Jazzhouse Doesn't Know What Jazz Is

The Copenhagen venue keeps trying to figure it out, though.

af Nereya Otieno
04 november 2015, 10:17am

Iceage at Jazzhouse. Photo by Torben Christensen

From the outside, Jazzhouse (formerly Copenhagen Jazzhouse) looks like a venue that stays true to its name. The old school marquee with its off-white background and bold, black sans serif font would be perfectly acceptable in front of any jazz venue from the 1940s. Upon entering the venue, Jazzhouse remains extremely…well, jazzy. It’s dark and sprinkled with small, circular tables. There’s a long bar and it is extremely easy to imagine a man in the corner snapping his fingers and bobbing his head while smoking a pipe. Yet it's when you hear Jazzhouse that you realize this ain’t your granddaddy’s jazz joint.

“I love jazz music, but I’m not really about limitations and borders and genre boxes,” says Bjarke Svendsen, manager of Jazzhouse. As a result, it’s pretty hard to define the type of music Jazzhouse offers the fine people of Copenhagen. When Jazzhouse was founded in 1991, it was a standard jazz venue/nightclub and remained that way for 20 years. In 2011, the place was forced to close due to flooding and when they reopened in 2012, Svendsen and a new crew thought to take Jazzhouse on a more uncharted path.

Russian Circles at Jazzhouse. Photo by Tor E. Ulriksborg

“There are so many other jazz clubs in Copenhagen and they are doing jazz better than we could do it. So, why would we compete with them? We'll do something different.” Result: Jazzhouse‘s super weird, amalgam personality. From the music it presents to the way it’s run, Jazzhouse is a hotbed of suggestions. “To us, jazz is more of a value rather than a category or a genre,” says Svendsen. “What’s fantastic about jazz music is how it evolved. It has an openness and willingness to challenge the established structures built into it. To me, that openness to try to challenge tradition is more jazz than anything. If you translate that into one word, it would be ‘curiosity.’”

The programming of Jazzhouse follows that rubric. What’s interesting? What sparks debate? What has that jazzy quality of curiosity? By Svendsen’s viewpoint, “there is way more jazz in a hip hop artist who is busy paving new roads than there is in a super traditional jazz band.”

With this more encompassing definition, Jazzhouse’s performers really run the gamut. Post-hardcore rock act Shellac played there last year. Perfume Genius graced the stage not too long ago. Just last week, reggae star Wafande debuted his new project Black Dylan on their eclectic stage; they had this guy inhale radioactive vapors that induced an uncontrollable coughing fit—it was his free jazz performance. Next week, Total Control, Lower and Iceage take the stage. In a way, this venue is the jazz version of Forrest Gump’s infamous box of chocolates. “Music doesn’t care about genres– so why should a venue?", reasons Svendsen. "Many people think we have a really schizophrenic program. Me, too, in a way—but it’s important to us that Jazzhouse is more of a negotiation room."

Perfume Genius at Jazzhouse. Photo by Torben Christensen

Even the organizational structure raises eyebrows. Jazzhouse encourages artists to come to them and pitch a show over booking them on their own: in fact, not having a booker at all is their ideal. Jazzhouse can work with press, surroundings and sales—but they like the ideas to come from the artists themselves.

“We still have to pick the right people to work with, but once we choose, they define what’s going on. We want the artists to go on stage with the heart and project they really care about. I can’t design that for them,” Svendsen says, rather matter-of-factly. Adding dryly, “we are not the creative ones. We are excel sheets, time tables, and logistics. It’s important for us to have that frame of mind.”

Guest programmers also take over the place for short periods of time. A weekend with a local radio station choosing who graces the stage? Check. Or a respected jazz artist bringing in some friends no one knew were his friends? Did it. The mighty Thurston Moore will be the guest booker at the start of 2016 – guaranteed to be good-weird. Plus, all those thirsty Thurston fans get to see what gets him riled up and what he listens to.

Photo by Andreas Korsgaard Rasmussen

If you’re wondering if they get any slack for this unorthodox way of navigating the music world, the answer is a big YES. Last year, the venue was the subject of a strongly critical article in Politiken. “In ten minutes it was all over Facebook,” sighs Svendsen. “It created a strong divide between jazz traditionalists and mainly younger jazz musicians. It became about much more than Jazzhouse–it became a generational debate. It was about the right to define jazz music.”

Though Svendsen was clearly bothered by the commotion the article created, it wasn’t he who had to defend the venue. Rather, it was respected, award-winning jazz musicians who came to rescue Jazzhouse when the damsel was in jazzy distress.

That kerfuffle is Jazzhouse in a nutshell. It takes on a traditional entity in a very contemporary way. It embodies jazz’s current identity struggle. Though the programming may seem haphazard, there is a very clear personality there—a clear goal. Some deem it blasphemous. Others proclaim the venue a rebel without applause. Go and decide for yourself.

Quick Facts:
Address: Niels Hemmingsens Gade 10, 1153 København K
Capacity: Small Stage (150 standing, 55 seated), Big Stage (300 standing, 230 seated)
Opened: 1991
Financed by: 50% Municipality, 50% Ministry of Culture
Audience: Mainly 18-30 demographic