Bimhuis at 40: Older, Better, Business as Usual

Bimhuis at 40: Older, Better, Business as Usual
Joan Gannij BY

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We're pushing forward more than looking back. We are giving a podium to many new and unknown musicians...
—Huub van Riel
The Bimhuis is turning 40 and is still very much in its prime. Beginning October 1, Amsterdam's venerable jazz club will celebrate this milestone with a variety of concerts, activities and special events. The Bimhuis opened in 1974 after a lengthy search for a suitable venue for improvising musicians. Over the next decades it would become the most important jazz institution in the Netherlands, not only as a venue but also as a crossroads for the leading performers and budding talents of the Dutch and international jazz scene.

The Bim's roots derive from improvisational music, but it's really about live music that transcends genre: music in development, music that breathes and takes risks. The broad program focuses on topical developments but also regularly includes leading representatives of older trends. The Bimhuis is regarded by professionals ''as one of the best music rooms in the world,'' according to the Guardian newspaper in London. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah confirms that it's his ''favorite club in the world,'' Branford Marsalis describes it as ''simply one of the two or three best jazz clubs in the world,'' and Marc Ribot thinks ''the Bimhuis should open up a branch in New York... and in Miami, too.''

Willem van Manen, a respected trombonist/composer in the jazz and modern/classic scenes, is one of the founding fathers of the Bimhuis, along with Hans Dulfer, Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg, and wine trader Henk Elzinga. As van Manen tells it, Dulfer, saxophonist, jazz mover and shaker and father of Candy Dulfer (who also plays a mean sax!) was organizing the Wednesday evening jazz concerts at the Paradiso back in the early 70s. "Hans and I played in Heavy Soul Inc, the house orchestra, which included Maarten Altena on bass and Han Bennink on drums. After our first set, the 'real' musicians came up to play. And everyone played there!'' Indeed, the rotating roster included a veritable who's who of musicians like Charles Mingus, Sun Ra And His Arkestra, Dexter Gordon, and of course Don Byas and Ben Webster, who were both living in Amsterdam; Byas was married to a Dutch woman. ''All the big players came through town because they were on tour in Europe, so it was easy. That lasted until 1974 when the Paradiso decided they wanted to showcase Pop Music every night. We needed another place where we could regularly organize concerts and that took about three years to find. Henk Elzinga called and said he'd seen an empty space on the Oudeschans behind the Waterlooplein, a former furniture showroom. Dulfer and I got the rent down because the place had been empty for so long. We needed top musicians in order to afford the rent so we approached the City of Amsterdam (Cultural Section) about getting a subsidy. Henk got the bar up and running, and after our initial concerts got good reviews and enthusiastic articles in local newspapers, the City agreed to give us some help to start a permanent jazz podium in Amsterdam. We booked Lee Konitz, Arnett Cobb, Phil Woods and over the next years, word got out among the musicians in New York that 'you don't count unless you've played in the Bimhuis.'"

The old warehouse was not in great condition and after ten years, the City was approached again about making improvements so the Bim could be more professional: new chairs, lighting, and better sound. The podium actually stood on the floor of the cellar where the musicians played in a half circle. That design would eventually be taken over for the new Bimhuis. In 1995 the location was threatened due to complaints about noise from neighboring inhabitants. The surrounding warehouses had originally been occupied by businesses but after they had relocated outside the city center, their offices were converted into apartments. While the city council had tightened environmental (and noise) regulations, they were also making plans to convert the neglected eastern harbor district close to Central Station into a new cultural hub along the waterfront of the river IJ. The Bimhuis was an ideal tenant for this music center complex, as well the IJsbreker, a venue for modern music along the Amstel. According to van Manen, "Jan Wolff (IJsbreker director) was looking for a larger location and the Gemeente (Municipality) decided to make a music center on the Piet Heinkade.''

On February 19, 2005, the Bimhuis opened its new location on the top floor of a contemporary building block, which is shared with the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ on the ground floor, a contemporary music hall known for its splendid acoustics, and a restaurant with a popular terrace. Although some of the musicians and regulars who frequented the Bimhuis were concerned whether the informal atmosphere of the former club would be preserved, their skepticism was rewarded with the addition of modern technical facilities and superb acoustics. Artistic director Huub van Riel says that he gave the 'design process' a lot of thought and concluded: it's not about the place, it's also about the times. The new Bim needed to be different. But it became clearer and clearer to me that it also had to be close to the old club in many ways. It couldn't be too clean and shiny, and the layout was important. How musicians enter the stage, the sight lines, the immediate rapport with the audience, the location of the bar, the addition of a restaurant. On the outside, it couldn't be more different,'' he adds, referring to the modern architectural lines with views of the Amsterdam spires and trains, boats and the occasional plane gliding by. Some say that the views are distracting, while others appreciate the abstract cityscape backdrop. Who decides whether the curtains stay open or closed? Van Riel says he prefers them to be at least half open, but that's up to the musicians," adding that the view is NEVER a disturbing factor because the space is elevated and also soundproof. One night just two weeks after the opening he recalls a magical moment with Joao Bosco, the Brazilian vocalist/guitarist. ''He was sitting on a barstool playing an intimate solo when it started snowing behind him. Not the flurry of snowflakes we usually get in Amsterdam, but lots of thick white snow. UNFORGETTABLE!'' Dutch jazz critic Koen Schouten says that the Bimhuis is more than a blackbox or a warehouse. It's all about what happens on the podium.'' In comparing the old Bim with the new one, van Riel cites the late Mike Zwerin, an accomplished New York writer-musician based in Paris, who summed it up best in an article for the International Herald Tribune: "The place is a triumph. It's the same as the old place, but better.''

In the nine years since the Bimhuis moved to its new location, the number of concerts and activities has increased enormously. There are over 300 events every year, including concerts, workshops, sessions, children's concerts, etc. There are also regular recording sessions, both for radio and tv, as well as cd launches and prize ceremonies. In 2012, the Bimhuis received the EJN Award for adventurous programming: "There is no other example throughout Europe of a venue or promoter which has created the level and range of programs, and sustained it for so many years as the Bimhuis has done, And it is still producing adventurous, wide-ranging, risk-taking, thought-provoking programs.''

Huub van Riel deserves the credit for this. He joined the Bimhuis in the summer of 1976 and recalls that ''it happened more or less by accident. I had been organizing concerts elsewhere, so I guess that was the reason they (the founding members) approached me. Dulfer, van Manen, Breuker, and Mengelberg were totally different characters who all were anarchists, each in their own individual way, with the same goal: to start a club that was open to everybody, the bebop-based players as well as the innovators of the improv scene.'' Van Riel had been booking acts for De Kroeg, a local venue on the Lijnbaansgracht (where Chet Baker would play his final concert in 1988 before a fatal fall from a hotel window the next day) and was no stranger to jazz. ''When I was about 14, I found myself listening to Louis Armstrong and Joe King Oliver, followed by Dave Brubeck, then Duke Ellington, classic bebop, and within the space of (I guess) not more than one year (this was mid-60s), I had moved on via Art Blakey and Horace Silver, to the contemporary music of Cecil Taylor, late John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and the then new European improvisers scene.''

What made him take on this new challenge? It just happened that I was deeply interested, though not exclusively, in the new music of the day as well as the best of jazz history. They needed a hand for the moment, so I stepped in for a little while and never left.'' When asked about the secret of the Bimhuis' success, he replies: ''Every decision is hopefully an inspired one and not a lazy one. It's about the involvement of the personnel, the mentality. The style of the operation on all levels is about making the most of content, and this attitude explains why both musicians and audiences appreciate the Bim. It's a collective effort and we have a lot of talented young people who have stayed with us a long time.'' He admits somewhat modestly ''if I am referred to as part of the jazz community, I feel a little bit allergic to that notion. If I were to open a music club now, I would reconsider calling it a jazz club. I love jazz and it would be a most important, at least, a central element, but labeling it jazz could be a handicap because of the inherent conservatism of the jazz world itself.''

Over the years the Bimhuis became a significant gathering point for musicians on the festival circuit. The famous October Meetings were unique and full of surprises, according to the players as well as audience members. Described as ''a nine-day program that was a total extravaganza of improvisation,'' there were satellite gigs at a number of venues. Van Riel describes the October Meetings as ''the loveliest thing I've dome. The intensity was wonderful.'' He says there are infinite anecdotes about countless performances in the past forty years. One memorable moment occurred after a set by Ray Anderson, Gerry Hemingway, and Mark Helias. ''They had just finished playing and were packing up when Tony Scott showed up with his clarinet. The musicians exchanged a look and some words, then unpacked their instruments to jam with him. They played for about 40 minutes and although there were only 25 or 30 people left, something happened that kept everyone glued to their seats. Afterwards we all went to the bar for a drink but it had shut down and the staff had gone home.''

Out of moments like that came a certain mystique: the Bimhuis as urban legend. Van Riel remembers a newspaper article that referred to 'the great Bimhuis where John Coltrane and Charlie Parker used to play.' He laughs and says, "I didn't ask them to rectify that.'' So who has played there, besides Mingus and Dexter, Art Farmer, Al Foster, Billy Mitchell, Johnny Griffin, Nat Adderley, Jim Hall, both Paul Bley and Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Hermeto Pascoal, Steve Lacy, Machito, Herb Geller, singers like Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Jeanne Lee, and Cassandra Wilson, among so many others. "Who hasn't? he replies, smiling. Does he have a wish list? "I fear it's too late now. But Sonny Rollins and Han Bennink would have been my dream team.'' He says that he has no defined system when it comes to booking. "I go by intuition, that's the system, based on long experience. In recent years we have an even more adventurous audience with higher numbers. I feel happy that after 40 years we are still attracting audiences from all generations which is rare, but that's because it's about the music. The various Bimhuis audiences overlap but not so much at the extremes; the hardcore improvisers get a different audience than the hard boppers. The challenge is to keep things fresh and not too predictable. I could easily skip risk by playing safe and just booking famous acts to get even higher audience numbers, but I prefer mixing in the newest music. When Geri Allen, Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, and Joe Lovano first played here, there were also small houses. There's something about pioneering that's very attractive."

Where does he see the Bimhuis in the next 40 years? "We're pushing forward more than looking back. We are giving a podium to many new and unknown musicians, inviting the improvised music of tomorrow to be presented today. We're here to embrace, assist, and support the development of this music. " As for the next 40 years, he smiles and says: "Business as usual.''

Bimhuis Tributes

On that opening night back in 1974, Rein De Graaff was in one of three bands in the lineup with fellow Dutchman, Dick Vennik on tenor sax. "There's nothing that beats the Bimhuis. It's perfect in every way, and you can't say that about most jazz clubs, which are usually smaller. The Bimhuis has good acoustics, a fine sound system, a good piano, and a good audience. The staff treat you well and always give you a nice dinner." De Graaf's trio consists of drummer Eric Ineke and bassist Marius Beets and expands to a quartet with a variety of young cats new to the scene and seasoned veterans of the podium. His next Bimhuis gigs will be in November and March with Gary Smulyan, and Doug Webb. "We still play hard bop, bebop, and that's not heard so often in the Bimhuis anymore. But when we play, it's always sold out.''

Han Bennink: The Bimhuis is the best jazzclub in the world without any doubt; compared to any and all. I am not a fan of jazz clubs, but in the Bimhuis they serve you a meal, they have great acoustics (not 'jazzclub' acoustics) there are very pleasant people working there (mainly women) and they treat you with respect. I play with a lot of American musicians and when they are touring Europe and they don't play the Bim, then their tour is not a success. Memorable moments: Oh, those moments still have to come -there are so many memories already.

Mark Dresser: What makes the Bim special ultimately, has to do with the feeling of the people and the spirit from which it was conceived: as an organization for musicians. The attitude of caring for musicians that radiates from the even-handed, cool compassion, and soulful intelligence of Huub Van Riel and the generations of truly gifted people working for the Bim (too many to mention). Both venues have always sounded excellent. I'll never forget my first gig at the Bim around 1984, an acoustic trio with Ernst Reijseger and Gerry Hemingway. Maarten Altena generously lent me his wonderful sounding Italian bass and the concert was magic. At the end Huub gave each of us a bottle of his personal stash of Sicilian wine which sent the tone for me. Memorable moments: Meeting up with the musicians themselves who'd show up at the gig, share their opinion and talk at the bar.... Sean Bergin---bigger than life! So many memorable gigs. The first October Meeting back in 86. I was the house bassist and played all day and night for the whole festival. I remember John Zorn badgering Misha Mengelberg until we had transcribed enough tunes to play (together) without Misha one evening. Playing nightly with Derek Bailey in a different configuration was also a blast.

Michael Moore: My first time playing at the Bimhuis, in 1979, with Ernst Reijseger and Michael Vatcher, was memorable for what happened before the concert. A man came in, disrupting our sound check, yelling, 'I am jazz.' He had to be forcibly removed—this doesn't happen much anymore. The first Bimhuis on the Oude Schans was very much our clubhouse, and I had to be picked up off the floor more than once. With the move to Piet Heinkade in 2003 it felt like it was no longer 'ours,' but that we were giving it to the world. Hearing Steve Lacy solo in 1980 taught me a lot. With the renovation (1984) it was all slick, metal furniture and people started to think about acoustics. My 1986 Boy Edgar Prize concert was a lot of work (a set of music for a large group with three singers) and a lot of fun (I was able to bring my friend and teacher Jaki Byard to Amsterdam to play with Misha Mengelberg, Steve Lacy, Wilbur Little and Denis Charles. Memorable moments: The legendary October Meetings were filled with great music made by unexpected combinations of players -it's a pity that that cannot happen anymore. Three days of Von Freeman with Amina Claudine Myers, Hein van der Geijn and Han Bennink in 2002 was a revelation. It's a pity that more concert recordings haven't been released. I've always appreciated Huub van Riel's vision and programming; it has not been an easy balancing act to guide this amazing project through the changing times. It's an amazing place for acoustic music. I am honored to have a chance to play there and I always look forward to it (and I can ride my bike to the gig!).

Tineke Postma: It's spectacular to play on this stage with the city in the background. The sound is great and the setting makes it very intimate. It's great to have the audience sitting so close to the stage. The history of the club always inspires, and the programming is great which also really helps to feel part of the international and local jazz community. Memorable moment: I played here with several groups: recording for the VPRO with my quartet, recording a DVD with my quintet, and sitting in with Esperanza Spalding. Hearing Hank Jones with Joe Lovano was amazing.

Lilian Viera: I can't remember my first time at the Bimhuis but it must have been at a jam session for singers. I came alone and the atmosphere was wonderful. I started going more often and saw some amazing concerts. One day I thought: 'I have a good band, maybe I'll call the Bim and we can get a gig.' But it doesn't quite work that way. A few years later I was doing my own project Samba Soul and played at the 'old Bim' for the first time. The room was full and people were so close to the stage. It was great! The new location is also special with the view of the city behind the podium and the audience under your nose. You can see everything happening. The podium is the focus, just like the music, and that's why people come to the Bimhuis!

Charles McPherson: The Bimhuis is a true jazz club. Although I haven't worked there in years, the times that I did, the audiences always seemed to be there for the music only. They were a listening audience that responded back (to the musicians); therefore getting the best performance out of the musicians. The bandstand was very comfortable for my band in that it was roomy enough, and the acoustics of the club were very good which is not always the case; even in well established jazz clubs. Memorable moments: Most notably with Rein De Graaff. The symbiosis that came about from our collaborations was always gratifying.

Mary Oliver: The 1991 October Meeting was (thanks to George Lewis ) my introduction to the Dutch/international world of contemporary, jazz-composed and improvised music. It was a whirlwind of introductions and performances with some of the greatest musicians of that time. Consequently, I moved to the Netherlands in 1995 and continued performing at the Bim with local and international performers/composers/improvisors. Thankfully, I was invited by Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink to join the Instant Composers' Pool Orchestra, which (I think) remains to be the 'house band' of the Bimhuis. In my experience with touring the world, the Bimhuis remains the best venue for our music. Thank you, Huub van Riel!"

[John Engels]: I've played the whole world with just about everyone: Woody Shaw, James Moody, Kenny Drew, Philly Joe Jones, Arnett Cobb, Mel Lewis, and so many more. New York is the jazz mecca, as well as New Orleans, but for me the Bimhuis is the Jazz Temple.

Photo credit: Govert Driessen

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