Jazz… where it’s at in Calgary

By Bryanne Miller

Louis Armstrong once asked, "What is jazz?" and answered that question by saying, "If you still have to ask… shame on you!" He’s right. You only have to sit before a live jazz performance to know what it’s all about. It speaks to the soul. There is nothing like the low, yawning bass lines, the steady rhythm of the drums and spontaneous horn solos followed by the receptive applause of a mellow audience. Jazz is a voice without words, and it’s a voice that speaks right here in Calgary between the purple walls of the Beat Niq Jazz and Social club every weekend.

If there’s a place to see jazz in Calgary, the Beat Niq is where it’s at. "The Beat Niq is unique in the sense that it’s been going almost four years of solid jazz," says saxophone player Gerry Hébert.

The Beat Niq is probably the best-known jazz venue in the city, as it should be. You enter into the club through a side alley door, and on cold nights, you can see steam rising from the building’s vents. The door stands isolated, with no identifying signs or windows. One would almost expect to knock on the door and whisper a secret password to enter because of the discreet entrance appearance. Once inside, the atmosphere unravels before your eyes. A bar to the left, a small stage in the centre, and cozy round tables and booths lining the walls complete with candlelight. At first sight, the ambiance is set.

Enthusiastic doorman Michael Carlson agrees that the Beat Niq plays a crucial role in the Calgary jazz scene.

"We’re doing our best to make sure that jazz is acknowledged in this city and available for a reasonable price," he says.

Beat Niq regular and University of Calgary student Charles Gunn explains what lures him to the Beat Niq.

"None of these places are really well-advertised. It’s really a word of mouth kind of arrangement," he says. As to why live jazz isn’t more popular in Calgary, Gunn says, "I don’t think [people] have really given Calgary jazz a chance."

It’s true; most people don’t seek out live jazz events on their Friday nights, but why? President of the Calgary Jazz Association (Cjazz) Pat Maiani thinks part of the problem is that jazz doesn’t have a regular media support system. Aside from CJSW’s weekday morning program, there isn’t much exposure for events in town.

"It’s been a known fact in Calgary publicity and media [circles] that if you use the word jazz, you won’t get business," states Hébert.

More often than not the word jazz is combined with other music genres like funk, soul, R&B and blues. Maiani also said that roughly three per cent of Calgary’s population are devoted jazz fans. This is partially what motivated Maiani and fellow musicians to form Cjazz in hopes of bringing awareness to the Calgary jazz scene. Cjazz intends to bring more acts, events and festivals to Calgary.

However, it is more than lack of publicity that holds people back from the scene. It seems jazz is placed on a pedestal and when examined by the public, it is thought to be out-of-reach.

"Jazz, to a lot of people, is a scary thing. It brings a lot of innuendo of knowledge and superiorism to some people," says Hébert.

You don’t need to be educated in jazz to enjoy it as an art form and a style of music. From limited experience, jazz will talk and you only have to listen.

"I certainly don’t think it’s as complex as it’s made out to be," says Beat Niq owner Rob Young. "(What I love is) just the pure energy of the music and the art form of it."

To most musicians, jazz is very challenging because of the spontaneity that comes into play once a certain skill level has been reached. Training oneself to feel out the other players is not easy, but when the band figures each other out, the audience is in for a delightful treat.

"You stand on the stage and look at each other, and it’s just understood what you’re going to do," Belliveau says. "As a musician, I myself have never come across another form of music that has been more challenging for me, and I was classically trained. To spontaneously create on the spot, I don’t think people have any idea what goes into it."

If you do your research, you are certain to find a good number of clubs offering live jazz on various nights of the week. Michelangelo’s Workshop Cafe presents live jazz every Wednesday. Kaos Jazz and Blues Bistro brings the jazz back into its name with "Big Band Jazz" on the first Wednesday of every month. On Thursdays, The Blackfoot Inn offers a variety of jazz performances, along with the Beat Niq, which hosts a late-night jam session. The Blue Rock Wine and Cigar Bar has been known to provide jazz, and so has Charlie’s Wine Bar and Grille. There are places out there and there are certainly means to find out about special jazz events.

But what about Calgary’s future jazz scene?

"The more cosmopolitan Calgary gets, the more it’s going to lean towards jazz," predicts drummer John de Waal.

"I think that a lot of people are really searching for authenticity in their night life," says Gunn, adding there is a whole world of jazz out there waiting to be discovered.

"I just hope that it will certainly strengthen in the future," said Young. "There’s no reason why I can see it not doing so."

Most of the musicians would like to see more publicity directed towards festivals and ongoing special events and hopefully more recognition towards ripe local talent. Hopefully in the future, as more people transform into the hepcat that dwells within the groovy side of their soul, jazz will get the publicity and acknowledgment it deserves.

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