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Art in the time of COVID-19: Richard Wagor

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This series, Art in the time of COVID-19, highlights musicians and artists in eastern Iowa whose life and work have been upended by the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state.

If you would like to recommend someone to be featured in this space, please reach out to Little Village.

Richard Wagor, at a safe remove. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Richard Wagor, Bassist

If you can find a way to use a bass in your song, no matter the style, and Richard Wagor has played it. Or, if not, he’ll learn.

“I play pretty much any style of bass I can figure out,” he told me.

He started out in classical, learning bass in high school at Cedar Rapids Washington and continuing on to degrees from the University of Iowa and the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. Wagor did a stint with the Memphis Symphony, and he still subs in occasionally for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony and other regional orchestras. He’s been getting gigs since high school, too, putting him in the professional category for around 30 years.

More recently, Wagor has focused his talents primarily on jazz and folk/rock. He’s all over the Eastern Iowa scene, playing in numerous bands as well as running Dogfahrt Studios (which he’s looking at leveraging for livestreaming during this crisis) and Dick’s Bass Sales and Rentals.

But he keeps his double bass tuned for the Five Seasons Chamber Music Festival each year, for which he typically brings in artists from New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and more. It usually happens the last weekend in June, but, “We just don’t know anything,” he said. “We’re trying to plan as if we can.”

Everything is variable in terms of his income, but in just one example week from last month, he told me a seven-day stretch included two different band gigs, a week with the symphony and some teaching, which together brought in about $800.

“That kind of stuff is probably gone for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Current associated acts: Roots of Rhythm, Bernemann Brothers Band, Ben Schmidt Band, Jordan Sellergren Band, the Poor Poor Rich

Listen:

Purchase: You can pick up some of Wagor’s varied works on CD Baby, including the above Roots of Rhythm, the 2015 self-titled release from his jazz trio with Lynne Hart and Pat Smith, and 2011’s Iowa Duets (also with Smith). And you can always track him down for his expertise in moving delicate instruments. “Man with a van pays off in the plague economy!” he told me.

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How many gigs have you canceled or had cancel on you since serious social distancing kicked in?

Definitely we had a Codfish Hollow Barnstormers show on the 21st for the Jordan Sellergren Band that got canceled. I lost, or temporarily lost, a bass rental to the Mission Creek Festival … I sorta feel like I don’t know yet all the stuff that’s going to be canceled … It’s not so much what I’ve already lost, but with the industry pretty much being shut down, what’s likely not to come my way?

Where do pandemics rank, on your list of primal fears?

Not that high, really. I’m starting to reevaluate that a little bit, but in the past, fairly low.

What is the role of art in a crisis?

I think probably a couple of things: to give people a sense of solace or security, maybe provide something that’s more than gloom, despair, panic — but also, cultural things are what unite us … music, but all of art actually is a universal enough language that people can experience it together. It provides a sense of community.

What’s your favorite corny aphorism that you find actually helpful?

I kind of like the “Always look on the bright side of life …” scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. You know, “Life’s a piece of shit …” [laughs].

How can we help?

I’ve been thinking about that a little bit, and I know a lot of people are looking at this as money in … I almost wonder if it’s just like: stay aware. Stay connected … Hopefully, when we get one step back towards normalcy, people are ready to get back into it, enjoy live music, get out and support art. If there’s a bright side to this, it helps people understand how important the community around supporting live music is. I hope what people miss is not that they can go out and get a Whopper anytime that they want, but that they can go experience music, experience art.


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