How to Open a Jazz Club in Nine Days with No Money

In 1975 I shanghaied four friends to act as board of directors, and a pro bono lawyer, to form the Vancouver Jazz Society. A year and a half later I’d produced six concerts at the Western Front and one at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, starting with an Anthony Braxton solo performance at the Front on November 6. The Braxton concert made a $70 profit – split 50-50 with the Front which coproduced the event – I walked away with $35. What a great omen! We were going to have great jazz in Vancouver and I was going to be rich!

Booking halls concert-by-concert was complicated and expensive. By 1977 I decided we needed our own venue. As usual, I had no money. (The Braxton show was the last to make any money!) My friend and by then vice-president of the VJS, Deborah Roitberg told me the hall above the Royal Canadian Legion on Fourth Avenue at Trafalgar was up for rent. The two of us went down there and signed a lease. Deborah had a few bucks and I somehow persuaded my bank that I was a good credit risk. We had the place starting March first, just a few weeks away. Two thousand dollars a month.

I knew from New Yorker club listings that Lee Konitz had a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard. I called the Vanguard one night. It took a couple of tries to time it when the band was on a break and I asked for Konitz. The timing was perfect. He was going to be in Berkeley, recording with Warne Marsh and Bill Evans. Bandmates in the legendary Lennie Tristano groups of the fifties, Lee and Warne hadn’t played together in years. A couple of days later we had a long phone conversation resulting in my booking him and Marsh for four nights starting March 9th. I hired Bob Murphy, Torben Oxbol, and Blaine Wikjord for the rhythm section. Blaine had to cancel so George Ursan filled the spot.

My friend Bill Meyers lived up on Quadra Island. He’d built a fabulous house up there, with his own bare hands, and had in the process become an expert carpenter. He happened to be in town and I drafted him to build the club, which was just a vast empty space, 2,000 square feet I think, with a stage at one end and a room in back which became the green room.

Rod was a foreman at a building supply warehouse. We drove out after hours one night and loaded up my van with enough material to build a small barn.

I asked Al Shimokura about the fate of the Yamaha grand piano that had been at his club, Oil Can Harry’s, before its untimely demise. “The bank has it.” Not only did I figure I might get a good deal on it but I had to have it because it had been played by musicians like McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Silver, and other piano luminaries. I signed whatever they asked me to sign and the piano was mine.

The idea was to build a recital area holding a couple of hundred people seated theatre style and outside that we’d set up table and chairs for people who preferred a club ambience where they could drink and chat quietly with their friends and still hear the music without bothering the serious listeners. I don’t know if this had ever been done before – combining the best of both worlds – and proves that at one time in my life I had vision and knew what I was doing. We rounded up a handful of volunteers and under Bill’s expert guidance built the club in a week – the most beautiful, if somewhat funky, jazz club in the world.

From moving in to opening night in nine days.

First night the sound was awful, bouncing off the walls like crazy. The next day I went out and bought 4×8 foot cardboard sheets and several stacks of egg flats, glued the egg flats to the cardboard, and nailed about eight of these improvised acoustic panels around the walls. It actually looked great and then the sound was about perfect. Total cost – about fifteen dollars. That night Murray Skuce, who’d been at the opening, brought a friend of his – an acoustical engineer – to help solve the sound problem but it was already fixed. The friend said, “That’s about what I would have suggested only it would have cost you fifty thousand dollars!”

The plan was that the door charge would pay the bands, the bar would pay the rent. (Profit? Forget about it.) Problem was the bar. I assumed we’d get a permit to sell beer. City Hall was no help at all. The liquor board was worse. They had us jumping through hoops at every turn. An example: Food and beer couldn’t be kept in the same cooler. (All of you with your food and beer in the same fridge are gonna get sick and die, I guess.) All eating and drinking utensils had to be disposable paper and plastic but we were required to have a triple stainless steel sink. We found one but there were more hoops. Despite everything we were denied the beer license and we couldn’t make the rent on coffee and Deborah’s fabulous cheesecake alone. (Deborah went on to co-found The Lazy Gourmet and her cheesecake became world famous.)

After battling with liquor inspectors, health inspectors, fire inspectors and not making the nut because we couldn’t sell beer – well, I threw in the towel. Four or five months after opening we walked away and went back to producing concerts at the Vacouver East Cultural Centre, The Western Front, and the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse and Theatre.

I guess we were there for a good time, not a long time. For a few months we had a killin’ jazz club and maybe it did, in fact, live on in some sense. Ken Pickering, although not directly involved with the club was a close associate and started booking stuff at the Western Front and went on to co-found Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, producers of one of the greatest jazz festivals in the world. Did we light the flame that burned on in the hands of the CJBS, New Orchestra Workshop, the Glass Slipper, and others? That’s not for me to say.

These are the people who played the club during its short but sweet life: Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Bob Murphy, Torben Oxbol, George Ursan, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, Don Moye, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, David S. Ware, Raphe Malik, Beaver Harris, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Ted Curson, Jim McNeely, David Friesen, Ron Steen, Sam Rivers, Abdul Wadud, Bobby Battle, Mary Lou Williams, Wyatt Ruther, Paul Plimley, Paul Cram, Gregg Simpson, Al Wiertz, and Dick Smith.

A complete list of all concerts produced by the Vancouver Jazz Society can be found here.

To give a bit of perspective to this story – things were very different 30 years ago. The economy, for one thing. Somehow it seemed easier to handle the costs of things, like booking bands, for example. The media was very supportive. The Sun ran feature articles on many of the events. Local CBC radio was still a with-it medium and had me and some visiting performers on regularly, promoting shows. CKVU-TV had two hours of live local programming every weeknight and we were a big part of that. But the main difference, I think, was the community’s support. As soon as people got wind of the society my phone was ringing with offers of help. Nothing would have happened without the many volunteers and I doubt this would happen today.

My only regret was my inability to delegate very much, in spite of all the willing volunteers. I wish I’d somehow allowed the society to become a real society, one that would have lived on in other capable hands after I personally ran out of steam and money. By 1979 I was deeply in the hole and also became a full-time single dad so packed it in and went to work for the post office.

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