The Victoria jazz community was very sorry to hear of Hermann Nieweler’s passing on Wednesday night. In recognition of his decades-long support of jazz in Victoria, I’m reprinting my story about Hermann’s Jazz Club that appeared in Boulevard Magazine in 2010.
High on Jazz and Loving It
It’s Thursday night at Hermann’s Jazz Club and the Tom Vickery Trio is deep into an entrancing rendition of My Funny Valentine. Not a single patron is talking. Even the usual background clatter of dishes has stopped. For one sublime moment, the awareness of the entire room is focused on the beauty of this classic tune. It’s pure magic, but only sixteen people, including this writer, are here to enjoy it.
On nights like this, a loyal jazz fan has to wonder what it takes to get more people through the doors of one of the best live jazz venues in the country.
Go anywhere else in Canada, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, and you won’t find a room like Hermann’s says Sebastian Picard, a 21-year-old University of Victoria student and part-time musician. “We’re so lucky to have a place like this!” Picard and his friends come every few weeks, noting that it’s an inexpensive night out and a really comfortable, spacious place to be.
Gary Telford, 68, a retired librarian, drives in from Sidney most Thursday nights to enjoy the weekly jam session and has been doing so for ten years. “There’s always the potential for a musical surprise,” he says. “It amazes me that a town this size has so many great players.”
Joan Dick and Gary Spence, a middle-aged couple who periodically visit from Salmon Arm, agree. “We’ve never come when the music hasn’t been good,” says Dick.
Victoria is blessed by an unusual concentration of high calibre jazz artists and Hermann’s has been their home for nearly 30 years, making it the second oldest club of its kind in Canada. Only the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton is older and that was established in 1957.
Logic says Hermann’s shouldn’t be here at all. Jazz clubs everywhere have been closing for years under assault from changing (some would say declining) musical tastes and the digital revolution that keeps people glued to electronic devices instead of out enjoying live music.
So how does it stay open?
The musicians credit owner Hermann Nieweler. Tom Vickery, 71, leader of the house band for 24 years, says, “I’m just amazed and I think everybody is, that it’s lasted this long…but he [Nieweler] likes the music…he likes the musicians…he’s just a big fan.” Vickery, a mainstay of the Victoria jazz scene, says the club has “meant everything” to him. “I’m still in awe that I can go down to this jazz club every Thursday and play this wonderful grand piano.”
Sean Drabitt, another prominent local player, says the club is clearly “a labour of love.” Now 40, Drabitt first played Hermann’s when he was only 17. He left Victoria in the 90s, pursuing a career in LA, New Orleans, and New York, where he worked with some of the best jazz musicians in the world, including the esteemed Marsalis family, and so he is well aware of how successful jazz scenes function.
“It’s important for a jazz community to have a meeting place and an outlet,” says Drabitt, noting that jazz is a highly social music. “To have a specific jazz room…is invaluable.”
Ross Ingstrup, the current head of the Esquimalt Secondary School jazz program, points out that Esquimalt students have been performing at Hermann’s weekly for the past 19 years. “Any opportunity you have to put kids in a real life setting [is good],” he says. “It’s a huge boon to the program.” Ingstrup adds that Nieweler and his staff have “tirelessly supported music education in Victoria.”
Nieweler credits others for the club’s longevity. “It’s actually the Victoria fans that have kept this place going and the staff and the musicians,” he tells me one morning as he shows me the memorabilia decorating the walls.
Wearing a black baseball cap and a plaid scarf, the gregarious 74-year-old stands before a photo of the first band he ever booked and proudly recalls how it all started at the club’s original location, a hotel he owned on Government Street (now the Bedford Regency). “This band came along… and people came, and people came, and people came – they were standing on Government Street. I didn’t know what to do!”
“It became a hobby…I was working in construction and hiring bands,” he says, explaining how he juggled operating a jazz club with his main occupation of running his construction business. “It became fun – no heavy duty pressure.”
It wasn’t fun in 2000 when a suspicious fire broke out in the cabaret above Hermann’s at its present location on View St., destroying the club and much of the building housing it. But Nieweler rebuilt it from the ground up, making improvements and doing much of the work himself.
Nieweler’s devotion and personality can be seen everywhere, particularly in the idiosyncratic decor. Wrought iron gates built by a retired blacksmith to invoke the atmosphere of a New Orleans jazz club mark the front entrance. Spoked metal wheels from an antique Alberta haying machine form the handrails for the stairs leading to the small green room behind the stage. Outside the back doorway, a galvanized steel star embedded in a concrete step greets the musicians.
Inside, old instruments he has collected decorate the walls along with numerous framed photos representing the thousands of musicians who have appeared here. In one, jazz icon Wynton Marsalis stands shoulder to shoulder with a group of local players, a symbol of the many famous players who have stood on the bandstand.
But what of the future? Nieweler has been talking retirement for some time. “Friends pass away and I think, Jesus Christ, I’d better do something with this place…but only certain people can do it – you’ve got to have a love with it, too.”
Walking me to the door, he offers one final thought delivered with his trademark laugh. “Like Churchill says, you can’t surrender. Jazz goes in your veins. Once it’s in your bloodstream, you can’t get it out!”
Victoria audiences who recall Montreal pianist Marianne Trudel’s rapturous performances at Jazzfest International, Jazz at the Gallery and at Hermann’s have reason to celebrate.
Trudel returns to Victoria on Wednesday, June 10, 8 pm, at Hermann’s, with her trio Trifolia, an acclaimed project that in 2013 won Trudel her first of two Juno nominations. (The second was for a recent project with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen).
Trifolia features Trudel on piano, Etienne La France on bass and Patrick Graham on percussion. Her Victoria appearance is part of a tour that will also take her to Seattle, Washington, and LaJolla, California.
In describing her project, Trudel’s press material says, “The name “trifolia” is often applied to a plant that possesses three leaves. In the case of this trio, the three musicians of Trifolia form a dynamic, living unit, sharing with audiences everywhere their passion for heartfelt communication through sound.”
Radio-Canada’s Isabelle Craig has said of Trudel, “She takes the piano through all the musical styles, from jazz to classical, including a taste of rhythms from around the world. The pianist-composer-improviser explores and pushes her instrument to its limits and beyond.”
The Gobe and Mail has called her “the hottest young pianist on the Montreal jazz scene.”
I’ve seen Trudel perform at least three times in Victoria and all I can say is don’t miss this show. It promises to be one of the most exciting jazz performances you’ll see this year or any other.
Here’s a taste:
The last two concerts of U-JAM’s Jazz at the Gallery 2015 are slated for Sunday March 29th and Sunday, April 26th at 2pm at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Please note the artist swap from the original schedule: Dave Keen now appears on March 29th and Jennifer Scott on April 26th. Ticket holders unable to change dates will be given a refund through the Gallery office.