Herts Jazz Club closes for lack of audience

The north of London venue is closing after 50 years, following consistently poor audience attendances and financial losses

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Clark Tracey at Wakefield Jazz, 5 November 2021. Photo © Brian Payne

Despite the continuing refrain from publicists and the arts establishment that the UK jazz scene is burgeoning, world-beating, the new centre of global jazz gravity, etc., etc., Herts Jazz Club at The Maltings in St Albans is closing for lack of audience, reporting it has been losing hundreds of pounds a week.

The closure takes immediate effect, with the rest of December’s bookings cancelled except for the perennially popular Alan Barnes and his Christmas With Copperfield show on 19 December. The programme since November has, as usual, featured top UK names including Nigel Price, Clark Tracey and Brandon Allen. But Stan Tracey’s “Under Milk Wood” (5 December) and Byron Wallen Quintet (12) were both victims of cancellation.

It’s easy to imagine the club was largely attended by old white men and their spouses, and its closure may be a sign of the changing demographic of UK jazz. It may also illustrate the gulf between the youth-focused, often publicly funded metropolitan scene and that of the home counties and provinces – what some of a certain age and disposition might call the “real” UK jazz scene.

On the other hand, club director Clark Tracey noted: “I’ve just completed a tour around England this November and played to capacity crowds – everywhere except St Albans.” He didn’t say, however, how many venues were comparable with the self-funded, grass-roots Herts Jazz Club.

Tracey, who took over the club in 2009, is conscious that it has not been the beneficiary of what might in this semi-provincial context be called “levelling up”, and says that exterior support may be a route to survival for anyone who wants to take over the operation.

He hopes it will continue: “Herts Jazz has existed for over 50 years now and I personally feel it would be a shame if it came to an end so abruptly. I would be more than happy to offer my knowledge of how to run a club from scratch (I started in 2009 with £1 from my own pocket!) and we now have a large mailing list, website, email addresses and even a small PA if you want to move premises.”

Herts Jazz Club had its roots in the club founded by landlord Tom Young at The Bell in Codicote in the late 1960s. The Bell became a major out-of-town jazz spot, attracting many leading US players, including Stitt, Cohn, Farlow and Golson. When the Bell was turned into a motel, sessions moved to Welwyn Garden City and then to St Albans.

The old gig wasn’t just mainstream and bebop. The editor recalls a Bell set by saxophonist Lol Coxhill where the maverick improviser derided the request from guitarist Gary Peters that they do a blues with “No, we’re not going to play a blues”.