Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar is 15 Years Old

When Bill Kyle opened The Jazz Bar in Chambers Street on Edinburgh’s southside on 1 July 2005, it was the result of dedication, determination and coincidence, write Patrick Hadfield and Rob Adams.
Kit Downes, Norma Winstone & Mike Walker

Kit Downes, Norma Winstone & Mike Walker. Photo credit Patrick Hadfield

  The Jazz Bar’s predecessor, The Bridge Jazz Bar, had been one of several venues that perished in the Cowgate fire in Edinburgh three years earlier. Bill scoured the city for likely venues for his dream, a jazz club that could nurture local musicians as well as attract international names. After vetting some sixty possibilities, Bill found the ideal spot just round the corner from The Bridge. He knew the basement at No 1 Chambers Street well. He had played there regularly in one of its previous incarnations and, true to form, he’d given young players gigs in the band he drummed with during that residency. Bill had a thirst for gigs. For him, they were the lifeblood of a jazz scene. He’d been playing in them and organising them since the 1960s. He even said the word “gig” with his own particular relish. From July 2005 until October 2016, when his sudden death stunned musicians and friends around the world, Bill facilitated gigs, sometimes up to five a day (and even more during the Edinburgh Fringe), 364 days a year at The Jazz Bar. He was a mentor, a sounding board, a friendly voice on the phone. Vibraphone virtuoso Joe Locke never forgot that Bill gave him his first UK gigs and former Jazz Messengers trumpeter Valery Ponomarev made a point of coming over from New York for a week at The Jazz Bar every August. Drummer Rich Kass, now touring internationally with Trio HLK, was a grateful beneficiary of Bill’s advice and encouragement and pianists Alan Benzie, who went on to win the Billboard Award at Berklee, and Pete Johnstone, a winner of the Peter Whittingham Jazz Prize with Square One and now starring in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, gained invaluable experience from answering Bill’s “fancy a gig?” calls – sometimes at late, very late, notice. And these are just a few names from Bill’s extensive contacts book.

So, to mark fifteen years of The Jazz Bar, it seems appropriate to celebrate fifteen Jazz Bar gigs. It wasn’t an easy task to keep to a limit of fifteen – and one of the gigs is chosen in anticipation – but in thanks to Bill, we’ve happily sweated through the selection process.

Colin Steele

Colin Steele. Photo credit Patrick Hadfield

  Colin Steele, various dates: I’ve seen Colin Steele play at the Jazz Bar countless times in a variety of combinations – duo, quartet, quintet, with his own projects, as a guest in others’ shows or with a pick-up band – always exciting, and always at home in the low-ceilinged cellar of The Jazz Bar. (PH) Ravi Coltrane Trio, March 2006: Having John Coltrane’s son playing at The Jazz Bar for two nights was just the sort of engagement Bill imagined when he opened his club, and the music met his expectations. BBC Radio was there to capture it and Coltrane, bassist Reggie Washington and drummer Gene Lake played with passion, virtuosity and unity. (RA) Billy Hart Trio, November 2006: Hart’s rhythm section partner in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group, bassist Buster Williams, had appeared at The Bridge Jazz Bar. So, this was the ideal companion gig for Bill, with Hart leading his European trio with absolute certainty across the spectrum of dynamics and filling the room with a sense of jazz history and the tangible joy he gets from making music. (RA) Jerry Bergonzi Quartet, November 2007: The saxophone player that no saxophone player wanted to miss delivered a masterclass. Just hearing the variety and quality of tones he produced would have been reward enough but allied to the wit and extended logic of his improvising and his close interaction with his rhythm section, the whole effect was special indeed. (RA) Peter King Quartet, April 2008: my first trip to The Jazz Bar, to see one of British jazz’s stars. One of the things about The Jazz Bar is that it allows us to see well-known names playing in an intimate club setting. (PH) Neil Cowley Trio, May 2008: another visitor from London’s jazz scene, Cowley and his trio played an exciting, energetic set that has had me following his career ever since. Cowley expressed his pleasure at being back at The Jazz Bar, because Bill Kyle had scheduled his first tour as a solo artist, and said he’d be eternally grateful for the faith Bill had shown. (PH) Trio of Oz, March 2010: Another drum hero, Omar Hakim, here with Rachel Z on piano and keys and bassist Maeve Royce, had Bill and everyone else pinching themselves in one of these “is this really happening?” situations. It was really happening – in the literal and jazz argot senses of the phrase: drum fills that went off into the percussive stratosphere and surely couldn’t possibly land back on the beat, yet they always did; exciting, incisive, ultra-inventive keyboard lines and a soulful, grooving good time vibe. (RA)
Louis Durra

Louis Durra. Publicity photo

  Louis Durra, August 2011: Bill loved discoveries as much as he liked bringing names from his record collection to the club, and the then California-based Durra’s very individual piano trio reconstructions of pop songs were among his favourites. A lengthy residency during the Fringe allowed curious listeners to return – some more than once – to see what Durra could add to a super-grooving take on Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue or his absorbingly playful examination of K T Tunstall’s Black Horse and the Cherry Tree. The answer was “loads”! (RA) Harold Mabern with Eric Alexander Quartet, September 2012: Illinois-born saxophonist Eric Alexander was no stranger to Edinburgh, and had survived a few Fringe runs, but the presence of piano legend Harold Mabern in his latest band increased expectations no end. Over two nights, Mabern produced magic at an almost voodoo level, creating suspenseful, brilliantly melodic twists and revealing a talent as a vocalist that might have taken his career in an entirely different – and popular – direction. (RA) Robert Balzar Trio, May 2014: Another new name and yet another addition to the by-now teeming piano trio catalogue, although this one is led by a ruggedly virtuosic bassist with a hugely persuasive physical presence. Balzar’s colleagues, the utterly thrilling pianist Jiří Levíček and drummer Jiří Slavíček, conspired in original music that was consistently fresh and surprising. Possibly the biggest surprise was the familiar but superbly camouflaged tune that gradually revealed itself as none other than Miles Davis’ Solar. (RA) Graeme Stephen Quartet, July 2016: Graeme Stephen is a familiar figure, regularly gigging around Edinburgh and creating imaginative soundscapes with his guitar and a box of tricks. On this occasion something extra special and remarkable happened. Saxophonist Phil Bancroft played a phenomenal sequence of solos and the band just took off. (PH) Bill Kyle Memorial, November 2016: I didn’t really know Bill Kyle, though we chatted several times – whenever I was in The Jazz Bar, so was Bill. The day after his death, The Jazz Bar’s Tuesday jam was dedicated to him, and musicians came out to pay tribute and remember him. It was a special night. (PH)
Graham Costello - Fergus McCreadie - Strata

Graham Costello & Fergus McCreadie, Strata. Photo credit Patrick Hadfield.

  Graham Costello’s Strata, July 2018: I hadn’t heard about Strata before – I went along to see what pianist Fergus McCreadie was up to when he wasn’t playing with his own trio. Part of Scotland’s youthful jazz scene, Costello’s band blew me away – a jazz-fusion-minimalism-prog mix that left me literally awestruck and has had me coming back time and time again. (PH) Norma Winstone Trio, February 2020: Winstone, one of Britain’s top vocalists brought with her two excellent instrumentalists, pianist Kit Downes and guitarist Mike Walker, for a lovely, enthralling performance. A joy to see such fine musicians close-up in a packed club. (PH) Mezcla, March 2020: this show didn’t happen – it was cancelled after Boris Johnson told people to stay away from bars and the Scottish government brought in its first set of restrictions, closing pubs and venues. Mezcla were about to tour to promote their new CD. I’m really looking forward to the Jazz Bar being able to reopen, welcoming back musicians and jazz fans alike! (PH) LINK: Tribute to Bill Kyle by Tom Bancroft Tribute to Bill Kyle by Rob Adams

4 replies »

  1. Lovely tribute to Bill and The Jazz Bar. At the moment I’m in a routine where I cycle past the JB every day on my way to and from my studio. Each day I glance over at it find myself thinking about Bill, about the bar, about all the great musical experiences I’ve had there (both as a player and an audience member). Thinking too about all the amazing staff who work there (who always make you feel welcome and at home), all the amazing music supporters who come out every week to support the music and make gigs happen. It’s a really special place, and it’s made possible by a lot of really special people.

    That place puts food on the table for many local musicians, it sustains 3 gigs a day every day, plus between bands they have great DJs spinning tunes, it’s got a weekly big band, a weekly jam session, jazz gigs every night! It’s got great backline, great sound engineers, great booze, great homemade ginger beer, great bar staff, great door staff. All the door money goes to the musicians and they don’t take commission for selling your merch. All this, and they’ve managed to make the venue sustainable.

    Some of the drummers I’ve seen In there include Eric Harland, Jojo Mayer, Omar Hakim, Sput, Ari Hoenig, Terreon Gully, Chris Dave….the list goes on. To have a place one your doorstep, in a small city in a small country is such a gift. Oh and all the gigs were half the ticket price of similar shows in larger cities.

    There aren’t many venues like this in the UK, to me the JB is much more like some of the great clubs in Europe (❤️ you 🇪🇺).

    I’ll stop rambling in a minute, but before I do, I’d like one story about Bill. Every time I’d pop in as a punter to watch the 9pm jazz gig, assuming Bill wasn’t playing on that gig, he’d be stood at his usual spot at the end of the bar, listening to the band and smiling ear-to-ear. We’d listen to the band and in the break we’d chat, and he’d frequently ask what I was drinking and order me a drink on the house. I don’t know how many time this happened, but it was a lot, and not once would he ever let me buy him a drink back. In my opinion he’s done more for the local music scene and local musicians than anyone else, he loved music so much – playing it, watching it, promoting it in equal measure.

    Tonight I’ll raise glass to the Kyle family, to the JB and all the amazing people who make it what it is. Thanks all 🙏🥃

    PS – If you can, please do consider supporting the bar here:

  2. It should be remembered that Valery Ponemarev flew over from New York to attend Bills funeral.

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