The lights dim and the chatter of the socially distanced audience fades to a murmur. The full-moon sign, emblazoned with a proud N, glows against blue velvet curtains. Applause sweeps the dark room as the singer steps into the spotlight and thanks everyone for coming. He cues the band with a snap of his fingers and just like that, the night is handed over to the American Songbook.
When COVID-19 shut down the world in March 2020, the escape of a jazz club—or any music venue—became off-limits. Capacity restrictions, mandatory closings and uneasy audiences sent the live music industry into a downward spiral.
Within a few months, popular clubs began closing their doors for good. The Twins Jazz Club in Washington, D.C. closed in September of 2020. Popular New York club Jazz Standard followed in December. Los Angeles club Blue Whale is a recent casualty, closing in January.
In December of 2020, the concert industry trade magazine Pollstar estimated that the pandemic lost the music industry $30 billion–10 from ticket revenue and 20 from merchandise, concessions, parking and more. The majority of the loss can be credited to cancelled tours, but the biggest impact can be seen in smaller venues like Noce and the musicians that give it life.
Noce stayed afloat by offering live streamed performances from the club the second week of the shutdown, sooner than almost anyone else. The live streams were free but included an option to donate via PayPal. They reopened at 30% occupancy in July 2020.
“It’s no way to make money,” said Max Wellman, Noce’s general manager and performer. “It’s a survival game.”
Noce decreased ticket prices, reduced the staff and took advantage of federal stimulus programs, but their greatest support came from regulars like Jane Meyer, a patron since the club’s opening in December 2015. Due to COVID, Meyer stopped going to live shows, but continued spending her money at Noce.
“I would have bought a ticket and a drink and tipped, so I’ll just send that along, PayPal-wise,” Meyer said. “It’s just what I would be doing normally and I’m happy to help them out.”
Other Des Moines venues were not as lucky as Noce.
“We’ve lost some true treasures here in Des Moines, like Vaudeville Mews,” said Maria Reveiz, one of Noce’s owners. The punk rock club closed its doors last fall. Lefty’s, another local club, set up a GoFundMe, asked for donations during livestreams and took advantage of government grants. xKb, a hip hop and rock club, has been closed since March of 2020, getting by with a combination of federal disaster assistance and loans.
“We’re extremely fortunate that we’re still here and performing and doing shows,” Wellman said.
Anyone craving a sense of normalcy can tune in to Noce’s live streamed shows on their Youtube channel, Noce Jazz and Cabaret DSM. Tickets for live shows can be purchased at www.noce.ticketleap.com.
As the curtain closes on the night’s performance, people young and old pay their tabs and amble out. They venture back out onto the street, humming old jazz standards and chuckling. Despite the late hour, the night seems just a little brighter than it was before.