Last week, myself and three friends – Cormac O’Kane (a pro recording studio wizard with extensive TV experience), Karen Smyth (a long-experienced events organiser) and Scott Flanigan (a pro piano jazz sensation, bandleader and recording artist) – opened a jazz club. In suburban East Belfast in a hitherto obscure (save to its members) Working Men’s Club. In the middle of a pandemic. And, remarkably, it was a roaring success. 🙂
It was the first of two trial sessions (the next is Thursday 24th) to see if we could run such a thing within government guidelines and to see if people would be interested. They certainly were – not only jazz fans, but locals simply wanting some live entertainment to go to. Seating was cabaret-style (using one third of the room’s capacity), patrons were asked not to move from the spaced tables save for ‘comfort breaks’, and everything was sanitised. A ‘risk assessment by a reasonable person’ had been carried out (as per guidelines). Food was built into the ticket price (supplied by a terrific Bangladeshi restaurant that had recently opened on the ground floor) and two waiters in masks dealt with drinks orders.
I had lived around the corner from the premises in the 90s but just assumed it was a UDA hangout and was thus never in it. The manager, who has amazingly been there since 1969, was delighted to tell me that this was never the case – the only people they’d ever given money to were the Salvation Army. Those ladies in the hats with tambourines – you daren’t mess with them… 😀
Cormac O’Kane had rigged up terrific sound and lighting and cosmic back projections, plus multiple digital cameras to record the show. His aspirations are to build in a sort of TV variety show (for online broadcast) featuring local artists/personalities as the ‘support act’ in some future events at the jazz club. (In the early days of lockdown, Cormac and Karen had staged an open-air cinema event in Belfast, novel enough to be featured on ‘The One Show’.)
What was the music like? Fantastic! 😀 Scott’s trio were sensational – Jack Kelly on bass and Andrew McCoubrey on drums. Highlights included John Coltrane’s ‘Like Sonny’, an intense ‘All the Things You Are’, an epic ‘Maiden Voyage’ (Herbie Hancock) and a rollicking encore of Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’. Surprisingly, Scott didn’t play any of his own material, though the trio debuted a Jack Kelly original. One punter afterwards told me it all felt ‘historic’. I hope she’s right. Certainly, the vibes in the place were full of goodwill and everyone respected the slightly surreal circumstances – in my case, seeing a friend across the room but being able only to wave. My one bit of movement was introducing the first and second halves, with a bit of unintended tomfoolery (tripping over a mic lead… twice).
The four of us will meet on Monday to debrief – to see if there is any more we need to do, or could do, in terms of health & safety and to take on board punter suggestions.
All being well, the sold-out second of our two trial nights will run on Thursday coming – with NI jazz legend, personality, broadcaster, bandleader, trumpeter and bon viveur Linley Hamilton guesting. A serious question for the Monday debrief will concern whether we bring in a perspex screen given the air-circulating nature of Linley’s instrument. We probably will.
The costs of all this vis a vis the necessarily limited income can be borne for a couple of trial weeks. Hopefully, some Arts Council funding will emerge – but all of us know that body well enough not to be counting any chickens. Still, it feels at this moment like a thing of both societal good and a real boon to the arts in Ireland let alone Northern Ireland has quietly been allowed to happen. There are few genuine ‘jazz venues’ in Ireland, none in Belfast, and Scott is rightly well-regarded as both a person and a player among the Irish jazz community. There is no reason – bar the current situation around numbers allowed – why Scott’s Jazz Club couldn’t become a significant part of the Irish jazz scene as both a place to be heard and a place to be rewarded financially for being heard. Fingers crossed…
Some of Cormac’s pristine footage (taken largely as a technical trial run for future events) may emerge online in due course. In the meantime, here is a wobbly phone clip of ‘Like Sonny’.