Feature/Interview (PP)

The Jazz Sanctuary (next gig: 19 August, Turk’s Head Twickenham, Lisa Marini Group/ Sultan Stevenson Quintet)

The Jazz Sanctuary is a monthly music event in South West London which brings together established and emerging artists from the UK jazz scene. Promoter/organiser Sarah Meyer talked to AJ Dehany about a club that’s now making surprising and confident strides:

Drummer Jack Yardley at The Jazz Sanctuary. Photo credit: @floyerfilms (Floyer Sydenham)

The Jazz Sanctuary launched at St John’s Church in Kingston, with saxophonist Alex Hitchcock playing on Friday 13 March 2020 — a date lucky for none, with the first lockdown coming into place a week later. Intended as an ongoing monthly series, a rethink was required. Promotor and organiser Sarah Meyer is lugubrious. “It felt a bit weird doing the launch and then nothing happening afterwards.”

Sarah’s small team had worked hard for three months, only to be knocked sideways after one event. They kept going, building a rapport via social networking and continuing to work on future programming. Despite the pandemic it generated a lot of interest from the public and musicians alike. 

“We always have on the bill an established artist and an emerging artist. That’s our ethos. We want to let people experience lots of different styles of jazz, even if that sometimes takes them out of their comfort zone. People often book to see one act and are pleasantly surprised to find how much they enjoy both.”

Like all such creative ventures, it has been a labour of love from the outset. Even without the pandemic hitting so early on, The Jazz Sanctuary has a much more personal and poignant origin, arising from a personal tragedy in 2018.

“ My eldest son died in a road accident. Like a lot of bereaved people, I thought about setting up a charity in his name raising money through music and sporting events that were important in his life. But we realised it was important to see if we could run a sustainable, commercial music venture before we developed the charity side.”

Despite the initial concept of The Jazz Sanctuary, there are technical challenges and downsides to performing in a church, and so they struck up a partnership with the landlord of the Turk’s Head in Twickenham. The venue is friendly, serves good food, and its dedicated hall has an intimate acoustic sympathetic to the different genre crossovers that the club champions.

“All the gigs so far have sold out within days, which is exciting! All the music we’ve had so far is just such good music, and whether or not it’s your particular style, if the musicians are amazing I think everyone can appreciate their music and enjoy it.”

Trumpeter Jack Courtney at The Jazz Sanctuary. Photo credit: @floyerfilms (Floyer Sydenham)

In October 2020 they came back with American trumpeter Andre Canniere and saxophonist Emma Rawicz, only for the series to be cut off again by the next lockdown in November. The experience, however straitening, was nonetheless useful in adjusting to the new way of things and learning the art of flexibility.

“In October you had to be in Household groups (the ‘Rule of Six’) so it’s been like a game of Tetris each time, you have to find out who’s with who. Then we have to measure with a tape how to fit them all in. We’ve had tables, we’ve had just chairs. Now we’ve had the luxury to ask people who’ve been to a few gigs, ‘What do you think was nicer?’”

The Jazz Sanctuary opened again at the end of May 2021 with distancing measures in place, then in July with no restrictions. Drummer and Postgraduate Jazz Award winner Jack Yardley played at that July gig and is admiring of what Sarah and the Jazz Sanctuary doing:

“Playing in front of a live audience is something quite special when we’ve been locked away for so long. It’s nice to get good and negative feedback, which we did! I’ve always been a huge advocate of keeping jazz as pure as I can down to its grass roots which is improvisation. I’ve prided myself on taking the same music to many places and making sure that each performance has something completely different by just entrusting the musicians around me to make decisions spontaneously and be on the edge as it were. Hopefully taking the audience along that journey, which I know sounds pretentious but that’s my belief and the Jazz Sanctuary is a really beautiful platform for that!”

Jack himself used to run a jazz jam in Twickenham. Southwest London is home to other clubs including the redoubtable Bull’s Head in Barnes. The Turk’s Head is easy to get to on the Southwestern train from Waterloo, with good transport links and easy to access from further afield; the Jazz Sanctuary’s July event welcomed visitors from Oxford and Windsor. 

19 August sees a stunning double bill of folk jazz fusion from Lisa Marini’s group, and Tomorrow’s Warriors alumnus Sultan Stevenson. As with Jack, Lisa is admiring of what The Jazz Sanctuary is doing: 

“People may not always recognise the amount of work and sacrifice that goes into creative projects. Simply trying to feel practically and emotionally well as a human can be a challenge for anyone, put on top of that the expense of living in London whilst surviving as an artist and needing space and time to create – it certainly requires a lot of mental gymnastics. Having said that, I am privileged to live in a city where there is such a strong contemporary jazz scene and it’s amazing that live jazz is popular again. I feel lucky to live in a time where there is a vast crossover of genres and ideas and the internet makes it easier than ever to access music all all over the world.”

Sarah and her team are booking up until the end of the year, and we can look forward to some fantastic artists including Alex Webb Quintet with Denys Baptiste, Alice Auer, Rory Ingham, Jelly Cleaver and Southwest-affiliated favourites Partikel. If The Jazz Sanctuary can continue to build its audience, Sarah hopes that they will in time be able to return to the originating ambition to develop the charitable arm of their work.

“It has been very difficult doing this in a pandemic, something that we could never have envisaged happening. The May gig, with Glasshopper and Amalga was actually really emotional, with musicians playing to an audience for the first time since March and a lot of audience out for the first time since December. It just felt so special. I felt so privileged to be part of that.”

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

NEXT JAZZ SANCTUARY GIG: 19 August at the Turk’s Head, 28 Winchester Road, Twickenham, Middlesex, TW1 1LF: Lisa Marini Group and Sultan Stevenson Quintet (BOOKINGS AND DETAILS)

LINK: The Jazz Sanctuary website

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