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Jazz nights return to city

PUBLISHED: 16:02 31 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 29 October 2010

Paul Simon performs at the Jaquard Club. Above: Count Basie at the Samon & Hercules.

Paul Simon performs at the Jaquard Club. Above: Count Basie at the Samon & Hercules.

Rob Garratt

After a gaping dearth of regular city centre jazz, Norwich Arts Centre has started a new club night. ROB GARRATT rejoices the return of regular jazz nights.

After a gaping dearth of regular city centre jazz, Norwich Arts Centre has started a new club night. ROB GARRATT rejoices the return of regular jazz nights.

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A piano chimes with jagged irregularity, a double bass chugs out an ever-shifting groove, drums rat and tat before and after the beat and a saxophone wails out like a small child.

If I close my eyes and sip a whiskey, I'm in a trendy Parisian bar. I'm actually in Norwich Arts Centre.

As a keen jazz lover for months I'd been bemoaning the lack of regular jazz in the city centre. The Blueberry's informal Monday jams aside, for regular pro action you had to trek to Rackheath's The Green Man.

For better or for worse the days of beatniks, bohemians and berets is over - and jazz has slipped out of the public consciousness to become a minority interest.

But now Norwich Arts Centre has changed all that by starting a new monthly night, inspired by the glitz and buzz of jazz clubs in the genre's heyday.

It sees the centre adding to its irregular roster of national touring outfits - which in the last year has brought in new kids like Led Bib, Get The Blessing and Polar Bear - by bringing the best local acts to a regular billing in its relaxed café bar.

“There's definitely a feeling that there haven't been many chances for Norwich jazz musicians to play and it's a gap we've been conscious of trying to fill,” explains Arts Centre director Stuart Hobady.

“We are trying to show the best of the Norwich area's jazz talent, and we're keen to develop it as a place for people to get involved.”

Out of the Cool got going with a bang last month with the Bill Evans-inspired John Whitehead Trio, and continues next Wednesday with Quartet Crepuscolo.

It was brought forward by the newly-formed Norwich Jazz Collection - a group of local musicians, and Mr Hobday, who have tasked themselves with bringing the largely-ignored art back into the public gaze.

In the past the city had no shortage of jazz. Local music champion Tony Cooper used to run a number of specialist music clubs around the city with his brother Albert, the renowned local bluesman. The most enduring of which was Magdalen Street's jazz, blues and folk tavern the Jacquard, which brought in names like Teddy Wilson, Barney Kessel and Jimmy Witherspoon seven days a week.

The Cooper brothers themselves had been inspired by earlier jazz promoters who brought some of the biggest big band American jazz musicians to the city.

When the late Geoffrey Watling booked Count Basie to play the Samson and Hercules Ballroom in Tombland in 1964 a buzz went round the city's jazz circles. For weeks in advance tickets had been like gold dust. The ballroom only held 1,000 people. “I was running jazz clubs and I bought the Melody Maker and all the Basie tour dates were in there,” remembers Tony. “It was exciting. You'd think 'I can't believe they're coming to Norwich'.”

Today the Jacquard club is remembered with a Facebook page where cult fans have uploaded of hundreds of photos of the venue in its 1960s and 70s heyday.

Mr Cooper, now development officer at Norwich Playhouse, said: “Any jazz is good for the city. In its early days the Arts Centre did a lot of jazz, and going back to that is good for them and good for Norwich.

“At the Playhouse we have some good one-off nights but Norwich needs a regular club. There's a lot of young musicians who need a platform to play on a regular basis. It's about getting the younger players alongside the more established acts to get their message across to a bigger audience.”

The first night of Out Of The Cool did just that, with young saxophonist Rob Milne sitting in for a few numbers with older stalwarts John Whitehead Trio. Milne will be back in November with his own trio.

One untraditional move the organisers have taken is to have a jazz-flavoured DJ playing between sets, a conscious effort to “attract a younger crowd”.

While the new night is unlikely to turn the city's music scene on its head, it will provide a much-missed music to a loyal fanbase, and hopefully recruit a few more converts to the scene.

Mr Hobday added: “What we want is for people to support it and for interest in jazz to grow - it's an art form that people are very passionate about but it has a very select audience and we want to change that.

“Lots of people think of jazz as background music, but we want people to come along and enjoy it in a club-style setting.

“The first night wasn't as busy as we hoped and there's been a dwindling audience for jazz for some time - that's why we're trying to build up a new interest, and get quality jazz music back in Norwich.”

t Out of the Cool continues with Quartet Crepuscolo on August 5 and Trio 73 on September 9. Doors are at 8pm and all tickets are £4, 01603 660352, www.norwichartscentre.co.uk

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