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Herts Jazz: ‘The Final Gig’

The Alan Barnes Octet’s performance of ‘Christmas with Copperfield’, on 19 December 2021 in front of a full house at the Maltings Theatre in St Alban’s was the final gig from Herts Jazz. Sebastian found out the background by speaking to Clark Tracey and Mike O’Brien, two key members of the team.

Alan Barnes Octet at the Maltings, December 2021. Photo by Mike O’Brien

After eleven years of putting on weekly gigs and festivals, the team at Herts Jazz has called a halt. The concert by the Alan Barnes Octet on 19 December 2021 was, according to Mike O’Brien, “the last by Herts Jazz as a weekly gig.”

A number of factors have led to the decision. For the first time, the core team – which also includes Stephen Hyde – were not successful in their application to Arts Council England for funding for the 2021 Herts Jazz Festival, which meant that the festival made a loss. “We would have broken even with funding,” says Mike O’Brien.

Other, broader factors have made the team reconsider their commitment to putting on weekly gigs. Clark Tracey’s sextet has recently put on a tour, and Clark Tracey noted the contrast between well-attended gigs at all of the other venues – but a very poor attendance in St. Albans. Both O’Brien and Tracey stress that the Maltings is a great venue to play and that the team at the venue have been both effective and supportive, but that the core audience for jazz there has been dwindling.

O’Brien says: “Clark’s been brilliant as a champion of British jazz,” noting the work he has done over several years to bring younger musicians into his own bands – notable examples from the recent past are bassist James Owston and saxophonist Tom Ridout, and also into creating a seasonal ‘encounter’ for Herts Jazz Patron Art Themen, with younger players, most notably a fruitful collaboration with Laura Jurd and the recent two-tenor project with Xhosa Cole.

Art Themen and Xhosa Cole at Herts Jazz, 2020. Photo credit Mike O’Brien

Herts Jazz has a tremendous legacy. The club started as Jazz at the Bell in Codicote in 1969, run by Alan Skidmore’s father. Subsequent venues have included The Fountain and Panshanger Golf Complex, both in Welwyn Garden City. Clark Tracey has been in charge since 2009, when it moved to Campus West in Welwyn . The move from Welwyn to St Albans was in 2018 (reported here)

Clark Tracey at the final gig. Photo by Mike O’Brien

What happens next? Clark Tracey has said publicly that he might look at doing occasional gig in the area, and the team are also looking at possibly looking at doing a reduced-form Herts Jazz Festival. Both O’Brien and Tracey told me that they live more than an hour’s drive from St Albans, and their weekly commitment to be “the first to arrive and last to leave” is also part of what makes them both want to call a halt if the numbers are low… but also to wonder if a new injection of energy from people who live nearer might not be able to do something with Herts Jazz. “It needs a new injection of energy” was a phrase which both used, although, had the audience numbers increased, they would have been happy to continue for another ten years…

LINKS: Herts Jazz Website

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