Oxford jazz club The Spin was due to celebrate its 21st birthday in May 2020 when everything was cancelled…
“I questioned whether I should carry on on my own,” says Pete Oxley, guitarist and club organiser... “Our long term venue the Wheatsheaf came to an end because the owners of the building wanted to convert it into flats.”…and yet, The Spin survives “We’ve seen the audience demographic totally change”.. And all that is thanks to the resilience and determination of Pete Oxley, . Here is the story of how a club came back from the brink. Interview by Alison Bentley.
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The next Spin concert is on Sunday 6 Feb with John Etheridge. Pete Oxley will be at Ronnie Scott’s with the Oxley-Meier Guitar Project on Thursday 3 Feb. (booking links for both are below).
London Jazz News: How are things?
Pete Oxley: When Covid kicked in and lockdown happened we had to cancel a season’s worth of gigs. I was actually thinking, “This is quite nice, to have a bit of time off after all these years.” In the previous year co-organisers Mark Doffman [drums] and Raph Mizraki [bass] had left and I was running it on my own. We were the house band for visiting soloists, but there weren’t any other bassists and drummers who wanted to do it, so in the end I questioned whether I should carry on on my own- and I thought, “I can’t give this up.” We played the original music of the guests, or certainly their choice of repertoire, so it was quite a lot of preparation for me every time. Then the next season we were still locked down, and at the end of that I was wondering would I have the energy to start it up again.
And then in January 2021 while we were still locked down I randomly met this guy called Stuart Miller who has a barge on the canal in Oxford. It said on the side of the barge: Towpath Productions: moving music. He said, “ I’m really fed up with not having live music, so when it’s warm enough I’m going to have duos on the boat and just go up and down and entertain people.” That evening I called him up and by the end of the conversation he’d become my partner in running the Spin.
Stuart’s not a working jazz musician- he’s quite an active folk and Irish musician- but he did play sax as a kid and got to the point of trialling for NYJO, so he’s always had an interest in the music. He’d been to the Spin and knew about the club, and he was so positive I didn’t feel I could say, “ I haven’t got the energy.” He developed a very successful international business over 20 years which he sold, and now wants to put his energies into enabling the arts. He said, “All the administrative stuff I’m willing to come and help you with. My wife – an artist – and I employ a couple of younger guys on a retainer to do our websites and I’d be happy to employ them to do the Spin as well.” These guys are totally on the case: they do social media for us – we’ve got Instagram now, and the kind of stuff I would never have the energy or the knowledge to do.”
LJN: You’ve used a number of different venues- how has that worked?
PO: Really well. Our long term venue the Wheatsheaf came to an end because the owners of the building wanted to convert it into flats. Stuart said, “Why don’t we just inject jazz around Oxford instead of a permanent place?” We’ve been experimenting with venues on every level: what the venue is like for the audience, the acoustics, what they offer- everything about it is really important to us. A favourite is the Gin Distillery (The Oxford Artisan Distillery or TOAD) – it’s a really nice old barn. It’s a bit small with Covid considerations and we limit ourselves to 65 seats, still cabaret-style round little tables. It’s got to feel informal but the artist has to draw the audience in.
So we did our first gig last July. I was thinking of the Holywell Music Room for Liane Carroll, but she wasn’t available. It has a fantastic piano so we got Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy for the first gig and it sold out in advance.
Two new things we’ve done have been successful. In the old days we had full price tickets, concessions and students. Now we only have one price which is £15 pounds, but we have an early bird offer which is a third off. Nearly every gig we’ve done since then has sold out in advance. The second thing I didn’t really plan but I think it has worked well. We noticed we were only putting up one gig at a time on the website, partly because of having cancelled two seasons.
When we started opening up again, I started booking people a gig at a time. For the audience it’s like, great, there’s a gig, there’s nothing else. If you look at our website it’s just one gig, even though we know what’s coming next. We don’t put up the next gig until we’ve sold out the first one. We have postcards with a QR code, so you can scan that and buy a ticket for the gig with pretty much one click.
LJN: How are the audiences?
PO: We’ve seen the demographic totally change. We’ve got what we call our “inner circle”: four students in their 20s who volunteered to help out, so I can deal with the musical side of things. They bring their friends along, so the average age at the last gig over the audience was probably no more than 40.
LJN: So you’re feeling positive at a time when some jazz clubs are closing down?
PO: Yes, because I’m so into the music myself I haven’t got jaded by it- that’s a big part of having the energy to do it.
LJN: Do you have any other plans for your own music?
PO: My first gig of the season is at Ronnie Scott’s on February 3rd with the Oxley-Meier Guitar Project, with the great Swiss guitarist Nicolas Meier, Paul Cavaciuti on drums and Raph Mizraki on bass. We’ll be playing original music with ten guitars on stage – our brand of what we call world jazz. We like to say we take our audience on an aural journey around the world.