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Venerable Hermann's Jazz Club celebrates 40 years

ON STAGE What: Cheers to 40 Years — Hermann’s Anniversary Celebration Where: hermannsjazz.com When: Friday April 30, 7 p.m. Tickets: By donation The building at 753 View St. does not offer much in the way of curbside appeal.
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Behind the nondescript glass doors lives the longest continually running jazz club in the country — one that has survived a damaging fire, changes in ownership, and the death of its much-loved founder during four decades of operation. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

ON STAGE

What: Cheers to 40 Years — Hermann’s Anniversary Celebration
Where: hermannsjazz.com
When: Friday April 30, 7 p.m.
Tickets: By donation

The building at 753 View St. does not offer much in the way of curbside appeal.

But behind the nondescript glass doors lives the longest continually running jazz club in the country — one that has survived a damaging fire, changes in ownership, and the death of its much-loved founder during four decades of operation.

Not even COVID-19 could bring down the venerable room. Hermann’s Jazz Club has remained active during the pandemic, after making the switch last year to a daily livestream format. The venue has staged 320 free concerts and raised more than $100,000 in donations for the musicians who performed there over the past 12 months, far outpacing other clubs in the city in the same socially distanced time frame.

Another livestream set for Friday will celebrate 40 years of operation under the Hermann’s Jazz Club banner. The club is also releasing its first-ever compilation CD. Cheers to 40 Years features a number of well-known local musicians who have been synonymous with Hermann’s since its inception, including Toni Blodgett, Tom Vickery, Don Leppard and Al Pease.

The compilation features archival recordings that date back to the early days of Hermann’s by the likes of Dixieland Express and CanUS, along with music newly recorded by Blodgett, Pease and Russ Botten, among others.

“Everyone on this album were among the first bands to perform at Hermann’s,” said Ashley Wey, the club’s booking manager. “We’re honouring the founding musicians at the club. The whole point is to show that they are still performing. Lloyd Arntzen is 93, Al Pease is 82, Toni [Blodgett] is 82, Tom Vickery is 83. That is something to celebrate.”

Blodgett was a member of the Al Pease Trio in 1981 when founder Hermann Nieweler first booked them at his former Bastion Inn on Government Street, where the Bedford Regency Hotel is today. It was Feb. 25, 1981, the day when the 40-year stretch of jazz being celebrated this weekend began.

Hermann’s Jazz Club didn’t come to life in its current form until 1986, when Nieweler purchased the building on View Street and moved his musical operation there.

Blodgett, who has performed at Hermann’s regularly throughout its existence, knew she was in a fortuitous position when Nieweler hired her and her bandmates early on.

“The musicians we met during our touring around the United States, their jaws would drop when we told them we had a club dedicated to jazz in Victoria,” Blodgett said. “Most of them had to form some sort of society and get some Legion or a room to meet at once a month. But we were working in a club and being paid. They thought that was just remarkable.”

The dedication of Nieweler, who died at the age of 79 in 2015, was legendary. He would often make decisions that made sense to him, even if they did not make sound financial sense. His passion for the music was a blessing for those on stage and in the audience, Blodgett said. “He was there for the love and not the profit-and-loss statement.”

Damage from a devastating fire in 2000 that started upstairs shuttered Hermann’s for close to a year, and the club required substantial renovations to reopen. Nieweler didn’t think twice about spending the money on repairs, out of respect for what the spot had come to represent. He was never going to let something as simple as a fire shut down the club, Blodgett said.

“There is a term that Germans use to describe themselves, Hermann always used to tell me. I don’t remember what it was, but it was about their stubbornness. He was aware of that side of his personality. He was a guy that hung in there when a lot of people would not have.”

A collegial atmosphere has always been the club’s hallmark. While some notables have played its tiny stage in the past — Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Wheeler, Renee Rosnes, Loudon Wainwright III, Brian Auger, Judy Collins, Eric Bibb, David Francey and Rob McConnell, included — there is also a huge community of unofficial shareholders who support the small, low-ceilinged room as if it was their own.

That was the handiwork of Nieweler, who could often be found drinking schnapps with patrons at the club, even though he lived in Vancouver. He brought in the room’s infamous couch for an elderly couple with mobility problems, and once presented an extra-large ashtray — when smoking indoors was permitted — to a regular who chain-smoked.

“He was a special person, there’s no doubt about that,” said son Stephan Nieweler, who owns the building that houses Hermann’s with his siblings, Edward Nieweler and Ingrid Reid.

“But the last few years, there has been a number of people who have had to step up to make this happen at times, through different challenges. It’s not about one person anymore, like it was in the old days.”

The club struggled early on without Nieweler at the helm. Nieweler’s children made an attempt to keep it running before signing over operational control to the Arts On View Society, a non-profit community group made up of longtime Hermann’s supporters. Fittingly, the society raised $75,000 through a series of “Save Hermann’s” fundraising concerts to pay for the deposit on the lease.

Upwards of $90,000 was raised through various means, all with the understanding that the club would be run by fans of Hermann’s, for fans of Hermann’s. The business has been for sale since October 2019, but the five-year lease agreement signed with Nieweler’s estate before the building was put on the market will keep Hermann’s alive until 2024 at the very least.

His father would be happy to see that it was still open, and still thriving, Nieweler said.

“He had a very strong will. He was one of those rare persons that would do almost anything to see something through. All that he wanted to do was create a cosy local music room where young and old musicians, and jazz lovers, could meet, share their passion and have a good time. Little did he know how unique it would be for such a place to last 40 years.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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