Hermann’s Jazz Club still swinging after 40 years

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Hermanns-1

A brief history of the downtown venue from 1981 to 2021

Forty years after founder Hermann Nieweler’s original vision, Hermann’s Jazz Club is still surviving as live music venues shut down across the country and the world. The venue’s road to its 40th anniversary has not been an easy one and has involved many key figures, local musicians, and community members that fought to keep it alive. Through all the challenges it has faced, Hermann’s continues to be a welcoming, accessible, and significant location for the music community of Victoria. 

As Hermann’s navigates the world of COVID-19 and hopes for a return to live performance, the Martlet looked in to the history of this legendary venue and help tell its long-running, and hopefully long-lasting, story. 

Hermann’s: live music since 1981 

Hermann’s Jazz Club has existed in its current View Street location since 1986, making it Canada’s longest continuously-running jazz club. The venue’s founder, Nieweler, originally started the lounge at the Bastion Inn (now the Bedford Regency Hotel) on Government Street in 1981. Nieweler’s friend and business partner Barry Stubbs convinced him that booking jazz music would help bring people to the Inn’s lounge. Nieweler proceeded to book the Friday Harbor’s Island City Jazz Band to perform at the venue. After the success of the event, Hermann’s hired the Al Pease Jazz Trio (Al Pease, Toni Blodget, and Russell Botten) to perform every Saturday afternoon. 

Being a lover of a good party and even better music, Nieweler began to book more musicians and coined the name Hermann’s Jazz Centre, specializing in Dixieland jazz, on a mezzanine and dance floor of the hotel. Five years later, Nieweler sold the Bastion Inn and relocated Hermann’s Jazz Centre to the current location on View Street, rebranding it as Hermann’s Jazz Club. 

“Hermann used to laugh and call it his ‘rumpus room,’ and you suddenly got that feeling that this was a world we were sharing together,” said Joan Looy, a volunteer and regular at the venue. 

Looy has been going to Hermann’s since it originally opened on View Street back in 1986. 

“It was a place where you could go and feel at ease,” said Looy. “Also as a woman on my own, it’s a place I can go and feel comfortable without a partner.”

In her tourism work throughout the years, Looy often recommended the venue to tourists, especially female tourists, as a place that is safe and comfortable for everyone regardless of age or ability. Looy claims this was part of Nieweler’s design from the beginning. 

“Hermann himself fought to keep it going as an all inclusive, and all inclusive in terms of physical disability. That’s the point of it being on the main floor, and all inclusive in terms of the age thing [with respects to it being] a licensed restaurant so there would be no discrimination on age,” said Looy.

A home for young performers

Being an all-ages venue has allowed Hermann’s to be a place of mentorship for young jazz musicians. 

Owen Chow, a young local jazz musician, first started playing at Hermann’s when he was only 12 years old. Seven years later, he is thankful for the opportunities that Hermann’s has provided him with. 

“[Hermann’s] has provided a place where it doesn’t matter who you are,” said Chow. “It’s all ages. You don’t have to be 19 and up like most jazz clubs, so having those opportunities to go check that out as a kid, I’m super grateful for it.”

Chow has gotten the opportunity to perform at the venue over 20 times in the past seven years. He has performed with groups such as Wes Carroll Confabulation, The Phatfunks, Rowan Farintosh Quintet, and The Tom Vickery Trio. Chow first got involved at Hermann’s through the Universal Jazz Advocates and Mentors Society (U-JAM).

Founded in 2004, U-JAM is a Victoria-based, not-for-profit society dedicated to “listening, playing, and learning jazz at all levels.” The group puts on twice-monthly youth jam sessions that are free for all middle school and high school students to join in and play. U-JAM also runs a U-JAM Young All Stars group (ages 12-18) that hosted weekly meetings and sessions to help mentor young players before the pandemic. 

Hermann’s became the perfect spot for U-JAM as an all-ages venue and a place where young players could meet more seasoned professionals and learn from them. Together, U-JAM and Hermann’s have provided a rare opportunity for young musicians like Chow.

“[U-JAM and Young All Stars were] an amazing platform to start playing with professional musicians, and Hermann’s has provided a platform for me to start my career as a musician and allowing me to play with professional musicians from Victoria [which] has been an absolute delight,” said Chow.

But these societies can’t function without a venue, and for many, Hermann’s has been the inclusive venue they’ve needed. However, the venue has faced its own ups and downs over the years.

Challenges and community support

In 2000, Hermann’s suffered heavy fire damage, which led to a partial rebuild financed at great expense by Nieweler himself.

Then, on June 10, 2015, the venue’s famed founder passed away. From 2015 to 2019 Nieweler’s family tried to keep his vision alive but faced a number of difficulties. The future of Hermann’s became unclear, and Canada risked losing one of its world-class venues. 

But the Hermann’s community stepped up to help. On Dec. 6, 2016, Nichola Walkden founded the Jazz on View Society and began campaigning to save Hermann’s. Walkden still serves as executive director of the society, now called the Arts on View Society. The society’s constitution states that their purpose is to “maintain a live performance music venue for people of all ages,” “fundrais[e] for artist-led creative ventures that strengthen the music industry,” and “provide quality entertainment for the community of Greater Victoria and Vancouver Island.” 

In March 2019, the society got the opportunity to enter into a five-year renewable lease for the ground floor of the Hermann’s building. Walkden and the newly renamed Arts on View Society launched a Go-Fund-Me campaign to raise an extra $75 000 by April 15, 2019 to make a lease deposit on the venue. The Go-Fund-Me ended up raising $93 765 from the community, and Arts on View became the new operators of Hermann’s Jazz Club. 

The group is now continuing to develop, “rehearsal, performer and student workshops, arts incubation and office space for smaller arts groups that can’t afford Victoria’s steep rent.” The group also aims to eventually branch out and support performance and visual arts. But the group’s work for Hermann’s is not over yet. 

The society is currently working to raise $8 million over the next five years to purchase and renovate the View Street location while also establishing an endowment to support arts in the Capital Regional District.

The building that Hermann’s is housed in is currently for sale, though the venue has a first right of renewal on the lease. This means they get first claim on renewing the lease once it is up. By purchasing the building, Arts on View would not only solidify the venue’s future but would provide opportunity for new expansions.

The room that Hermann’s is currently housed in has a capacity of 150 (barring COVID-19 restrictions). However, the venue contains four other large capacity rooms. Above Hermann’s is a 240-capacity main floor, a 60-person-capacity room on the third floor, and an 80-person front room — all in the same building. 

Ashley Wey is the venue’s current booking manager and artistic director. In addition to being a professional musician, she sits on the Arts on View board and is a U-JAM Young Allstars teacher. Wey first started going to the club when she was nine years old. Her father, a land surveyor, had worked with Nieweler and became a regular of the venue, along with his family. Growing up in a jazz-loving household, Wey began playing jazz piano at 13 years old and first performed at Hermann’s when she was 16. When the efforts to save the club began, Wey joined the Arts on View board and helped with fundraising. 

Wey, along with the Arts on View Society, has hopes to convert the upper portion of Hermann’s into a performing arts centre. 

“If we got the upstairs as an additional venue for us, we could build the vision of the performance arts centre that we want to do. Victoria is our capital city […] and per capita we have more artists living in Victoria and in B.C. than any other part of the country, so to not be nurturing the arts is crazy,” said Wey.

Wey says that Arts on View is also brainstorming with theatre and opera groups for the performing arts centre. 

“Hermann’s is a purpose-built building. It was built with the purpose of performance,” said Wey. 

Navigating the pandemic

COVID-19 has presented a massive hiccup in the venue’s original plans. The Canadian Live Music Association reports that since March 2020, Canada’s live music industry has totalled a 92 per cent loss in average revenue, and 64 per cent of the industry’s venues are at risk or permanent closure without government or community intervention. But despite the difficulties of COVID-19, Hermann’s is surviving due to the generosity and continued fundraising efforts of the community.

The venue’s last pre-pandemic show was on March 15, 2020. Many venues were shut down on March 17 to avoid St. Patrick’s Day crowds. By April 3, Hermann’s began to livestream performances over YouTube. Though they reopened briefly with heightened COVID-19 precautions in July, the venue decided to return to exclusively live streamed shows in late November 2020. 

The live streams are done through the venue’s YouTube account, which currently has over 1 600 subscribers. Each of the streams is admission by donation and donations can be made to the venue or directly to the musicians. 

“Most people donate to the venue and the artist,” said Wey. “Because we have such a strong community of people and because we are a non-profit the community understands that we really do need their support.” 

By getting in on the livestream and donations early, Wey says the venue was able to put $80 000 into the pockets of local artists.

However, the livestreams do cost money to put on and Hermann’s is continually aiming to raise funds to keep them going, along with approaching their goals for expansions. Along with donations to the livestreams, the venue is also fundraising by selling the kitchen’s signature sweet and savoury pies which are available for take out. The society also participates in the BC 50/50 draw to help raise funds. 

Hermanns fundraising

Despite some success, the efforts to preserve the venue continue. Wey claims that the past and continued support from the community has been instrumental in keeping Hermann’s alive.

“Patrons and donors understand that we need to survive,” said Wey.

The future of Hermann’s

With International Jazz Day approaching, along with the 40th anniversary of Hermann’s, Wey is busy planning a number of upcoming events. 

On April 30, for International Jazz Day, Hermann’s is looking to add an extension to their stage to accommodate an extra grand piano. The extension will allow for a series of duelling piano nights with four musicians playing two pianos. The event will be available via by-donation livestream on the venue’s YouTube. 

With more events likely in store for the venue’s 40th anniversary (40th from the Bastion Inn location, 35th for the View Street venue), Arts on View will be putting out a compilation record containing performance by some of the founding performers that Nieweler hired back when he opened the original location. Both in their 80s, Tom Vickery and Toni Blodget will be appearing on the record as well as local jazz legend Lloyd Arntzen, who at 93 Wey says is still, “playing circles around everyone in town.” 

In the coming months, hopefully restrictions will ease and a return to live performance will be possible, but regardless, the livestreams will continue for those who are more comfortable watching from the comfort of their own home. The return to live is much awaited.

“[Seeing jazz live] is a completely different experience,” said Chow. “As Miles Davis said, he didn’t play jazz, he played social music, and I totally agree with that. There is a different vibe that you get listening to jazz in person [rather] than on a record, because lots of it is improvised so depending on the mood of the venue, the shows will sound different.”

Chow has played in a number of the livestreamed sessions and although they took a while to get used to, he says they’re a great way to support the venue and for those new to the venue to check it out. 

“If you’ve never been to Hermann’s, I’d definitely recommend checking it out […] you don’t have to donate, don’t feel pressured, you can just see how it is and if you enjoy them, check it out when the doors are open again, because it is a completely different experience live. It’s really amazing.”

From students to teachers, Hermann’s has the same level of community importance. UVic Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Patrick Boyle spoke to the importance of Hermann’s to the world of jazz on a Canadian level.

“Hermann’s is among the most significant institutions for jazz and improvised music in Canada,” wrote Boyle in an email to the Martlet. “As a community of players and listeners, we must support venues as they bravely reimagine what a music scene can be. Otherwise, there will be no scene to return to when conditions allow. Sharing the air in the room that the music is made in used to be a thing we took for granted and now it’s all we have to look forward to.”

Though many venues face uncertainty through COVID-19, the club’s creative director is optimistic about the future of Hermann’s. 

“I am very confident we will come through this on top,” said Wey. But she knows that support from the community is essential to ensuring that Hermann’s can continue to celebrate many more anniversaries.