London’s Vortex Jazz Club rings the changes

Part of a cluster of small jazz venues in Hackney within easy reach of one another the Vortex has seen extensive change recently. With a changed layout to project facing out from the left in the main club room instead of formerly straight ahead, the club Steinway moved nearer the room’s entrance door, the cafe tables removed and replaced by neat rows of foldaway chairs, the redevelopment of the former restaurant space downstairs begun and above all an evolutionary return to a normal schedule post-Covid are some of the changes.

Situated in a very busy vibrant east London square at the heart of the multi-cultural Dalston residential and entertainment area which is popular with students and clubbers and by now long established in the area after a move in 2005 from neighbouring Stoke Newington Pauline Le Divenach is responsible at the club for venue hire and for marketing and production and spoke to Offbeat about recent developments at the club.

One strand of activity included in the early-autumn when the Vortex hosted the Feed The Soul festival in Gillett Square which surrounds the club. 

The square is a popular hang-out for local Dalston residents and awaits the imminent conclusion of the re-development of the side of the square that backs on to nearby Bradbury Street which is home to local venue Servant’s Jazz stretching almost as far in the direction of the Kingsland Road as the Dalston Jazz Bar.

‘‘I started working two days a week and my main focus was on use of the space in the daytime to make musicians aware of the fact that it was available outside of gigs and performance time and they could use it as a rehearsal space. Step by step I started to take on some other jobs and so had been helping with the fundraising and funding applications especially during lockdown as there wasn’t much happening and doing a bit of the promotion and marketing and production taking over from two programmers Kim [Macari] and Daniel [Garel] as soon as the gig is confirmed. I am the person doing the transport to the hotel, equipment hire. I’m now working 4 days of the week here so it’s usually me on site when bands are coming in.’’

Disruption caused by ongoing building work in the Gillett Square area posed certain challenges as the club emerged from Covid restrictions. ‘‘They have done most of it now,’’ Pauline explains, ‘‘and from what I have seen and heard they are done with most of the outdoor stuff and removed all the scaffolding a couple of weeks ago. I think more work is still to be done indoors. The work has lasted for ages. Because of the hoardings downstairs the whole downstairs area is kind of hidden from the public so it was a bit of a nightmare. And of course all the noise for a long time meant we were not able to host recording sessions during the daytime because we had no guarantee that there wouldn’t be any drilling or loud noises during the sessions.’’

Pauline doesn’t deal with the club volunteers as part of her role but they are important in the life of the Vortex. ‘‘I see the volunteers on a regular basis because I am usually around when they come in the evening. But I’m not the person managing the pool of volunteers so I don’t have much contact with them directly. In an ideal scenario we need 3 to 4 volunteers per evening. If it’s a busy gig 4 is ideal because we get three people behind the bar and 1 night manager.’’

Some changes in the building

One big change this year has seen the repurposing of the downstairs bar into a second rehearsal daytime space and for gigs in the evening although a future strategy for the space is still to be fully decided. ‘‘It all started when we had to close upstairs for the refurb work so we needed a back-up plan to carry on with gigs. So we moved the gigs that we could move initially for a month which in the end lasted for 3 months. We have a couple of gigs taking place downstairs, mostly amateur jams. So we have got a mid-week one on Tuesday and an afternoon one on Saturday on a regular basis. It happens sometimes that I have two rehearsals taking place at the same time.’’

The main room has much improved sound. ‘‘We have done some work with the acoustics and the flooring before we started work downstairs to try to improve the sound filtering through between the two spaces. No more squeaky floor, it’s more stable and we have two curtains, an acoustic curtain and a PVC curtain which is used for video screening. We added an extra bit to this wall as well’’. Pauline taps the wall by the entrance door adding: ‘‘We’ve got a new PA system and a new desk. We got the desk prior to the rest of the work.’’

A typical Hackney venue

Venues in Hackney benefited from help from the local council to spring back into activity again and that involved a festival recently in the square and inside the club. ‘‘We applied about a year ago. Hackney council our local council had a budget to help all cultural venues to re-open post-Covid. So they had a bit of money available either to offer discounts for Hackney residents or to offer some specific cultural activities, mostly for Hackney residents as well. We applied for funding and we offered to organise a mini-festival with some free music outdoors in Gillett Square and also performances at the Vortex with discounted tickets for Hackney residents. We know there are loads of events on in the square over the summer and that Caribbean and West African music are very popular. The idea was to have a mix between jazz and world music. In parallel Kathianne [Hingwan] my colleague had funding from the PRS Foundation to commission a new piece of work from a drummer called David Ijaduola and the festival was an opportunity to represent the new commission live for the first time.’’

Hackney-born Ijaduola also known as Juno Jaxxon is on drum ’n’ bass chart act Rudimental’s ‘Right Here’ which appeared on the Mercury nominated album Home the cover of which features the Dalston Peace Mural located close to Cafe Oto and the CLR James Library nearby.

More women in jazz : let’s get to it.

The Vortex is signed up to Keychange, a PRS Foundation initiative that encourages festivals and music organisations to include 50 per cent women and under represented genders in programming, staffing and beyond. Pauline says: ‘‘I know our programming team pays very attention to be as diverse as possible and I think our current programming is much more diverse than it was a few years back. Outside of the gigs I really try in terms of hire to support and encourage loads of initiatives that involve young people and young girls such as two weeks ago a partnership with the Girl Plays Jazz organisation. It’s a workshop for girls aged between 8 and15 to make them discover improvisation and jazz. On a regular basis we have also started to work with bands from the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy.’’ 

It has certainly been a period of transition for the Vortex going ever deeper into the music in a much changed post Brexit landscape. What comes next in a worsening economic climate in the UK is anyone’s guess. Regardless given its resilience rooted in the heart of the music community in east London the Vortex will remain alert to all that is adventurous and connects most with its audience.