Why is there no room for jazz in Dublin?
Dublin is one of the only European capitals without a dedicated jazz venue, but is there the will or the resources to change that?
The Bimhuis in Amsterdam is frequently mentioned as the best example of what a jazz venue can be
The Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet performing at the venue. Photograph: Francesca Patella
This week, the Improvised Music Company, Ireland’s leading promoter of jazz, will stage a guerilla action in our National Theatre, commandeering the Abbey’s second stage as a pop-up jazz club. For four days, Strut at the Peacock will become the closest thing the capital has to a dedicated jazz venue.
The establishment of a dedicated space for contemporary improvised music has been a long-standing aspiration of Ireland’s jazz community, but despite several attempts, Dublin remains one of the only European capitals without a suitable venue for the performance of a music that, elsewhere, is growing in stature and importance.
For IMC’s artistic director, Ken Killeen, the word “jazz” is tethered to outdated notions of genre, and he says it has the same effect on the concert-going public as Kryptonite on Superman.
“Jazz is like a sponge. It’s this super- absorber of whatever is current at the time and then that is distilled in the output of the musician,” he says. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised by what we consider to be jazz in the 21st century.
“But we have been squatting in different venues around the city for years. Having a dedicated venue, a tangible space that is purpose-built for this art form, is the key to giving jazz its own identity and making it coherent for audiences.”
Learning their trade
Elsewhere in Europe, jazz is increasingly recognised as a “meta-genre”, embracing everything from classic American bebop to creative fusions of rock, folk, electronica, free improv and much more besides. It has also become the medium through which more and more professional musicians learn their trade.
Whatever sector of the music business they are destined for, most non-classical musicians sooner or later end up engaging with the instrumental challenges and the harmonic and rhythmic information encapsulated in jazz.
But audience attitudes have been slower to shift, and stakeholders in the music agree that the lack of a suitable venue is at least partly to blame.
Amsterdam’s Bimhuis is frequently referenced by musicians and audiences as the best example of what a jazz venue can be.
This strikingly modern building, jutting out of the larger Musiekgebouw concert hall on the Dutch capital’s redeveloped waterfront, Bimhuis is a beacon for jazz in Europe.
Walk out of Amsterdam’s Central Station, look right along the waterfront and you can’t miss it.
Inside, Bimhuis is a warmly welcoming space, contrasting with the austere wood and concrete of its bigger neighbour. The walls of the bright, spacious bar, which overlooks the centre of Amsterdam, are hung with photographs of past performers. Through a set of soundproof doors, the performance space is acoustically tight, designed to catch every nuance of music, from screamingly loud to pin-drop quiet.
A large stage spreads across the width of the room with comfortable red leather seats for 240 listeners gathered in a gentle rake around it. At the back of the room, separated by a low wall, is a row of tables and chairs offering a more casual listening space.
Standing on the stage, musicians have a sense of connection with the audience that is very different from the feeling of a traditional concert hall.
“Jazz has different requirements,” says Bimhuis’s artistic director Huub Van Riel. “Not just acoustically but in atmosphere. You need this balance of informality and the utmost concentration.”
He points to the slightly raised stage, which clearly delineates the performance area without creating a barrier between musicians and audience. “And it’s also about how musicians enter the space. Venues where musicians can’t stand next to the stage are hopeless for this music because you have to be able to join at certain moments; that’s part of the improvised nature of the music.”
Behind him, the stage is set for a piano duo concert, with Bimhuis’s two magnificent Steinways side by side. It will be one of more than 300 concerts at Bimhuis this year. Last year, more than 60,000 listeners attended concerts there.
Apart from a short break in the summer for maintenance, the venue is typically humming six nights a week to sounds ranging from experimental local projects to heavyweight international artists. One of them, Branford Marsalis, has called Bimhuis “simply one of the two or three best jazz clubs in the world”.
These are the sort of facilities that promoters and musicians in Dublin can only dream of. Of course, say some, there is always JJ Smyths, and indeed the upstairs room on Aungier Street deserves credit as the only bar in town that has consistently provided a space for jazz over the years. But there are many concerts that are entirely unsuited to its tiny stage, and many concert goers who wouldn’t dream of climbing its narrow stairs.
Others point to the Sugar Club on Leeson Street. With its central location, comfortable seating and good acoustics, the Sugar Club has hosted many excellent jazz performances over the past 10 years, but promoters often have to fit in around more commercially viable events.
“Availability is a problem,” says Killeen. “Many times we’ve gone into venues like the Sugar Club and we’ve requested the venue for the duration of the night and we’ve been told no. They have their own programming, and their model is based on getting a live band in early, and then a DJ-based event that goes on late into the evening. That’s where their bulk of the revenue comes from and I understand that. They’re a business.”
And there’s the rub. Jazz, like classical music – and opera, fine art, ballet and theatre – can survive only with official subvention, and while organisations such as IMC receive support from the Arts Council for its programming, the capital funds to create a dedicated, mid-sized venue in Dublin city centre are far beyond their reach.
Bimhuis cost the city of Amsterdam about €15 million to build and, although it raises half of its operating costs through ticket sales, it still requires €1.2 million annually from the city and the Dutch government to stay open.
To put that in context, the Abbey Theatre received €6.5 million from the Arts Council last year, the Gate Theatre €860,000, while jazz organisations received about €260,000 in the same period.
A spokesperson at the Department of Arts points out that there are plans afoot to renovate the Kevin Barry Room at the National Concert Hall, but some promoters are sceptical about the suitability of a venue that is folded into the NCH, with all the formality and lack of independence that goes with it.
Ultimately, without a properly designed and funded venue, jazz in Ireland will struggle to find the audience it has in other European countries. But Killeen is optimistic and sees a wider benefit to Dublin finally correcting this gaping hole in the city’s cultural infrastructure.
“I can see a venue like this as something that you’d see on a Fáilte Ireland ad. ‘Welcome to Dublin; this is what we have in Dublin.’ A suitably scaled, suitably resourced venue of the size that I’m talking about would be a huge cultural asset to the city.”
Until then, pop up events such as Strut at the Peacock will have to do.
- Strut runs from November 18th-21st at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin. abbeytheatre.ie
STRUT AT PEACOCK: WHO’S ON STAGE
Back in the 1970s, the Peacock stage was witness to some seminal moments in Irish jazz, including the recording of Alone Together, a duo album by guitarist Louis Stewart and flautist Brian Dunning. Their reunion on the Peacock stage (Friday, 7pm) is one of the highlights of Strut’s imaginative programme.
Wednesday 18th, 7pm
The hip Danish organ trio are living, electrifying proof that music can be complex and virtuosic without disappearing up its own plug socket.
Blue Eyed Hawk
Thursday 19th, 7pm
Dublin-born vocalist Lauren Kinsella is a rising star of the UK jazz scene, and the band take their name from a WB Yeats poem.
3G featuring Gerhard Ornig
Thursday 19th, 9pm
The three Guilfoyles – drummer Conor, bassist Ronan and guitarist Chris – are some of Ireland’s most forward-looking jazz musicians; with young Austrian trumpeter Gerhard Ornig.
Friday 20th, 9pm
Superlative Italian clarinetist Mirabassi meets fellow countryman pianist Turrisi who has built a home and a growing reputation in Ireland.
Saturday 21st, 9pm
The Australian piano trio reach far beyond the jazz ghetto with their take on the jazz tradition.