This desire to both find and connect with audiences has brought Jenn Kee much in her life.
Born and raised in Markham — The Markham Fairgrounds featured some of her earliest performances — Kee has been finding stages to sing on and audiences to listen since she was just eight years old.
More recently she’s played some of the most famous rock n’ roll stages on earth, including Massey Hall in Toronto, The Fox Theatre in Atlanta and Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. She’s earned a master’s degree in music, literally toured the world as a singer, and made a career with music at its centre.
“I kinda had this idea that maybe it wasn’t going to be as bad as all that,” says Kee “But, then it hit the fan in early March. I had no idea what was coming.”
In less than a week, all of her available means of earning an income dried up. Unable to sing in public, unable to teach privately, unable to even lead Yoga classes (another of her passions), Jenn was cut off from all audiences and thereby cut off from most of her livelihood.
“I made twelve hundred dollars in three months,” says Kee, flatly.
Of course, this has been the unfortunate truth for many people in many industries. For those in the live performance or ‘gig’ economy, it’s worse. It’s not just the loss of work, it’s the complete uncertainty of when it will be safe to work again.
“We know that ours are the jobs that will come back last,” explains Kee. “I mean, I can teach a bit online, but live performance is still not even being talked about at this point.”
While there is some debate about what might be reasonable and safe ways to bring live performance back, thus far the provincial government has turned a deaf ear. After several proposals were made and rejected to the government, The Flato Markham Theatre has had to cancel all performances for the remainder of 2020, for example.
It might be easy to dismiss performances as a whim or hobby to some, but those who make their living on stages have usually spent most of their lives training, building connections and paying their dues.
“It’s a lifelong pursuit that went up in smoke,” says Kee.
Fortunately, most performers, like Kee, are also resilient and creative.
“I had an idea to steal an idea. My partner Jeff Giles and I were invited to a socially distanced jam session in a front yard,” explains Kee. “And, people loved it. They could hardly contain themselves or their excitement to have some kind of community interaction.”
This experience led Kee and Giles, another of Ontario’s great musical talents, to offer socially distanced driveway concerts to friends and family feeling the increasing stress and mounting boredom of months of isolation.
“We just wanted to play music for people,” says Kee.
So, one evening in the summer, they set up in her brother’s driveway by a cul de sac, with a small speaker system so they could be heard without having anyone on the driveway with them, and performed a set of classic cover songs for the neighbourhood. The neighbours had been invited to listen in advance and came out to their front yards to listen. The result wasn’t just positive, it was wonderful.
“I describe it as a collective sigh of relief at first,” says Kee, “and then a total celebration of community experience.”
What surprised Kee most was the purity of the joy expressed by those listening.
“After one song, a gentleman stood with his arms outstretched instead of applauding,” says Kee, “like he was trying to hug the whole world from a distance. He stood there for a while.”
As if the audience response didn’t tell the story, after the show when the people watching passed around a jar for tips; it came back with enough money to cover the duo for a night’s work. Kee realized she might have a way back to something of a temporary livelihood.
“We really didn’t do it for money,” says Kee. “And we really didn’t expect anything more than a tank of gas. Somehow in my years of performing in big venues, I forgot that audiences truly appreciate the connection that comes in a live performance. It’s like nothing else.”
Since then, the duo has set about booking themselves in neighbourhoods around the GTA. Each show brings the same barely restrained joy. They have a website and are always looking for people to host a show, especially in her hometown of Markham.
“We’d love to come and play!” Kee says.
Perhaps more importantly, Kee has relearned the love of her chosen profession.
“It’s weird to think that my passion and understanding for my work has grown because my job was taken away,” says Kee. “but maybe, in some small way, the upside to this isolation is learning that we need each other after all.”
You can contact Jenn Kee about a performance at www.jennandjefflive.com
Photo: (Left) Jenn Kee onstage at Massey Hall, (right) in the driveway with Jenn and Jeff Live.