The Vortex Jazz Club, which is central to what some people are calling a renaissance of British jazz, is celebrating a successful first year in its shiny new location one-flight-up overlooking a parking lot in Dalston, in the northeastern London borough of Hackney.
There is no tube service to Dalston, and it’s not exactly a national holiday - although there will be performances by, among many others, British jazz doyens Sir John Dankworth and Lady Cleo Laine.
The Vortex is well programmed, it has excellent sound, it is smoke-free, there is no minimum charge, and you can order in a pizza from next door. The renaissance involves a new generation, including the talented pianists Zoe Rahman and Andrew McCormack, bassist Orlando le Fleming, drummers Chris Higginbottom and Gene Calderazzo, and a number of well-honed bands with names like Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear, Partisans, Squash Recipe, and Orchestra Mahatma that sound as though they really mean business.
Many of them record for the Babel label, run by Oliver Weindling, who is also the director of the Vortex, and who compares the rebirth to other fertile UK jazz eras - John McLaughlin, John Surman, and Soft Machine in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Loose Tubes, Courtney Pine, and Andy Sheppard in the 1980s.
In a recent feature article called “How Jazz Is Giving The Kids Sax Appeal" in the London Evening Standard, Fiona Maddocks wrote that the Vortex “illustrates a trend." Applications for jazz courses in British music colleges have doubled in the past four years. Charlie Beale, once a Cambridge organ scholar, is now teaches jazz piano at the Royal College. And she quotes Simon Purcell, who heads Trinity College’s “fast growing jazz department," as saying: “You can now learn jazz from zero to doctoral level" in the UK.
The first Vortex, which opened in Stoke Newington in 1987, was an essential small venue where musicians wanted to play and hang out, something like the 55 or Smalls in New York. But then people who could no longer afford to live in nearby Islington began to move to Stoke Newington, which became unaffordable in turn. The club was forced to vacate its original premises because of what Weindling calls “an unsympathetic landlord and a ridiculous rent increase."
A Save The Vortex appeal was launched. Fundraisers were organized. Weindling (50) was drafted to help because he had a record label, and he knew about the music business. Between sets, he would joke around at the microphone by saying: “If somebody has a building to spare, let us know."
One night, Adam Hart, who ran Hackney Cooperative Developments, a non-profit community-benefit company, was in the club to hear his brother Charlie play the violin. Adam was in the final stages of planning the Dalston Culture House that would be the cornerstone of a new town square in a rundown area that he wanted to regenerate.
“I have a building," he said to Weindling after the gig. “Are you interested?"
“You’ve got to be joking," Weindling replied. It was only a mile from the old place: “It was a match made in social and cultural heaven."
Weindling has nothing but good news these days: “This summer, the parking lot in Dalston will be converted into a park with grass, trees, benches, and fountains designed by the award-winning landscape architects Whitelaw Turkington. We plan to open a record store, and to start recording concerts for downloading from our website. With a café on the ground floor, the Vortex will play a key role in the renewal of the area. There may even be an extension of the underground by 2009.
“The Vortex is set up as a charity. Everybody’s a volunteer; I’m a volunteer. We have no subsidies. But we have this brand new bright blue building, and good music, and the average age of our audience is about 40. At least around here, young people are listening to jazz again. There are always a lot of young people in the club. Our manager is 25 - Oxford chap. He brings in all of his mates."