Three decades of hitting the high notes

Madrid’s Café Central jazz club is celebrating 30 years of legendary performances

Paquito D’Rivera performs in the Café Central for an audience that includes author Mario Vargas Llosa (third from left).
Paquito D’Rivera performs in the Café Central for an audience that includes author Mario Vargas Llosa (third from left).KIKE PARA

“If the Café Central were not ours, we’d still come around a lot,” laugh Gerardo Pérez and Nanye Blázquez, two of the founding partners of this influential jazz club located on Plaza del Ángel in Madrid. This is a special place for musicians and jazz lovers, because it has remained true to itself for 30 years, programming live music on a daily basis without renouncing its original spirit.

Pedro Iturralde, Lou Bennett, Art Farmer, Chano Domínguez, Bob Sands, Javier Colina, Javier Krahe, Barry Harris… The list of artists who have performed here is long. In total, the club has hosted some 10,800 concerts — many of them excellent but ruinous from a business perspective; others completely unforgettable, such as the Don Pullen concerts in 1988, which put Café Central on the international jazz map, and Tete Montoliu’s five straight weeks of solo piano performances, which single-handedly saved the club in 1994 when the summer and the World Cup conspired against it.

But Café Central survived that major crisis and many others, and remains alive in August 2012. To celebrate, it has decided to put on a special four-week program featuring Chano Domínguez, Zenet, Paquito D’Rivera and the trio of Javier Colina, Perico Sambeat and Marc Miralta. “Getting to this point has been tough, why kid ourselves?” says Gerardo Pérez. “But it was worth it.”

The club’s early history is well-known. Franco had just died and five young college friends who went out together, held similar political beliefs and shared the same tastes decided to open a jazz club.

“We used to go to concerts at San Juan Evangelista, Birimbau, Balboa Jazz…” recalls Pérez. “When we opened the Café, we thought, ‘We want to create a place that we would like to go to ourselves.’ We wanted a nice place with quiet music that would always offer quality programming and never showcase one of those musicians who make you blush.”

The original premise was that a city like Madrid could attract 100 people every night to listen to a live concert, whether jazz or quality music. The club was a former frame and glass store that closed down in 1981 — the same year the friends started renting it for 80,000 pesetas a month (480 euros). After carrying out the necessary reforms — “the first argument was over where to put the stage” — Café Central opened its doors on August 12, 1982 with a borrowed wall piano and a small stage that was later extended.

The 1980s featured mostly Spanish groups, but starting in 1988, with the concerts by the George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet, the program opened up: now-deceased names such as Jeanne Lee, Mal Waldron and Tal Farlow, and living ones such as Randy Weston, Lee Konitz, Houston Person and Etta Jones all performed here, many of them several times.

Of the five founders, there are four left, although the day-to-day managers are Gerardo, who studied law, and Nanye, a psychologist by trade (“although I only cured one patient in my entire life”).

Last August 6 was a special day. Chano Domínguez had not played here for almost a decade. The place was filled to the brim with around 115 people — no more because they literally did not fit. During a pause, Chano recalled the first time he played here 20 years ago, and talked about “the luxury of being hired by a club for an entire week. This gives you time to grow; so much so that some groups have walked out of here and straight into a recording studio. For us, for jazz musicians, Café Central is a legendary place.”

Gerardo and Nanye say that was one of the few things that all five partners could agree on: that bands should stay a week for their music to start flowing. The double bassist Javier Colina, who recorded a seminal album with Tete Montoliu at the Café in 1995, believes this working method is “unique in Spain and many parts of the world” and has done more for jazz than many record labels. “Unfortunately, in Spain jazz has always been a minority thing, almost fringe, but Café Central was always our last refuge.”

In 1991, UK magazine The Wire drew up a list of the best European jazz clubs and placed Café Central eighth. In 2002 — and every year since — US publication DownBeat selected the 100 top jazz clubs in the world, and Café Central was the only Spanish club on the list. “Accolades are satisfying and they are welcome, but they don’t pay the rent,” jokes Pérez.

In fact, the club is in a critical situation again: the summer, the European soccer championships and a runaway economic crisis are creating the perfect storm, although the worst thing right now is the lease. A recent legal decision established that leases known as “contratos de prórroga forzosa” (compulsory extension contracts) will run out in January 2015. “There are already franchises ready to pay five times what we pay for rent, so unless a miracle occurs, we will have to leave and this will become a McDonald’s.”

Milestones of a club

M. V.

August 1982. Five friends who like jazz open Café Central in a former frame and mirror store. They pay 80,000 pesetas in monthly rent.

1988. After initially supporting Spanish musicians, the club begins programming international acts. A grand piano replaces the wall piano in 1989.

1991. British music magazine 'The Wire' drafts a list of the best European jazz clubs. Café Central ranks eighth.

1994. Tete Montoliu saves the club from bankruptcy by performing for five straight weeks there. The previous months had been calamitous due to low attendance and competition from the World Cup.

2002. The prestigious US jazz magazine 'DownBeat' publishes a list of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world. Café Central is the only Spanish establishment to be included.

2005-2006. Construction work in Plaza del Ángel reduces attendance.

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