Monday, July 09, 2007

Closing The Curtains On Two Jazz Venues

The end of the main batch of Canada’s jazz festivals also marks the last festival shows in two of the country’s most-venerated rooms: the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (“the Cultch” to one and all) and Montreal’s Spectrum. Both are slated to close this fall – the Cultch for major, much-needed, renovations; the Spectrum for demolition.

While neither venue has attained the kind of shrine-like status that the Village Vanguard, The Five Spot or Birdland hold, each has generated its own share of memories among jazz fans, and raise the issue of what gives a musical venue its character.

Personally, I never cared much for The Spectrum as a listening room, though I’ve heard some great sets by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, James Carter with D.D. Jackson and Masada there. Outside of the jazz realm, I also recall a show by Devo – their first performance outside the U.S. – when the buzz in the room was as tangible as any I’ve ever felt. What the place always had for me was a great funky vibe, owing to its roots in the early ‘50s, when Montreal was a hotbed for nightclubs and the neighbourhood on eastern Ste. Catherine Street was really marginal. The terraced sections in the club remind me of photographs I’ve seen of the classic Manhattan clubs from Damon Runyon’s day.

My experience with the Cultch is much briefer, dating only to 2003, but it immediately won a place in my heart because it is so definitively West Coast without even trying. First, there’s its location up the hill from the cross-cultural buffet that is Commercial Drive. Then, there’s the hip, little snack bar with great coffee and local artisan beers, and the ability to order your intermission drinks before the show starts. The portico’ed entrance and side parking lot invite patrons outside to chat and critique opening sets. And all that says nothing about the sheer intimacy of the performing space itself, with its cozy, U-shaped balcony and small stage. Even the bad shows I’ve seen there – are you listening In The Country? – have felt personal if nothing else. Put a big group, like the Dedication Orchestra, in there and the place literally fills with sound, creating an unforgettable experience.

I haven’t heard about what the new Cultch will look like, though John Orysik tells me the renovation will be substantial (the place will be closed for two years). Hopefully, it will retain its best qualities while adding things like modern washrooms and some type of air conditioning.

None of this is to say that jazz rooms have to be decades old to have that certain something. The Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa has a great vibe, terrific sightlines, first-rate sound and good bar service. Although the building is now 40 years old, the venue is less than a decade old and it’s wired with a state-of-the-art fibre optics system for broadband simulcasting. Iridium in Times Square manages to re-create that classic New York jazz bar feel without resorting to the faux-nostalgia that permeates so many other “attractions” in the area. On the other hand, The Knitting Factory, despite being wired for the Information Age, never really did it for me. Unless you score one of the four good seats in the balcony of the main room, watching music being made there has always been somewhat uncomfortable.

Here’s hoping that festival organizers in Vancouver and Montreal can find substitutes for what they’ve lost. Like all good things, they’ll probably only know what they’re looking for when they’ve found it.

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