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Checking in No. 5: Peter McElhinney

Peter McElhinney (Self portrait)
Peter McElhinney has been writing about the Richmond jazz scene for more than twenty years for Style Magazine, Richmond.com and Nine Times. He estimates that he attended 120 musical performances in 2019 alone. He is practically a fixture in the Richmond jazz community. Go to any jazz club or concert and you're likely to run into him, usually standing near the stage with a camera around his neck. (Photo by Peter McElhinney) 

The fifth episode of VPM’s interview series Checking in features a conversation with Peter McElhinney. By day, he’s the chief marketing officer for a tech security firm outside of DC. When he’s not doing that, he spends his time either going out to hear live music or writing about it. For more than twenty years he’s chronicled the Richmond jazz scene for Style Weekly, Richmond.com and Nine times. He writes with humor and passion for his subject and his love and appreciation of the music that he is writing about comes through loud and clear. I’ve run into Peter McElhinney so frequently over the last twenty years when I’ve gone out to concerts or shows to hear jazz that I’ve come to think of him as a permanent and indispensable fixture of Richmond’s jazz landscape.

Edited Transcript:

PETER SOLOMON (HOST): How did you get into jazz?

PETER MCELHINNEY: Well, I've been into listening to jazz music since I was in high school. I took the drums mostly in junior high. I was in a rock and roll band briefly. It turned out that not practicing was a pretty big limitation on developing a career playing percussion. So I did not really progress very far there. Then, in high school, I got into playing harmonica and was in a band in college, so I did a little performing. But I would say that if you did not see me perform, you were probably lucky.

SOLOMON: Despite his abbreviated performing career, his love of music never died. Years later, when he moved to Richmond, the amount of money that Peter spent on purchasing music came to the attention of Plan 9 record store owner Jim Bland. 

MCELHINNEY: Jimmy Bland at one point called me up and asked me… At that point, he had expanded to several college campuses and he was starting to put out a magazine called Nine Times. He knew that I bought a lot of jazz, in addition to buying The Clash, and rock and roll and other things, and he didn't have anyone to write about jazz so he asked me to write about jazz. And that was how I started doing that. And I realized pretty quickly that was better than spending money - to be able to write and get free records. And then I was asked by Style weekly to start writing for them. And that was how I got involved in writing about jazz for Style weekly. That was, I think, 1998. 

SOLOMON: In the two decades that have elapsed since he took up the job of being a music journalist, Peter has written about most of the major shows that have come through the Richmond area, whether the performers were touring or were native to Central Virginia. Almost every time I have been out to see music, I’ve run into him. Obviously, his life has changed a great deal since the pandemic hit.

MCELHINNEY: Well, you can't really satisfy the need to go out and see live music. I've been to two concerts or two performances. One was the Jason Jenkins’ cd release at the Barrel Thief, which was great. I mean, it was the first time I'd been out for a month and seen musicians, albeit musicians wearing masks playing. Then I also went and saw Plunky (Branch) play on his front porch. Those are the only two things I've seen in the past 90 days. What I've been doing instead is watching live streams, which is a different way of seeing music. It's nowhere near as intimate. Well, I'm not sure that's fair to say. In some ways, it's way more intimate. And in some ways, it's way less. You don't have the immediacy of the sound. The sound is never quite as good. The atmosphere is not there. You're not in a dark room or a club or anything else like that, where you're surrounded by other people… That's got a whole atmosphere to it that isn't reproducible, but you also are very, very close to the people that are performing and it's a very informal and intimate setting. So it's been a very different way of experiencing music. 

SOLOMON: What music have you been listening to on your own, since there are so few opportunities to experience live music right now? 

MCELHINNEY: I talked to the people over at Space Bomb. They said that one of the issues right now is that a lot of the records that are coming out are not getting a whole lot of attention because people are really going to comfort food and going back and listening to the things that they used to listen to, rather than trying out anything new. And I have to admit that I've been doing a lot of that too. I've gone back and listened to a lot of old Sonny Rollins things. You know, Miles Davis, Coltrane, some old Bill Frisell stuff, Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert. I mean, there's a lot of things that I have not listened to for any number of years that I’ve caught myself going back and listening to.  

SOLOMON: As great as all of those old recordings are, they don’t offer the same experience as getting out to hear live music. 

MCELHINNEY: I miss getting out. I went out 100 times plus last year. I forget what the exact count was, but it's something like 120 shows that I saw last year. And again, it just gets to be something that is really fun to do. … The music here is very high quality. There are people from… a variety of different generations. 

Richmond's a very interesting place because it's got VCU which is kind of like a talent pump right in the middle of it. Every four years it puts out a whole new generation of musicians. Every year it's a new class. They used to be dispersed all across the country. Now they pretty much stay in the area, most of them, and it's made for a very, very rich music scene. It also has made it so that there's a pretty good audience because a lot of musicians go to each other's shows.

Going out every night every night - or not every night, but two or three times a week - was really wonderful and not being able to do that is very limiting... It's not even so much the music. It's just being out in the scene and being part of something that’s really vital and interesting and was going great up until the point that the virus hit. 

SOLOMON: What do you think the prospects are for the Richmond jazz scene to make a comeback after the pandemic passes?

MCELHINNEY: It's interesting, because I think it’ll be a slow comeback. I hope that at some point fairly soon that they come up with a vaccine that would enable people to feel a little bit more confident. I don't think anybody really wants to go through the risk of getting this thing if they don’t have to. So I don't think that waiting for herd immunity is exactly a great idea. So I think that it's really going to take some kind of a vaccine or something that makes people feel immune to bring the the scene back the way it was.

Now, jazz - I mean, a lot of shows - Six feet apart would not  be that much of a challenge … I have to admit some of the best things I've seen in Richmond have been completely under attended. … Actually, the first show I saw when I arrived (in Richmond) was Pat Metheny playing upstairs on Broad Street… It was the Pat Metheney quartet and there were maybe a dozen people in the audience…I've seen a lot of things since where there were not many people and it was it was some of the best stuff I've ever seen… And a lot of times it's been jazz … That's not always true. There are a lot of things that bring out a huge crowd. I mean, Butcher Brown beings out a crowd.  Miramar - who played before the virus hit and then went on a trip to Russia and came back when everything was locked down - they always bring out a big crowd. Bio Ritmo brings out a big crowd. The Andrew Randazzo Big Band is a big crowd just by itself. 

So there's a lot of stuff that you just won't be able to see in the spaces that we’re in right now. There are a few spaces that maybe you could bring back earlier. Maybe something like the Hof - that dancehall … you could have a lot of people be spread adequately. A lot of people are going to be wearing masks. I mean that's just the reality.

This virus hit kind of a really magical place in a lot of ways - Richmond - for a number of reasons: the presence of VCU, the low cost of living, the kind of RVA spirit that exists as this sort of secondary, not really big city, but great city. It really was a very, very special time. And then, you know, the comet hit. And the question is, after the smoke clears, what's going to be left? Who's still going to be in business, what restaurants, what clubs? I'm sure, there are a lot of musicians that are hungry to play. I'm sure that the dynamics will still be here. And I'm fairly confident that it will come back. But I think it's going to be painful.