Creative Jazz Club: Building vibrancy into Auckland’s live music scene

Visiting saxophonist Jamie Oehlers at Creative Jazz Club at 1885 Britomart, 2014
Emerging artists "Exploding Rainbow Orchestra" performing at CJC at The Thirsty Dog, May 2017
Ben McNicoll, Creative Jazz Club
Ben McNicoll, from the Creative Jazz Club crew, on how they have contributed to the growth of Auckland's live music scene.

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Every Wednesday for the last seven years, the Creative Jazz Club has been opening their doors to musicians who want to explore, improvise and create original music through jazz. They have built a following of musicians and audience members who return weekly to watch local, national and visiting international performers. With the parameters set to music that holds integrity, creativity, improvisation and jazz, they have thrown the door wide open for musicians to come and explore their craft in an environment that is free from the constraints of often limiting venue and audience expectations. We spoke to one of the members of the team, Ben McNicoll, about how he got involved and what the Creative Jazz Club has contributed to the Auckland jazz scene.

“Doing brave and interesting things are what will ultimately excite audiences in a virtuous loop that encourages more musical risk taking.”

The Creative Jazz Club was sparked out of an invitation that singer, Caro Manin, received to perform weekly at cafe One2One in Ponsonby. She was hesitant to accept an offer where the recipe for success was based on charging people to hear the same artist perform each week. Through experience, she had learned that this approach can limit rather than build an audience, and so she made them a counter-offer based on successful models that she had seen overseas. She suggested that instead, they allow her to create a space where different jazz musicians could perform their own music, and come and listen to each other. She teamed up with her husband and fellow musician, Roger Manins and jazz show host, Mark Robinson, and so the Creative Jazz Club was born.

Upon returning to Auckland after studying at the Wellington jazz school, it wasn’t long before saxophonist Ben McNicoll stumbled across the Creative Jazz Club. “I craved the cosmopolitan live jazz scene that was alive and well down in the Capital. It was more connected.” He was aware that there were lots of new musicians coming through university and saw the Creative Jazz Club as a potential way to integrate himself into the growing music community in Auckland. This, combined with his dream of establishing an Auckland jazz festival based off the Wellington model, was all the impetus he needed to offer to help them out. “I could see the group needed a decent website, and websites were what I was doing for my day job, so I offered to do that for them, for free. They eventually paid me a little to do it, which helped, but the website, and weekly newsletter is what has enabled us to connect with the audience as much as word of mouth.”

Learning and growing out of these early days, the Creative Jazz Club has created a model where musicians can craft their projects in an environment that is not dependent on audience numbers or venue expectations. They host a different artist every Wednesday, calling on local and national performers to bring projects that feature their original music, and featuring visiting international artists. Through their commitment to honouring improvisation and originality, they have carved out a space for jazz as a genre to be explored, something that is constantly shifting as musicians play around with different creative ideas. “For me, the story of jazz as a genre and approach is about continual evolution, so I’m more interested in where we will go, than preserving some idea of jazz that existed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, (though the ‘70s are more my favourite decade). And I think we can all agree to forget the ‘80s, right?”

And this essential practice, says Ben, forms the foundation of many of New Zealand’s favourite groups. “Jazz and improvised music is the training ground for many musicians who go on to make their mark in NZ popular music - Fat Freddy’s Drop, Trinity Roots, Phoenix Foundation come to mind straight away. I see many of my peers, or the students coming through, go on to make great music in other genres, using the technical and aesthetic skills they honed studying or playing jazz and improvised music. And that’s echoed by the history of Western pop music, too, when viewed from a jazz-centric worldview.”  

The Creative Jazz Club has built itself a significant following now with 50-110 people attending each week. Ben attributes this success to maintaining a high standard of performance, coupled with a diverse and varied programme. “We only allow any particular project to play roughly once a year, though musicians may appear in several projects.” This has developed a following of ‘regulars’, something of an anomaly these days, who return each week knowing that they will find some high quality jazz to fill their souls for the evening. Building on this model, they have been able to slowly increase the cost of entry to a point where it is financially viable for musicians to perform. This, Ben explains, has the flow on effect of changing the public perception of jazz as an art artform. “We’re slowly changing the pricing model to value jazz as a foreground entertainment, rather than the guys paid by the venue to sit in the corner and play quietly enough that you can still converse.”

Due to popularity, they outgrew their original venue at cafe One2One and relocated themselves to the  basement space at 1885 downtown where they hosted their weekly club nights for four or five years. “After a while, the management eventually decided we weren’t a great fit for their other clientele, which we weren't, and wanted to shift the use of the space we were in. The space was a great fit for us for the time we were there, and we thank the owners there for their support of the club night - it wouldn't be as successful as it is, without the time we spent building an audience downtown.” After a brief stint at The Albion (which was deemed to be too out of the way to keep up audience numbers), they have now landed themselves at The Thirsty Dog on K’Rd after the owner, Jonty, offered to host them. The downside is that the space isn’t big enough to fit their grand piano which was popular especially with visiting international jazz artists. The upside is that the vibe is right and enthusiasm is high again.

Ben has noticed that there are a lot of talented younger musicians coming through now who are putting interesting projects on the table. “People are making new music, without worrying about trying to tailor to a perception of what they think will be able to find a gig.” This, he says, means that they are creating music that challenges themselves and audiences musically. “Doing brave and interesting things are what will ultimately excite audiences in a virtuous loop that encourages more musical risk taking.”

This humble team of three work together with a high level of trust to continue to build what they see as an essential contribution to Auckland’s live music scene. While they don’t get paid for their time, Ben says that the intangible benefits are more than enough as a reward. A few years ago, having laid the groundwork, they initiated the Auckland Jazz Festival. Co-ordinated by the Creative Jazz Club crew, the Festival takes a fringe festival model engaging venues across town. The Festival, Ben says, is “still pretty underground. It’s in its infancy, but it is growing.”

Credit where credit is due, Caro, Roger and Ben through a labour of love, have made a massive contribution to increasing opportunities for musicians to be able play original music.  Which in turn, has increased the vibrancy of Auckland’s live music scene. And they have no plans to stop building on what has been set in motion. Growing urbanisation is rapidly increasing the amount of people who live centrally and are able to go to live gigs on a regular basis. The way Ben sees it, this can only be a good sign. “I saw recently that more people live in the central city than commute into the city for work, which is hugely encouraging for the state of live music. These are the new audiences we need to connect with, and if we do, we’ll have a healthy and vibrant scene for years to come.”

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

28 Jun 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.

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