The Makanda Project

The Makanda Project: Connecting during COVID-19

Innovation and improvisation are the foundations of jazz, and versatility one of the greatest strengths of a jazz musician. It’s no surprise, then, that the Makanda Project, a 13-piece jazz ensemble, found a way to safely connect during the COVID-19 pandemic with carefully choreographed live events for small audiences that were streamed online to a wider audience of fans at home. 

This past summer and fall, the Makanda Project, which has performed free concerts in Roxbury since 2005, played four live shows at Bartlett Place that were broadcast in real time via Facebook Live. 

“We felt we were ‘threading a needle’—that there was a way to present the music in the community during the summer months, but that it had to be done just right so that we didn't jeopardize anyone's safety, including our own,” said John Kordalewski, the Makanda Project’s band leader and concert organizer/producer. “We felt it was our job, as artists in the community, to try to figure this out. In the end, we felt we had found our small opening and made the most of it, which was gratifying.”

It wasn’t easy, though. From rehearsals to promotion to actually playing the concerts, the pandemic forced the Makanda Project members to reinvent the way they operate—including how they make music. 

“It was a great deal of work involved,” Kordalewski admitted. “We had to find some new community partners and new spaces to perform and that involved lengthy searches. All kinds of matters needed attention that normally don't when we put together a concert. There was a lot of discussion amongst ourselves as we explored and planned what we would do.” 

For example, they couldn’t all rehearse together initially due to the unavailability of former rehearsal spaces and other logistical and safety challenges. While some of the band was able to gather to practice in one member’s back yard, they couldn’t manage a full rehearsal with the entire band present, said Kordalewski. The group also had to learn to play together while social distancing, which meant they were quite a bit further from each other than usual. 

“It took some getting used to, but we were able to adjust in a way that left us pleasantly surprised, in terms of how well we could hear and respond to each other,” said Kordalewski. Their sound engineer became more crucial than ever: “He had to do considerably more, in terms of miking everyone and using monitors, than in the past,” said the band leader.   

Because of this, along with concerns about exactly how they’d be set up onstage, the group at first chose to play pieces in their repertoire that were the simplest and that they knew best. By the third and fourth concert, though, they had grown comfortable enough to try out new material—aided by their newfound ability to hold 90-minute rehearsals at the performance space before the concerts.

The Makanda Project also made major adaptations to how they organized the events for the audience. In order to conform to the Commonwealth’s guidelines for outdoor gatherings, after factoring in the band members and support staff, they were able to have 30 attendees per show.  They performed two shows per afternoon, clearing the house in between, so they ultimately accommodated a total of 60 people per concert. 

They developed an online reservation system wherein only those who reserved a seat received information about the concerts’ location. “We were in the unusual position of making sure that too many people didn't come to a jazz concert,” Kordalewski joked. “We only publicized the events through our email list—1,500 names—and as expected we had more than enough response from this method.” The email list had been developed over years of presenting concerts in the community.

A team of volunteers took reservations, measured and marked socially distant seating at the venues, and monitored the audience for safety compliance.  Community members were hired to assist with the Facebook Livestream—which came with a learning curve. “We learned about the technological issues involved, especially the challenges of getting a stable internet connection outdoors, and improved the quality of the livestream each time,” said Kordalewski.

Going forward, Kordalewski said, some of the innovations and new practices adopted to perform live during the pandemic will continue to benefit the Makanda Project. The partnership formed with Bartlett Place, for example, is one that both organizations want to develop further.  “For us, it’s a way to further build our work in the community,” he said. 

Meanwhile, audience reaction to the shows—from live audience members and via Facebook comments— made all the work worthwhile. Not having heard live music for months, “people were visibly moved” Kordalewski said of the live audiences. He and the band felt a deep sense of appreciation. 

“When people stood and clapped at the end of the shows, we felt they were clapping not just for the music itself but for the fact that we had made the effort to have the concerts; for the fact that we had all been able to come together, safely albeit briefly, and share in the music in the middle of such difficult times,” Kordalewski said. 

Indeed, the Makanda Project received a host of unsolicited emails from grateful community members. Here’s a sampling:


  • “I want to thank you, the Makanda Project, and all your support staff, for the uplift you've been providing but especially for the outdoor concerts this summer. It had to have been an enormous task. Be assured from someone whose best fun in spring and summer is outdoor concerts and jazz festivals; you did a great job and saved the day for me. The vibe and ambiance were special.” 
  • “Thank you for all the time and effort that you put into bringing the recent live performances.  The one I was able to attend brought tears to these tired eyes and joy to my heart (and ears!).” 
  • “Thank you so much for doing these concerts and for helping our community to lighten its load a little!” 
  • “Mimi smiled on you and the members of your group. In addition to pleasant memories of her, I will think of her as the Makanda Project's Angel. The beautiful song you wrote in her honor is as gracious as she was. We will see you again under better circumstances, but this circumstance was not a sad occasion; rather it was a delight.” (Mimi Jones was a beloved community member and Civil Rights pioneer who passed away prior to the Makanda Project’s second concert, and to whom that concert was dedicated.)
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published this page in Connecting During COVID-19 Stories 2021-03-01 12:31:39 -0500

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