No place for jazz

A dearth of clubs means that few musicians can make a living in Madrid

Cuban trumpet player Jorge Vistel during a jam session at Soul Station.
Cuban trumpet player Jorge Vistel during a jam session at Soul Station.CARLOS ROSILLO (EL PAÍS)

Spain's capital has never been an easy gig for jazz musicians: the city is famed for its night life, but to be blunt, most Madrileños prefer to spend their money on drink and drugs and talking among themselves than paying up to listen to a live band.

The scant interest in jazz is evident in the mere handful of decent venues dedicated to the form, meaning slim pickings for Madrid's musicians. In fact, the city has only one venue that pays its bands anything approaching the proper rate: the Café Central - a substantial percentage of whose clientele are tourists. The rest either provide a space for musicians to jam, for free, or at best offer a share of the door money.

The worsening crisis hasn't made matters any easier, says Pepe Rivero, a Cuban-born pianist who came here 14 years ago, a member of a generation of Latin Americans that has revitalized the scene: "To make a living here you really have to work at it." He's hoping the second annual Clazz jazz festival he launched last year in the capital's publicly run Teatros del Canal will become a regular feature. A showcase for the capital's burgeoning talent, it also attracts players and fans from abroad: "In New York people ask what's happening in Madrid; the place is getting a name."

When it comes to earning a living from their chops, it's probably true to say that the capital's jazz elite makes more money from teaching than playing in its hometown. Rivero, like many others, teaches at the Escuela de Música Creativa - not an exclusively jazz school - in the bohemian Malasaña neighborhood. Tom Hornsby, the school's teaching director, says Madrid is home to a great deal of talent, more than it knows what to do with, and accepts that a lot of good musicians are finding it hard to make ends meet.

Spain has virtually no tradition of jazz, and as a result, few outlets for players

"What we see is that the teachers, who are active musicians, are asking us for more and more classes to teach in order to make ends meet," he says. At the same time, the British-born saxophonist points out that Spain has virtually no tradition of jazz, and as a result, few outlets for players. The closest it has come to a style or a sound of its own has been the efforts of musicians such as Jorge Pardo, Carles Benavent and Chano Domínguez to introduce flamenco into the form. Radio and television offer no space for jazz.

Guitarist Joaquín Chacón, who has been playing professionally for two decades, also teaches at the Escuela Creativa. He says the crisis has hit musicians hard. "Up until a couple of years ago, serious players wouldn't consider playing gigs just for a share of the door money; now we have no choice. But it's the younger players who are keeping the scene alive, and we veterans play live less and less."

To some extent, Chacón says he and his colleagues only have themselves to blame. "We are an individualist lot. There is a tendency to just moan about things rather than looking for collective solutions. At the same time, there has been no policy to encourage jazz, so this is where we are."

A few clubs that have opened in recent years, notably Soul Station and Costello Club, offer a weekly space for jazz musicians to jam, but they don't pay, and the get-togethers tend to attract a small, if dedicated crowd.

Bassist Miguel Ángel Chastang is equally gloomy in his outlook. With more than 40 years playing behind him, and having studied with, among others, Ron Carter, and worked with many of the top players in the United States, he too finds it impossible to live just from his music: "It's pretty much hit rock-bottom, and not just economically. There is no aggression, no presence."

Sitting in the Café Central, Chastang accepts that jazz simply doesn't appeal to young people anymore, adding that perhaps the form has lost its bite. "There are better musicians these days, it's true, and jazz is hanging in there, but we need more venues: it's a vicious circle, I guess: people go out less, and it's harder for clubs to make a living."

We are an individualist lot; we tend to just moan rather than act"

Looking round the Central, which opened 30 years ago, he says the venue faces closure in two years' time when it will have to negotiate a new rent hike. "It's terrifying just to think about it," he says. "New places will open, but I think us old timers will be kept out."

Last Tuesday, despite an impressive trio comprising upcoming pianist Albert Sanz, legendary bassist Javier Colina, and US drummer Al Foster - Miles Davis' favorite - Gerardo Pérez, one of the owners of the Central, doesn't want to talk about his club's likely closure. The place is half empty. "You never know," he sighs, his gaze fixed on the stage.

Part of the Central's popularity among musicians is due to Pérez's policy of often booking a band for a week, allowing players time and space to develop a particular project.

"This place is a miracle," says Colina after the gig. "Let's face it, Madrid is boring," he says, highlighting the lack of music in the capital's streets.

"Jazz only survives if there is a stable group of players, and a circuit for them to play on. If you don't play and if you don't rehearse, you don't progress," says Pérez. "And it shows: if people come in, and they don't like who is playing, they don't come back," he says out of the side of his mouth to avoid hurting his few customers' feelings.

A silence descends as Colina slips in a graceful solo. At the height of his performance, a laugh of appreciation rings out. It's Foster, who looks over in admiration at the bassist. He shakes his head and continues playing.

The Madrid scene

Soul Station. Monday night jam sessions attract hot emerging talent. Cuesta de Santo Domingo, 22.

Café Berlin. It's flirted with different styles, but seems to have made a commitment to jazz. Jacometrezo, 4.

BarCo. A hangout for players from the Escuela Creativa. Standards are high. Barco, 34.

Café Populart. One of the city's oldest live venues, featuring jazz, as well as blues and latin. Huertas 22.

Clamores. A long-standing live venue, but with less jazz than ever. Albuquerque, 14.

Bogui Jazz. Probably the best jazz club in town, attracting the new generation. Barquillo, 29.

Café Central. The best- known venue, with the biggest names. Plaza del Ángel, 10.

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