Nichola Walkden is losing her voice as she sits down to talk about the ongoing fight to save Hermann’s Jazz Club.
She’s lost her voice from talking to musicians, staff, lawyers, the media, supporters, potential donors and others. Walkden, who has worked at the club off and on for the past 15 years as a waitress and sometimes manager, is optimistic that Victoria’s only jazz club, and the longest continuously running jazz club in Canada, can be kept open. But she knows it won’t be easy.
“I really feel like we’re going to win this,” Walkden said. “We have such huge support, and we have such a great community, and a 35-year tradition.”
When club founder Hermann Nieweler died in June, 2015, it was a huge loss to the music scene in Victoria. He left behind a unrivalled legacy of patronage for jazz in Victoria. But he also left a club struggling to stay afloat despite its cultural importance. His estate went to his three children, who have contributed to running the club over the years, but who also live in Vancouver and are selling the View Street building Hermann’s is in.
In 2016, Walkden, who has considerable experience in conservation acquisition, established the Jazz on View Society to work towards raising the $3 million needed to buy the building. Another key element is renting the building’s upstairs space, until recently the home of Yuk Yuks, for the much-needed income. The club itself isn’t a sustainable business, and Walkden said throughout its existence it has been treated more as a community service than a money-making venture.
“Hermann ran this out of love,” Walkden said. “It’s out of his generosity that we have this room.”
Hermann’s Jazz Club has always put performers first when it comes to revenue, with the money from ticket sales, minus $2 per ticket, going directly to the performers. Walkden said the average revenue generated by the club for performers is about $400,000 per year.
“That’s a huge musical economy that will disappear,” Walkden said. “Venues are an essential component… and as venues are disappearing, there’s a threat to the industry.”
With record sales now a fraction of what they once were thanks to downloading and streaming services, musicians of all kinds are relying more and more on live performance to generate income. Unfortunately, music venues are also struggling, with increasing rents and significantly reduced incomes since the introduction of stricter drinking and driving enforcement. The recent closure of the Tally-Ho Hotel was the latest in a string of venue loses.
Maria Manna, co-founder of the Universal Jazz Advocates and Mentors Society and a jazz vocalist, said there is an abundance of talented musicians in Victoria, but the struggle to make money playing music is a constant challenge. The closing of Hermann’s would only make things more difficult.
“People that I know who perform in Victoria should be getting a lot more money, but it isn’t there,” Manna said. “There’s a lot of amazing musicians here in Victoria, and everybody wants to work.”
Beyond the financials, providing a place to play live is also a key element to the art itself. As a professor of jazz at the University of Victoria, Dr. Patrick Boyle, who has an impressive resume as a trumpeter, said all of his teaching is based on the students gaining real experience playing live and being around the music, believing “the text book is the stage.”
“Jazz clubs are the incubators of jazz music,” said Boyle. “For anyone who is interested in listening to this music or playing this music, you really need to experience it live and on stage. …You can’t learn this music out of a book.”
Walkden figures they now have about six months to come up with the funds. At the time of writing about $270,000 had been pledged, before any fundraising campaign has even begun. Letters from notable jazz fans and musicians from across Canada and beyond have been pouring in, offering support; among them Wynton Marsalis, one of the best known names in the genre. Next Walkden said they will be looking for more pledges, connecting with jazz fans in a financial position to help.
“The encouragement I get is phenomenal,” Walkden said. “My confidence in this, and I’ve done $3 million campaigns before, is really optimistic. The timeline is so brief, but I’ve learnt that fundraising takes as long as you give it.”
Ultimately, Manna believes saving Hermann’s is akin to saving jazz in Victoria.
“If you go anywhere else and try to create a Hermann’s, it’s not going to have the same vibe. It’s not going to feel the same, because it’s that building,” she said. “That room holds so many stories, so many notes, so many tunes. Where else are you going to get that?”