Photo of Joe Manis
Joe Manis

Giant Steps from Home

A jazz trio’s European tour cut short because of COVID-19 pandemic

Joe Manis should be in Europe right now. 

But because of the exponential spread of COVID-19, his tour with the David Friesen Trio Circle 3 Trio ended in confusion. The trouble started with President Donald Trump’s European travel ban and led to a hellish experience with an airline.

Manis, who lives in Eugene, plays tenor and soprano saxophone in the jazz trio that was supposed to be on a tour that would travel to Ukraine, Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. Among the clubs the tour included was Porgy and Bess in Vienna, which Manis says is one of the great jazz clubs of the world. And the trio has a history there. That’s where second disc of their 2019 release Interaction was recorded.

But playing at 32 Jazz Club in Kiev was their last show before everything changed. After that, they traveled to Czech Republic with nearly a week off until a clinic at an art school in Podebrady on Friday, March 13.

But things went wrong — fast.

First, that clinic was canceled as the country imposed social distancing measures to contain COVID-19. Then, in the middle of the night, came a knock on the door at their Airbnb. It was Friesen, and he told Manis and the drummer Charlie Doggett that he and his assistant heard on the news that the Czech government was thinking of closing down the borders.

“We were packing up and talking to our families,” he says. “Then we heard about this announcement that Trump made that he was banning travel from Europe for 30 days.”

Doggett and Manis weren’t the only ones confused about the president’s speech from the Oval Office. The Department of Homeland Security had to clarify that Trump’s order barred only foreign nationals traveling from Europe to the U.S.

The trio decided to pack their bags and head to Austria. In the span of the couple-hour-long train trip, they lost three gigs as jazz clubs were closing because of COVID-19.

“We thought, ‘Are we going to be stuck here? Are gigs going to get canceled, in which case there’s even less reason to be here?’” he says. “We couldn’t really tell what the deal was with the announcement that Trump had made.”

By the time they pulled up to the Vienna train station, Manis says the trio decided to call off the tour. He and Doggett took a train to the Vienna International Airport, and Friesen took the train back to Czech Republic so he could drop off some sound equipment.

The flight back home was supposed to depart Berlin at the end of the month — and on Delta Airlines. But they had heard airlines were allowing rescheduling, he says. They arrived at the Vienna airport 2 pm Thursday, March 12. They found out the airport didn’t have a Delta desk, so they tried their luck with the airline’s partner, KLM.

Because airlines were inundated with calls since people were trying to cancel their flights, Manis says the Delta customer service phone line had a six-hour wait time. Using Twitter, Doggett’s wife at home in the U.S. chatted with someone on the social media platform.

Meanwhile, KLM staff kept offering them the option to buy a flight back home; it would’ve cost $2,700 for each person, Manis says.

“That’s probably more than the whole round trip,” he says.

They finally got a ticket for 6:55 am Friday, March 13. The two slept on the airport floor, Manis using his tenor saxophone case as a pillow — and as a way to protect the horn. But when it came time to check in, Manis says they couldn’t check in because they didn’t have a reservation.

After Manis’ wife went to Eugene airport to talk with a Delta airline representative, they were finally able to board — all because someone at the Eugene Delta desk “miraculously” came up with the 12-digit code they needed, he says. Doggett and Manis ran to another gate, at another building at the Vienna airport and walked right on the plane.

Now that he’s back in Eugene (yes, he’s been good, and he self-isolated upon return), he has to deal with an eradicated gig calendar, and he has to adjust to teaching remotely at Portland State University, where he’s an adjunct instructor for jazz saxophone and combo.

While touring, Manis says that he and Doggett didn’t sightsee that much because after all the travel, they were tired and on off days, they just wanted to relax. But, he jokes, traveling is what artists get paid for; performing is the easy part.

“It’s a drag. The gigs were really going well and the band was playing great, so it was going to get better and better,” he says. “Maybe next year.”