Artword ArtbarArtword, as a name for what Judith Sandiford and Ron Weihs have always wanted to do, had its roots, as Artword Theatre, in Toronto’s King/Portland area – where, as my memory serves, it got overtaken by what gets called progress. So when we were contacted by Chris Ferguson, curator of Hamilton’s Steel City Jazz Festival, celebrating its fifth year from October 24 through 29 at Artword Artbar in the rapidly gentrifying James St. N. area of Hamilton, it felt like a good time to reach out to Weihs, for a little bit of looking back and looking ahead.

WN: Are there things in your present location that remind you of what you recognized “back then” starting up at King/Portland?

Ron Weihs: When Artword Theatre started, the King/Portland area was in a very depressed state. We began in what was essentially an abandoned, empty building. The building, and an adjacent building, were bought for a very low price. The new owners encouraged us to stay as tenants and helped us with practical and financial support in developing our theatre. We were also helped greatly by the city’s “Two Kings” policy, which encouraged development in King-Parliament and King-Bathurst by removing many of the zoning restrictions. We were surprised that it was easier than we expected to get approvals to do an extensive renovation.

The revitalization of the area went faster than we expected, and we certainly contributed to this! We knew all along we would not be there forever, that the building would be sold when the market went high enough. We were amazed how quickly the area was transformed, though. Our building was sold to a condo developer. We had four months to leave, but it really came down to eight days, because of commitments we had made. We cleared out as much as we could manage and packed it all in a 48-foot trailer.

Although we were sad, we were not resentful. We understood that “Two Kings” was designed to bring real estate investment into the area. The overheated real estate market was inevitable, as was the fact that this prime location would become unaffordable for us. It was that wonderful early revitalization phase when new ideas are springing up, artists are moving in, and people are discovering how much fun urban life can be. It would be lovely if it could stay that way, but it hardly ever does.

What’s different this time?

For us personally? When we came to Hamilton, we were determined that this time we would buy a building. Prices were low, and the downtown was in desperate need of revitalization. The city was specifically encouraging development along James Street, formerly the hub of the downtown, but fallen on hard times. Although we looked very hard, we couldn’t find a potential theatre, but we did find a lovely sports bar for sale just off James Street, a turn-key operation with everything we needed – glasses, cutlery, fully-equipped kitchen. We decided that Hamilton didn’t actually need a theatre, it needed an Artbar! And Artword needed a home, a laboratory, a haven for artists and musicians, and a laboratory to develop and showcase our own theatre work.

Do you end up involuntarily contributing to the gentrification problem the same way all again?

The gentrification of James Street is accelerating just as it did in Toronto. The big question is whether condos will be allowed to take over, or the essential character of the street be maintained. The political and economic battles are being waged. The downtown councillors are good, but amalgamation means that politicians who have no stake in the downtown can determine its fate. Very much like Toronto. We expect to continue to enjoy the same wonderful revitalization phase as in Toronto, for a little while.

When we moved to Hamilton, we knew nothing of its cultural life. We thought that we would be bringing culture to the frontier. We were humbled and delighted to discover how wrong we were. We discovered a firmly established and vibrant cultural scene that has flourished for many years, basically outside that formal support and funding structures. Theatre, visual arts and music all have deep roots and wide participation. In particular, the music scene in Hamilton is remarkable. Hamilton and the Niagara region are home to original musicians in every genre. Mohawk College has a first-rate jazz program, and we were impressed with the calibre of the students. We were happy to provide a place for them to play, and watched them mature into notable musicians.

Does the city of Hamilton understand how easily, in terms of arts and culture, progress could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? I mean in terms of maintaining affordability for arts workers and their audiences?

The city is making a significant effort to understand the needs of artists, and to provide an encouraging environment in which they can flourish. They are proceeding cautiously, and in consultation with artists. I think this is wise.

And  Artword Artbar’s role?
Essentially, Artword Artbar is “by artists for artists.” We look on Artword Artbar as an oasis where performers, artists and people who appreciate these things can meet together in a respectful environment. We are known as a “listening room.” People come to hear the music. There is no television, no clatter, no chatter; just people watching and listening intently to performers communicating to them. It seems odd to us that this is unusual, but it seems that it is.

Advice for others?
Probably not. In creating this kind of place, you have to believe in what you’re doing, and stick with it. Don’t listen to all the advice you get about programming this, or that. You have to be able to hang in without obsessing about the bottom line every week; it will take longer than you think. It helps to be a “Mom and Pop” operation, so that you can get through the lean times. And keep things simple. You don’t have to do everything, just a few things really well.

It was Chris and Linda Ferguson who got in touch with us about Steel City Jazz Festival’s relationship with you.

The Steel City Jazz Festival reflects our philosophy. It was started by Chris Ferguson just because he thought Hamilton needed a jazz festival. He did it on a shoestring, largely by himself with a few friends. When we found out what he was creating, and that he didn’t have either deep pockets or a support system, we offered Artword Artbar as a venue at no cost. We just sell beer, and the Festival keeps the box office. (This is our policy for musicians as well.) Judith [Sandiford] also offers advice and organizational help. We like the festival because it provides a mix of local and outside musicians, and a variety of flavours of jazz.

Postscript: Steel City Jazz Festival director Chris Ferguson offers this: “Listening to music at Artbar is such a pleasure. The bar has a really classic ‘jazz-club’ atmosphere, from the packed seating and round cocktail tables to the in-house grand piano. You feel so close to the musicians because you literally are, but this produces some of the most intense musical experiences.”

The Steel City Jazz Festival runs from October 24 through October 29, 2017. Most performances will be at Artword Artbar at 15 Colbourne St., in the James St. N. area. Tickets will be available at the venues or online in advance via Bruha and Ticketfly.

Lula Lounge at 1587 Dundas W. in Toronto describes itself as a “music club, venue, bar, restaurant, community centre, ground zero to the exploding world music scene in Toronto ... home to Latin, salsa, jazz, reggae, indie, and more.” So when a place like that shuts up shop in the middle of summer, people notice.

We certainly did. So we decided to ask José Ortega, Lula co-founder and artistic director, what was up.

WholeNote: Can you say something about the reno — is it mainly cosmetic or also functional?

Ortega: It’s a facelift, for sure: it vastly improves the washrooms and installs a wheelchair accessible washroom on the main floor. The reno will also give us more room in the lobby area, which Lula patrons know can become really crowded on a busy night. But it’s more than just a facelift. Making Lula more accessible will let us serve clients and communities better and more safely.

And in terms of your overall Lula mandate and your relationship with the surrounding community?

We do a lot of educational programming for youth and host many public meetings. The barrier free, universal washroom will make it easier for clients of all ages with mobility challenges to enjoy the music and activities presented here. Lula programming is done by the not-for-profit organization Lula Music and Arts Centre, which allowed us to get help from the City of Toronto Culture Build fund as well as from Enabling Accessibility, a national program. It’s encouraging because we see both the municipal and federal government stepping up to invest in cultural projects that serve diverse communities. 

Lula LoungeSo what can we look forward to when you re-open September 9?

This is the second stage (the first was removing the drop ceiling in 2015 to reveal the true height of the main room) of what we hope will be a multiphase project. Within the next couple of years, we’re hoping to open up a enlarged mezzanine area so that we can increase our capacity and can accommodate more music lovers in an even better, more beautiful venue!

I recognize what you say about encouraging support from the city’s Culture Build fund and the federal Enabling Accessibility program. But what kind of risk is undertaking something like this at a moment in time when local street level venues in the city seem to be under siege on many fronts?

That’s an interesting question. We want to make sure that as leaders at city hall put forth the idea of a music city, that they understand that our city of music includes salsa, reggae, samba, jazz, classical Indian, soca and many other genres. Toronto can be a leader in all of these areas, not just in pop and indie forms. The folks down at the city’s music office have been very open to hearing about this but we need to keep delivering this message.

I sometimes get the feeling that various topdown initiatives intent on “making us into a music city” take priority over initiatives to nurture the music city we already are.

We’ve been very involved with the efforts to look at the challenges facing Toronto music venues and have been working with the Toronto Music Office, TMAC and other venues to see explore how bylaws and enforcement of those bylaws can create almost impossible situations for responsible live music venue operators. We’ve also been working with Music Canada Live on their Regional Advisory Committee on Toronto Venue Health. We do see a need to recognize what grassroots venues contribute to the culture and economy of our city. It’s easy to take this stuff for granted but it takes a huge amount of energy, money and dedication to keep a music venue going. 

So you’re hopeful?

We’ve been at this for 15 years and have learned by trial and error how to survive in this market with its challenges and benefits. We’re feeling like the model we’re working with is supporting our mandate and should allow us to present live music for many years to come.

I noticed, from another story we’re following, Lula’s name among the organizations signing up for the new Polyphonic Ground collective. What’s your take on that?

We’re part of the Polyphonic Ground collective, which is currently a pilot project led by Small World Music to see what potential exists for small presenters who are serving diverse audiences and artists, to work together to lobby for resources, share best practices and develop audiences together. We’ll see where it goes but it’s bringing to light some interesting issues about access within the music industry.

On October 13, we’ll be hosting the first of a Polyphonic Ground panel series, which Lula has helped to put together, alongside the City of Toronto, Music Canada Live, Music Canada and Music Ontario. The series builds on a panel talk that we organized back in May and will look and diversity and inequities in the music industry. Ideally the series of conversations will lead to some clear recommendations about how to ensure that the festivals, conferences, funding, etc., better reflect the makeup of Toronto. As I say, we’ll see where it goes.

2209 BBB Mainly MostlyZuze – pronounced “zoo zay” – is a project which communicates musically, instrumentally, what it means to straddle the lines of two or more different cultures. Its essence is emblematic of the experience of many first-generation citizens, especially immigrants. One such citizen is Zuze’s bassist, Arif Mirbaghi, whose interest in these blurred lines became a foundational stepping stone to the band’s inception.

Mirbaghi explains: “I wanted a project that spoke to the way culture shifts around identity across generations. Canada is built on nascent identities, and Zuze aims to prove just how beautiful that diversity can be.”

The collective draws its repertoire mostly from popular tunes familiar to folks from Iran, especially the northern region. This is my ancestry, too: my paternal ancestors were Jewish Kurds living in the north of present-day Iran, so when I showed Zuze to my dad, he recognized some of the tunes (none of which were familiar to me) from his youth, and demanded to know why I was all of a sudden interested in Persian music.

The folk and popular music of Iran is, on its own, a fascinating study in the way cultures bleed into each other. Zuze, though, muddies the waters further, by filtering these melodies through multiple sets of multicultural ears: those of Mirbaghi who knows them intimately, those of band members including co-arranger and alto sax player Bruce McKinnon, to whom they’re a little more novel, and finally, ours – the listeners’.

I’d been interested in Zuze for a while, but it wasn’t until this week that I went to see them live, in the back room of the Tranzac Club. Before they went on, the audience was given a short dance lesson. I observed from the sidelines, because I cannot and do not dance, but if any music was the stuff to dance to, this was it.

Mirbaghi banters with the audience between songs, and it seems very improvised, but less off-the-cuff, and more stream-of-consciousness. It’s kind of poetic sometimes, in an off-kilter way. But then they launch into these grooves, these very groovy grooves, these destined-for-restless-feet grooves, which serve as a red carpet for the incoming melody, played assertively or sweetly or coyly by up to five melodic instruments: trombone, trumpet, two saxes and violin, often in a tight unison.

Very little emphasis is placed on solos (not that they don’t happen) because, to my mind, this music is geared more towards showcasing beautiful songs in tight arrangements than using known songs as vehicles for improvisation.

Going to a Zuze show can be a rowdy experience or a contemplative one, I think. You can dance, or you can sit on the sidelines and think about things – for example, about how far removed you may or may not be from the cultures that effectively created you, and how important (or how unimportant) it may be for you to reconnect. Or you could do both.

I have to say, lately, I have started to find that a lot of live music that I like and I think is good doesn’t sound fresh anymore, and Zuze is one of a few groups that’s scratching me where I itch. Maybe they’ll scratch you, too.

Zuze will be heard at Mel Lastman Square on the afternoon of July 1. Keep an eye out for more future gigs at Zuze.ca.

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

 

received 832710110228698I first met and heard the painter and singer Laura Marks four or five years back at Lisa Particelli’s singer-friendly jam about which I’ve written before. The first time I heard Marks, my impression was that she had a nice voice but was timid. Since then, one or both of us, her voice or my ears, has matured, probably the latter. Listening more recently, I hear a cool confidence, a clear sense of purpose and an unmistakable character. That character is quaint and charming, introspective and sincere – as is demonstrated clearly on her debut album, 57 Minutes. The album is a Marks-illustrated work (Marks is primarily a visual artist), and it features the instrumental prowess of Chris Gale, Reg Schwager, Mark Kieswetter, Ross MacIntyre and Ben Riley, on sax, guitar, piano, bass and drums, respectively.

Although Marks has only been playing jazz gigs about town for the last eight or nine years, her first public performance as a jazz singer happened in the early 70s at Toronto’s Poor Alex Theatre; her experiences with jazz in private reach even further back. “My dad was a jazz fan so we were exposed very early,” Marks explains. “He met Dizzy Gillespie on an airplane twice. The second time Dizzy said to him, ‘How are you, Mr. Marks?’ He remembered him.”

One of the last tracks on the album is Body and Soul, a standard which all jazz musicians know, but which also happened to be an early influence on Marks: “I used to listen to the jazz programs on radio and when I heard Billie Holiday sing Body and Soul that was it. I started to sing jazz. I remember the moment and where I was in my parents’ house. I think I was 15.”

Marks doesn’t have dazzling, virtuosic chops, but she is and has always been an artist: prone to exploring, and creating, and expressing, relentlessly and endlessly; no exceptions are made behind the microphone. I recommend you go to see her at Jazz Bistro on May 21. There’s something special about her performance, her laid-back sensibility, that aforementioned character. I just love hearing her sing and I suspect you will too.

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

Lately, I have been walking around and humming the melody of You Must Believe in Spring, partially because it’s a nice melody, and partially as a reminder – sometimes it’s easy to forget that warmer days are in fact on their way. As we wait for our little corner of the world to thaw, it may help our collective state of mind if we listened to some music that carries in it echoes of warmer places. Like, for example, South Asia, or West Africa, or the Mediterranean. Such echoes can be found in the lineup of the eclectic So Long Seven, which showcases Neil Hendry on the mandolin and guitar, Tim Posgate on the banjo, Ravi Naimpally on the tabla and the remarkably young (barely out of his teens) William Lamoureux on the violin. With this unusual blend of instruments, and a collective and unmistakable jazz sensibility, So Long Seven’s highly organized, mostly non-hierarchical approach to composition and improvisation constitutes what I would call cross-cultural chamber music.

A year ago – almost to the day, as I write this – the band released their eponymous debut album, a colourful and contemplative work of art, and a formidable effort that will be tough to follow.

Aside from the quality of the music, what captures me about this album is the fact that, from top to bottom, each tune seems to share a goal; this is not just a collection of tracks that will demonstrate the versatility and skill of a band, but a cohesive work that is united by one purpose. What that purpose is, I suppose, up to each individual listener. When the music has no words, it can be tough to pinpoint or articulate these things, even though you may have a strong sense of them. My first instinct would be to call it music to meditate to, but that may be too restrictive since not everyone meditates (and I don’t). I’ll call it music to think to.

My favourite track by far is the one which opens the album, Torch River Rail Company. The introspective and rhythmically driven melody, which rolls like a train over the five-beat pattern that underlies it, maintains its momentum through these almost arbitrary - though definitely not arbitrary - pauses; as Lamoureux takes his bow off the strings, or as the rhythm section freezes, you can almost hear it continue, and you are not the least bit startled when it comes back in. The melody and accompaniment - separately - continue to weave in and out like that, and it’s fascinating to hear.

You’ll have two opportunities to hear So Long Seven in Southern Ontario this month. If you’re in or around Hamilton, you can catch them at Artword Artbar on April 7; if you live closer to Toronto and you aren’t able to get out to Hamilton, you can catch up with them the very next day, April 8, at the Small World Music Centre, a short walking distance from the corner of Dundas and Ossington.

I’ll level with you on this one: while I’m confident that I’ve seen all the footage of them that exists on the Internet, I’ve never seen So Long Seven live. I have a friend who used to invite me to their shows constantly back when they were known as Oolong 7, but it wasn’t until recently that I started to dive into their recorded music. So if I make it out to Hamilton, I’ll be discovering them right alongside you.

I hope to see you there.

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

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