When Jazz helped a community to come together

On January 14th 2013 a horse-drawn carriage, with trumpeters following and snow flakes falling, carried the coffin of Keith Crombie, proprietor of the Pink Lane Jazz Cafe, on a final journey across the city of Newcastle. This was the death at the age of seventy four of a remarkable local character, known as The Jazz Man, but it also threatened to be the death of the city’s heart of jazz.

From the blogsite of Roger Smith – http://www.readysteadygone.co.uk/geordie-jazz-man/

With permission from Crombie’s relatives, Dave Parker stood up with a small group of fellow jazz lovers, to ask whether the way to keep the legacy of the Jazz Man alive was to form a co-operative of those who wanted to see a jazz club survive. He promised to set up a Facebook page at the end of the wake and asked anyone who liked the idea to like the page. By the end of the weekend, five hundred people had added their name. The Jazz Co-op was born.

Keith Crombie was by all accounts curmudgeonly, eccentric and gifted. He had been involved in the North East jazz scene from the 1960s and around 1990 he started the Jazz Café, a small music venue in Newcastle’s West End which he ran until his death in 2012. He was picky about who came in. He once famously turned away the entire Newcastle FC squad. Actors and musicians though were welcome. The Shakespearian actor, Greg Hicks commented in a tribute at the funeral that:

The Jazz Cafe for me was a place where the world became better. Keith had the lock-in to a Noah’s ark of brilliant music, brilliant camaraderie and straight talk. He was one of the most uncompromising and authentic men I have ever met.

Within a few weeks, a co-operative was set up legally with broad objectives to support the performance and development of jazz, poetry, dance and related arts. During 2013 it established regular jazz nights at various venues in Newcastle while the old Jazz Cafe remained closed. It wasn’t plain sailing though.

“We had hoped to buy or lease the Jazz Cafe premises and we had several meetings with the owners, but that wasn’t possible,” said Dave Parker, who plays double bass himself and learned to play jazz at the Jazz Cafe. Jazz and co-operatives, he describes as his two great passions. “In the meantime we learned the hard way that it’s nearly impossible to make a jazz club financially sustainable. To make it viable you need to get income from bar sales.”

In 2014, after a year of hosting events across different venues, a suitable home came up for sale, The Globe, a pub which was being sold off or closed down by the pub company that owned it. Previous tenants had build up a following for music at the pub and in a non-residential area, it had a rare late night license.

The co-op needed the money to bid, and at this point in the story, Co-operatives UK stepped in, in partnership with Locality with support through a pioneering online platform, now commonplace, to make it easy for existing and new members to invest in ‘community shares’ – equity for co-ops.

Two thirds of what was needed for the sale and the refurbishment was raised from two hundred people – artists, activists and music lovers – with a bridging loan for the remainder coordinated by the specialist Co-operative and Community Finance.

On April 30th 2014, International Jazz Day, The Jazz Co-op was launched at its new permanent home. With an emphasis on inclusivity through the refurbishment, The Globe became one of the few small music venues in Tyneside to be fully accessible.

Over the last year, the Jazz Coop has put on 70 jazz gigs, including both local and visiting musicians, but to widen its revenue base and appeal, The Globe has also hosted over 200 other live music and dance events.

“We didn’t set out to own a pub. We set out to promote learning, playing and listening to of jazz, but in order to make that possible, we have to earn money. We decided early on that we would not ask for grants, because to do so would put us in competition with existing arts bodies and we value all that they do” says Dave Parker, now co-chair of the co-operative.

Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah with members of the Jazz Co-op

The links between jazz and co-operation are natural ones, says the great cooperative researcher Professor Johnston Birchall, himself a jazz guitarist.

You can be an individual and a team player. A good jazz musician can join a jazz band anywhere – a good co-operator can join a co-operative anywhere.

Both are about shared freedom. Just as a co-operative is a device in business to allow different people with different skills to come together as equals and create something new, jazz allows different musicians with different talents to play together within a consistent musical framework. For both, you have to listen to others in the band, to keep the whole in harmony and to help highlight the right themes at the right times.

The musical framework and freedom of jazz, Johnston Birchall tells me, is rooted in a rich theoretical language that is derived from a relatively simple set of rules. George Russell, a jazz pianist, set these down in a 1953 book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation – drawing on his time playing with musicians such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in New York at the time. 

Both can be seen as complex evolving systems that: 

  • are connected with enough flex and variety not to be too rigid or homogenous
  • can self organise with reference to some simple rules 
  • can change over time, without the results being predetermined. 

Russell’s work found expression in the best selling jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue, released in 1959 by Miles Davis. Before this, jazz was organised within the confines of harmonic progression, chords building towards a tonal resolution. In Russell’s new formula, the rhythm section sustain a harmony sequence, while soloists explore the melodies that each chord allows, improvising with more freedom.

For me, it is indeed reminiscent of the seven principles of co-operatives, which establish a framework of rules and values within which freedom to co-operate can be given diverse expression. As the saying goes, if you have seen one co-op, you have seen… one co-op.

For the two combined, any jazz lover is free to join the Jazz Co-op and invest in it as a member, and indeed my own membership application, after meeting members in Newcastle on Friday, is in the post.

Perhaps not surprisingly, part of the encouragement for the Jazz Co-op has come not just from fellow Newcastle co-ops such as Alpha, an outstanding communications co-op, but also from fellow music co-operatives. These include the Bell Inn in Bath, itself an extraordinary community success story, Hackney Co-operative Developments, which hosts the Vortex Club in London, and more recently the Sir Charles Napier in Blackburn.

There are informal jazz co-ops too now in Brighton, Cambridge and Southend.

Each of these in its own way offer examples of community buy-outs – a democratic variant on what is still common in the business world of ‘management buy-outs’. In Scotland, it has been land that has led the way, with a target to achieve one million acres in community ownership. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it has been community assets, including pubs.

The story of Keith Crombie lives on through the Jazz Co-op, but it has also been charted through a documentary directed by the film-maker Abi Lewis and supported in part through crowd-funding. The film won a best factual production award at the Royal Television Society Awards and an international film prize at the NorthWestFest in Canada.

As Dave Parker of the Jazz Co-op puts it “we can’t bring Keith back but we can continue the work he has done.”

Or as Keith Crombie himself put it when asked about jazz, freedom and his jazz cafe in the bustling heart of Newcastle,

I never worry what other people think. I just do what I do.

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