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The Spirit of Adventure: Juss Jazz

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Last week at Juss Jazz, we played this wonderful old Joe Henderson tune, “Jinrikisha.” I think most people aren’t familiar with it, but I love it. To me it speaks of a place I’ve only dreamed of, where the sky is a weird colour, the mountains are shaped funny, people speak sounds I’ve never heard, and the food tastes unfamiliar. It captures that mixture of fear and excitement—the spirit of adventure.

I’m thinking about that spirit a lot these days, because it’s so critical to the health and vitality of jazz culture. When you think about New York or Montreal, those cities have a certain curiosity about them, an international feel, an openness and expectation that something new and unfamiliar is around every corner. There’s a lively curiosity about food, clothes, language, music, an enthusiasm for things that aren’t indigenous. It’s an embrace of life and all of its opportunities. It’s a big experience to be alive for 90 or 100 years. I think of the millions of uniquely beautiful experiences I won’t ever have because there’s just not enough time.

Desire, tolerance, and curiosity: those things are vital to a jazz culture, and absolutely essential to sustain a jazz club scene. Jazz clubs are different from nightclubs. People go to jazz clubs not to discover a mate but to discover a muse. They want to put themselves in the way of new musical ideas, new aesthetic options, new dreams.

A jazz club is a tough undertaking these days. A lot of people have strong opinions about what jazz is (and why they don’t want to hear it), and people who love it have access, 24/7, to a constant stream of musical information that channels right into their private spaces. There’s no longer a pressing need to go out to hear jazz, not like when I was apprenticing a few short decades back.

And yet…there is something extraordinary about live jazz in a club—just ask the thousands of people who cram themselves nightly into the tight quarters of Smalls or Dizzy’s or The Iridium or Smoke. It has a lot to do with a spirit of adventure, a desire to be surprised, a determination to be part of a creative explosion of ideas.

I’ve come to think of Juss Jazz, down near Portage and Main, as our version of a New York club. It’s barely bigger than a Greenwich Village coffee shop, with posters and graffiti-art and lively Caribbean colours and smells. It has one of those small territory-band stages where you cram ten people into a space for four! The sound is good. The chairs are comfortable. The food is fantastic. The people are friendly. The vibe is fun.

The force behind this happening spot is Sean Sam, a Trinidadian transplant who has called Winnipeg home for the past couple of decades. Sean is an extremely energetic, alpha-type male, with a robust laugh and a quick wit. He’s very gregarious, and has been welcoming people into his club like it’s his home. He’s no pushover, though. He’s ambitious, resourceful, and fearless. He’s a big dreamer, and he believes it’s important to create spaces for musicians and regular people to gather and make things happen together.

As we go to press, it looks like the writing is on the wall for Juss Jazz, and I’m truly sorry about that. Sean’s vision and determination have contributed greatly to the renaissance that’s happening here in Winnipeg, and he deserves our gratitude.

Initially, Sean was thinking of a club that specialized in jazz, but that’s still a hard sell in Winnipeg. So he expanded his idea. New York style jazz, Motown, blues, Latin, reggae—you could hear many different flavours of music at Juss Jazz, depending which day you showed up.

It’s been a process of discovery. “I had no clue as to how much talent was in this city,” Sean told me recently, shaking his head and laughing. He’s also been surprised by the variety of people he’s met. “Every genre of music we feature has its own kind of crowd,” he said, “and they’re really different from one another!” What drives him? “I love seeing all those different cultures coming together. The longer the club is open, the more the purpose reveals itself…”

If you haven’t been down to Juss Jazz, you’ve been missing a real event. For jazz lovers, every Friday has been worth the trip. Derrick Gardner’s house band tears it up, then a bunch of the younger musicians in town take their turns sitting in. Out-of-town musicians wander over from the Fairmont or Fort Garry and sit in too. On that cramped stage, you can hear what we’re growing in this city—we’re incubating new musicians, and a particular sound that speaks of this place. You can hear Sean’s dream of all those cultures coming together, cross-pollinating ideas, generating a new high-energy hybrid.

Running a club takes nerves of steel, boundless energy, deep conviction—and a lot of resources. Making a club feel like a second home for artists and the dreamers who come to listen to them? Well, that requires a magic touch. Sean’s got it.

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