On Saturday, four months and 10 days since his last public performance, the Grammy-winning jazz pianist Bill Charlap came out to play.
It was the torrid start of a July heat wave, and though he knew the club where he was headed to in the Pennsylvania hamlet of Delaware Water Gap would not be air-conditioned as a precaution against viral transmission, he packed a dark blue Zegna suit into the back seat of his Nissan Rogue.
“The people I always looked up to dressed well,” he said. “Performing is a time of honor. It’s a dignified thing. We dignify each other.”
But in these times, to perform at all will require substantial adaptations, ones that keep the audience sparse and distant and possibly alter that alchemic connection between artist and listener that the best shows create.
Charlap, 53, is the son of two professional musicians — the theater and film composer Moose Charlap and the standards singer Sandy Stewart — and has been playing professionally since he was a student at the High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan. For more than 20 years, he has led one of the top trios in jazz, and he has collaborated with likes of Diana Krall and Tony Bennett (on their 2018 duet recording “Our Love is Here to Stay”). Like so many performers, Charlap had no idea when he sounded the last notes on March 8 at a jazz festival in Laramie, Wyo., that he was about to endure the indignity of extended, forced idleness.
The hiatus, he said, has been “definitely the longest I can remember. I’m minus a central part of my life.”
Not to mention his livelihood. He was still able to teach remotely through the end of the spring semester at William Paterson University, in Wayne, N.J., where he is director of jazz studies. But weeks of lucrative bookings at top clubs like Birdland, and many concerts, were erased from his schedule. “I had a very robust summer of work,” Mr. Charlap said, “traveling all over the world and the country, playing major festivals, my own festival,” he said. (He serves as artistic director for the Jazz in July series at the 92nd Street Y.) “Of course, all these things are now postponed or canceled. I’ve lost a huge amount financially. It’s a really big, big loss. But everyone is struggling deeply.”
In late June, the pianist got a job offer from Bob Mancuso, one of the owners of the Deer Head Inn, a rambling mid-19th century country hotel with mansard roofs, perched on a hillside overlooking Main Street in Delaware Water Gap, which sits within walking distance of a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The inn’s first floor bar and restaurant has featured jazz since 1950, leading owners to dub the Deer Head “the longest continuously operating jazz club in the United States.” (Other clubs around the country make the same claim.)
On June 19, large parts of Pennsylvania moved into the “green phase” of reopening, allowing indoor dining, bar service and live music. The inn’s owners “started discussing, sometimes arguing, about how we could reopen,” said Denny Carrig, who bought the inn 15 years ago with his sister, Mary, and Mr. Mancuso.
“We decided to wait,” Mr. Carrig said. “We needed to get some money coming in. But whether anyone would think it was safe enough to come out was something we were concerned about.”
The partners hashed out an opening protocol, including mandatory masks while moving through the club, widely spaced tables, temperature checks on entry and only natural ventilation, supplied by open windows and fans. The changes would bring capacity down by 75 percent, to a maximum of two dozen, but it was a start. Mr. Mancuso began calling musicians. Seven of the first 10 he reached said no thanks, including Mr. Charlap.
“I don’t think it’s safe,” the pianist remembered saying. “I don’t feel right about it. I don’t want to endanger anybody else.” But he agreed to give it more thought, because he’d had a long and special relationship with the unlikely jazz enclave.
“I started playing the Deer Head in the early ’90s,” Mr. Charlap said. “I took a bus up from Manhattan to play with Steve Gilmore,” a bassist. That first night, Mr. Gilmore’s colleague, the star jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, traveled down the hill from his nearby home and sat in. “I think I was getting an audition,” Mr. Charlap recalled. Within weeks, he joined the Phil Woods Quintet, one of the top jazz groups of its day, and spent 15 years touring the world and making eight records, helping to cement his status in the top echelons of jazz.
“There’s nothing quite like the Deer Head,” Charlap added. “It’s been a spot for pure music for such a long time. The feeling there is a good, warm, honest feeling and a personal connection, which is my favorite thing about playing anyway. And that’s what we’ve been deprived of right now.” He booked the date.
“It’s a risk for everybody, I suppose,” he said. “It may be early, but it’s time for me.”
At exactly 6 p.m. on Saturday, Charlap stepped up to the Deer Head’s bandstand and stood, dapper in his suit and tie, at the keyboard of a glossy Yamaha grand piano that Phil Woods left the club in his will. Though he hadn’t been asked to wear it, he straightened the black cloth mask covering his mouth and nose (and recent quarantine beard). He looked out to his listeners, the nearest of which was well over six feet away, and said: “There is no substitute for humanity and connection. I wish that I could be closer physically. But I will do everything I can to be as close in every other possible way with the music.”
Modest and low-key off the bandstand, at the piano he is voluble and intense. For the next hour, the pianist moved through an erudite selection of jazz and American Songbook standards, composers that ranged from Bix Beiderbecke to Bill Evans, with masterful technique and a stylistic range that encompassed rollicking stride piano, bebop virtuosity and harmonically opulent modernism.
Mr. Charlap winked goodbye to his audience with “After You’ve Gone,” a bittersweet love song from 1918, another time of pandemic. Then he put his glasses back on — the mask and humidity had made them fog over — and walked out onto the porch of the inn. He went to a room upstairs to put on a dry shirt and waited by himself for the next set.
The second set was full again, with more patrons seated outside on the large wraparound porch of the inn. When he finished the night with a moody and poignant rendering of “We Shall Overcome,” the pianist walked out to a standing ovation, went back upstairs, changed out of his soggy suit and drove home to West Orange, N.J. On Sunday, thinking about the night before, he said, “I was reminded of exactly what we are missing in this time. I left the Deer Head feeling just how special it is to perform. In these times, performing becomes like a diamond.”
Mr. Charlap’s next scheduled performance is a livestream from the Village Vanguard on September 11. There won’t be an audience.