Beyond Category…Two Vienna jazz clubs

May 7th, 2023

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 “I think the music situation today has reached the point where it isn’t necessary for categories. I think what people hear in music is either agreeable to the ear or not. And if this is so, if music is agreeable to my ear, why does it have to have a category?”

-Duke Ellington

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Through these doors and into Jazzland is a memorable jazz club experience, and the first of two evenings spent at fascinating venues during my visit to Vienna

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…..I just spent three nights in Vienna, which is, to state the obvious, quite a city.  Filled with eye-candy architecture, glorious museums and art, and music of all kinds in countless venues, it is like no place I’ve ever seen.  My suggestion is to add Vienna to your bucket list (and try to spend a week – or a month).

…..Two of my evenings were spent in two different jazz clubs whose interior design and history couldn’t be more different, yet their philosophy for presenting the music and their appreciation of it couldn’t be more similar.  Their vision for jazz, like Ellington’s quote, is that music be listened to without being categorized.  There are no boundaries.    Whether in a brick basement club that was formerly a financially strapped wine cellar – where the atmosphere is loud, the schnitzel famous and the beer constantly flowing – or in a former cabaret theater that is elegant, perfectly lit and acoustically rich, jazz is “beyond category,” and these clubs demonstrate that.

…..The first, Jazzland, has been in existence since 1972, owned the entire time by Axel Melhardt, whose philosophy has been to team touring international jazz musicians with the ample home-grown Austrian talent; a vision that has helped establish jazz as a key feature in Viennese culture, as the city now has several jazz clubs.

…..During my talk with the manager, Michael Schober, he said that over the years the club has hosted the likes of Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Clark Terry, Lee Konitz and Dave Liebman.  He also told a story about how legendary bassist Ray Brown insisted on playing the club, even against the wishes of his manager, who felt there was no financial gain for Ray to play the venue.  Ray didn’t care about the money – he wanted to play Jazzland!

…..The club’s mission is to “present the whole spectrum of jazz, from strict, precisely structured forms to total freedom.  Indeed, even those aspects and styles usually overlooked or neglected in these accelerated times get new and careful attention on our bandstand.”

…..Among the artists appearing in May are Scott Robinson, Scott Hamilton, the Vienna Big Band, and a striking array of local jazz musicians.  The venue puts on a show virtually every night.

…..Here are some photos and comments from my evening at Jazzland, April 29, 2023.

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…..Europe has many a subterranean jazz club, and I’ve been fortunate to experience several of them over the years.  They are all worth visiting (I recall clubs in Lyon, Barcelona, Paris, and just recently in Prague), but Jazzland felt like a place I’d never been before.

…..The club is a bit chopped up, but that is part of its immense charm.  There are three rooms within it; the performance room is small and holds about 75 people; the bar room (pictured above) is divided from the performance room by an ancient brick wall ; and a room downstairs, beyond the bar, where guests can have dinner or drinks.  The music is audible throughout the venue, but in order to see the band you have to be in the performance space.  (The owner Axel Melhardt is pictured in the suspenders, and his wife Tina is seated to his right).

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…..Jazzland is a lively environment, with people crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, sitting at communal tables, enthusiastically taking in the atmosphere and the music that emanates from it.  Since the club takes no reservations, to ensure they have good seats in this small club, the people pictured (above) near the stage likely arrived at 7:30 for the 9:00 show.

…..The band that played was led by saxophonist Heinz von Hermann, who has been one of the most prominent Austrian jazz musicians for many decades.  Now 86 and leading his sextet that evening, he played his ass off for 90 minutes, and a little bit of everything – a samba, some bebop, swing, and lots of straight-ahead jazz.  The crowd was in love with the band.

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…..This kind of environment promotes camaraderie among members of the audience.  Case in point…I met two men who were also at the club by themselves. That’s Roy (center) from Tel Aviv, and Joe (left), an American expat now living in Berlin.  That’s me on the right.  By the time the music started we already had an hour to get to know one another, as well as the quality of the beer.  As you can see, we became fast friends.

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…..An entire wall of the club is lined with photographs of some of the musicians who have played Jazzland.  This is on the way to the bathroom, where this was scrawled on one of the men’s room walls:

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…..“Google translate” tells me that “Jazz Vertleidliger” means…”Jazz Defender.”  Pretty perfect, I’d say…

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The entrance to Porgy and Bess, a ten minute walk from Jazzland

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…..Porgy and Bess is nestled in a typically lovely Viennese neighborhood amid elegant baroque style apartments and fine cafe’s.  Though this club is not a remotely similar experience to Jazzland, it shares a kindred philosophy, and, their website states, sees their venue as a place for “musical encounters, debates and confrontations for musicians and the public.”  Like Jazzland, they see the possibilities for pairing local musicians with traveling international talent, resulting in a club that acts as a “meeting point for the domestic creative scene, enables the exchange of experiences across stylistic and aesthetic boundaries,” and is a “podium for continuous further work and development.”

…..According to the club’s website, in 1993 Christoph Huber, the club’s founder and organizational and artistic director, saw an attempt at creating a modern jazz club out of a former Austrian cabaret theater – with a plush environment but poor technical infrastructure – to be an idea “worth questioning.”  But, after initial concerns and sluggish attendance began to improve, within a few years of the opening the Porgy and Bess club “had become an integral part of the domestic and international jazz scene.”

…..It is an unbelievably beautiful venue, with impeccable acoustics and sightlines to a full stage.  It is manned by a professional box office and wait staff, a bar that mixes nice drinks and pours drinkable wine, and their vision for the music is extremely progressive.    Among the artists appearing at the club in May are the Baylor Project, Stanley Clarke, Julian Lage, Nicole Mitchell and James Brandon Lewis – some of contemporary jazz music’s most notable contributors.

…..On April 30, I witnessed the trio of Masahiko Satoh, Otomo Yoshihide and Roger Turner, presented as part of the clubs “Catalytic Sounds” series – devoted to showcasing “contemporary improvised music creation.”  The experience of listening to this performance was absolutely extraordinary, particularly in this setting.

…..Here are some photos and comments from the performance, which I witnessed with my newfound friend Joe, who I met at Jazzland the night before.

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photo taken from the Porgy and Bess website

…..The interior of the club is pristine.  Four comfortable chairs per table downstairs, as well as a balcony.

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…..Joe and I sat on the main floor, about five rows back from the stage.

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…..Known as the Sea Trio, it is comprised of the pianist Masahiko Satoh, guitarist Otomo Yoshihide, and percussionist Roger Turner, who were able to merge their diverse styles and energies into mostly coherent, mesmerizing, enjoyable music.  I’m not a critic of jazz music (I’m not a musician so I traffic mostly in feelings rather than technique), but I made some notes while listening that may give you a sense of what I heard, saw and felt throughout their 90 minute performance, which was made up of two sets and an encore:

…..“Violent.” “Energetic.” “Devoid of humor and whimsy.”  “Collaborative.”  “Drummer plays the drums like a chemist.”  “Guitarist played his guitar with a tiny bow.”  “Second set is more ‘visual’ than the first.”  “Impeccable acoustics in the room…could hear a pin drop.” “Music is dreamlike and somber until they find, collaboratively and suddenly, a burst of energy, and express it as if their heart is reacting to a bad dream.” “Guitarist sounds like he’s playing the trumpet.” “Pianist has feathers for fingers.”  “The way the drummer splashes sound on his cymbals makes me think of the way Pollock splashed paint on his canvas.” “Guitar sounds like a high speed train.”  “Guitar now sounds like nails on a chalkboard.”  “Playing ‘I Loves You Porgy” for their encore!”

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…..Having Joe (on the left) share this experience with me was wonderful.  The music inspired much conversation between sets and after the show.    Was this “free jazz?”  In fact, what is free jazz?  Joe wanted to know if, like him, I heard some Monk in any of the pianist’s unique improvisations?  (I didn’t, but when he brought it up, I got it).

….We also talked about how the dramatic difference in the style and architecture and aesthetic of these clubs’ presentation of the music – and in the same city within blocks of each other – demonstrates how impresarios of the music, like the musicians themselves, see the music as being “beyond category.”

…..JJoe and I got to know each other through this fantastic two day experience in Vienna, and, though we live on opposite sides of the globe, hope to meet up sometime and someplace unique in the future.  Another friendship made around this music and its fascinating culture.

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Joe Maita

Editor/Publisher

 

 

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Click here to visit the Jazzland website

Click here to visit the Porgy and Bess website (they offer live streaming of their shows!)

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This is a video from 2006 that features Heinz von Hermann on saxophone

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This is a video from Jazzland in 1998 that features the trio of Ray Brown, Monty Alexander and Herb Ellis

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This is a film of the Sea Trio, taken on April 28, 2023, two nights before they played at Porgy and Bess

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Other posts about and from my European journey

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Click here to read “My pursuit of the exterior”

Click here to read “In Prague, things just sort of worked out”

Click here to read “Beyond Category…Two Vienna jazz clubs”

Click here to read “A friendship made in Verona”

Click here to read “C’est Si Bon’ – at trip’s end, a D-Day experience, and an abundance of gratitude”

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Click here to subscribe to the Jerry Jazz Musician quarterly newsletter

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4 comments on “Beyond Category…Two Vienna jazz clubs”

  1. Vienna sounds wonderful, definitely a bucket list destination for any jazz aficionado.

    As for the “Pianist has feathers for fingers” observation, it sounds like your travels are bringing out the poet in you, too.

    Enjoying the musings/photos/travel updates, Joe!

    1. Thanks Connie…The trip has been glorious, and it continues…Currently in Lecce, Italy, which is awe inspiring. My trip also included meeting the poet Barbara Gaiardoni and her partner Andrea while I was in Verona, Italy last week. I hope to share something about that wonderful, tender visit soon. Ciao!

  2. Hi Joe!
    This is Michael from the Jazzland front desk with a little correction ;-):
    – I am not Manager of the club! I am just one of apprx 6 front desk guys beeing on his humble duty this evening.
    – and Axels wifes name is Tilly (not Tina)
    It was a pleasure meeting and talking to you! Thanks for the nice words – Sharing a little of my personal experience. Some of the fotographies I took in the last years are to find at https://www.jazzfotos.at – enjoy!

    1. Hi Michael…thanks for setting me straight on all of this…It was a joyful time in Vienna, and in the incredible clubs!

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