25th Anniversary approaches, what are your thoughts on The Gallery these days?

ND: The Jazz Gallery for me, right now, is doing what it always does. It allows us to be active agents of the New York scene. It creates new spaces. It is a constant, non-stop effort in facilitating community. The Jazz Gallery is a space that creates more space. Social space, space for young artists to try stuff out in a professional setting. Now, it’s taking a different form. Whether a Zoom hang or performance, online dialogue, or an interview like this, it’s the same energy. It’s still present.

TJG: Have you been participating in any of the online events?

ND: I’ve watched a couple of shows. I haven’t done the dance parties. Every day is its own adventure, and there are days where I feel the need to reach out to lots of people, to check in. But most days, it’s hard for me to be social. Yes, some of us are experiencing similar phenomena right now. We’re missing common things, we long for things. But the pandemic has accentuated social disparities and inequalities. Ultimately, people are dying, and at disproportionate rates. Poor people are dying more. Black people are dying more. Democrats are dying more, and blue states are being given less aid. That stuff takes up so much headspace, and not in an abstract way. I have immunocompromised people in my family and have been dealing with family health issues. When I have the energy to be creative and social, I acknowledge it and am thankful it. But honestly, I’m just trying to take it easy. I’m glad the online platforms exist, but take them as you need them.