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!”
I asked a few of Victoria’s premier jazz musicians to pick three JazzFest shows they would most recommend. Here are their picks:
Saxophonist Monik Nordine likes
Vijay Iyer Trio
David Murray Infinity Quartet featuring Macy Gray
Vocalist Joe Coughlin chose
And pianist Brent Jarvis picked
With the repeats on Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spalding (no surprise there) that gives you six surefire shows to add to your must see list for this year’s JazzFest.
The good folks at Allison Piano are carrying on their legacy of hosting great jazz pianists in Victoria.
This Friday, February 1st at 7:30 pm they welcome Toronto native Jamie Reynolds on a Canada-wide tour in support of his debut album Time With People.
Bassist Gary Wang and drummer Eric Doob, also rising young talents on the New York scene, will join Reynolds.
Reynolds’ album features a dozen original compositions that have already received strong reviews in Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz.
A listen on Reynold’s website reveals melodic, reflective, and deeply personal material, somewhat reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, that should suit the intimate Allison Piano venue perfectly.
A number of the compositions, including “Ideas of North” and “Locks” are inspired by Reynold’s memories of growing up in Canada.
The album, by the way, is released on Fresh Sound, the Spanish label responsible for recordings by Kurt Rosenwinkel, Seamus Blake, and a host of other young jazz stars, as well as reissues of classic albums from the 40s, 50s and 60s.
It’s going to be a tough call on Friday night with a gypsy jazz tribute featuring Quinn Bachand, Richard Moody, Joey Smith, and Reuben Weir heating up Hermann’s at 8pm, but based on what I’ve been hearing on Reynolds’ website, I think I’m heading for the show at Allison’s.
If you are torn, you can always catch Reynolds for the first set and then head over to Hermann’s later. The tickets are reasonable for both shows and are available at the usual outlets.
Ian McDougall Pays Tribute to Ross Taggart (1967-2013) as Remembrances Pour in from across the Country
Trombonist Ian McDougall spoke for hundreds of jazz musicians and thousands of fans on Vancouver Island and across the country this afternoon when he said, “We lost a fantastic man,” referring to the death in Vancouver early this morning of beloved saxophonist and pianist Ross Taggart.
He was speaking on CBC Victoria’s local afternoon radio show All Points West.
Holding back tears, McDougall said Taggart was “one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met in my life,” noting that he was a kind and good man with a wonderful sense of humour he kept even as he was dying of cancer.
“He was one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”
McDougall first met Taggart in 1986 when Taggart, about to graduate from Claremont High School in Victoria, came to his house to audition for a big band McDougall was launching at UBC in Vancouver. He recalled Taggart pulling out his tenor sax and blowing a beautiful Coleman Hawkins solo that showed not only his incredible playing skill at a young age but also his deep respect for jazz tradition. “I’ve never forgotten that moment,” said McDougall.
Uncertain if he would get a seat in the band, Taggart then told McDougall he could also play piano just in case he wasn’t good enough on saxophone. McDougall, in fact, was so blown away by his sax playing that he’d already decided to give him a seat. “He was so humble,” said McDougall, adding that he kept that quality throughout his life.
“We lost a fantastic man.”
Taggart went on to play in some of the most influential bands on the west coast, including the Hugh Fraser Quintet, VEJI, and the Ian McDougall Sextet. He studied in New York and Toronto and shared the stage with talents like Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Bud Shank, Phil Woods, Tommy Banks, Rob McConnell, Don Thompson, and Fraser MacPherson.
He also worked with the Arts Club Theatre in productions of “Ain’t Misbehavin”, and “Five Guys Named Moe”, Colin James, the Powder Blues, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, the CBC Radio Orchestra, David Foster and Raffi. He was featured on numerous recordings by other artists as well as at least four of his own as a leader. He was widely regarded as one of the best players in Canada and performed internationally many times.
“A musician we all learned from, a friend we all laughed with.”
The Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Hum reported on his jazz blog today that Taggart got into jazz after hearing an Oscar Peterson recording when he was only 14. He then sold all his rock albums and bought jazz records.
Hum also reported on the many remembrances coming from across the land, including one from Mike Herriott in Toronto that recalled Taggart as “a musician we all learned from, a friend we all laughed with, and one of the most thoughtful people I’ve known.”
CBC music reported saxophone great Campbell Ryga saying he always recognized Taggart’s sound for its “grace, elegance and heart,” as well as his thorough command of “the history of the tenor saxophone.”
CBC’s Hot Air plans a tribute this Saturday at 5:05 (PST) on CBC Radio One and a memorial is planned for later this month in Victoria, Taggart’s hometown. Stay tuned for more info.
Monik Nordine writes to say that the Barracuda! Saxophone Quartet “is back at it, and this time we’re playing seasonal music for anyone who would like to come down to the Moka House (Hillside) and enjoy a warm beverage and some saxophone music. There will be plenty of warmth and good cheer and not only that, lots of saxophones.” By donation. A box for food bank donations will be provided. Nordine, along with Tom Ackerman, Chris Watt and Rainier Roth fire up the saxes on Sunday, December 23rd from 11am -12pm. Hillside at Shellbourne.
And Kelby MacNayr is reprising his highly popular early evening New Year’s bash(dinner and music) at Hermann’s on Monday, December 31st from 5 – 8 pm with Ian McDougall, Louise Rose, Roy Styffe, and Ken Lister. $35.00/ $30 (U-Jam, VJS, advance). Seating is limited and the event sold out last year and so reservations are recommended (250) 388-9166.