Jazzland: Always ‘In The Mood’

Vienna’s Prime Lokal Celebrates its 35th Anniversary, The Oldest Continuing Jazz Club in Europe

18th Street Saxophones: Christa Eidler, Helmut Strobl, Georg Racz, Thomas Gersch, Gerald Mittermueller | Photo: Elodie Lamblin

It’s Monday evening and I am on my way to Jazzland. The club is situated right next to Schwedenplatz in the 1st district of the capital, not far from the so-called “Bermuda Triangle,” where a concentration of bars have long been popular with both locals and tourists.

The hidden entrance, under St. Ruprecht’s Church, already sets the tone of this off beat world of non-conformists.

Jazz musicians have always been rebels; locations were to be discovered, and the music was played literally underground, in dark and smoky cellars.

Inside, the main room of exposed bricks is long, lined with padded benches and packed with tables covering every centimeter of space. The walls are covered with rows of crisp black and white photographs, the faces and instruments of the Jazzland stage.

As I entered, there was not a single table free, so I pick my way, zigzagging between tables and legs of people already making themselves comfortable, finally ending up in a second room off to the left, by the bar. Here it was nearly empty.

I had the choice of sitting at the bar itself as I usually prefer, but it would have meant missing the view of the stage.

I could have also chosen a wooden “stammtisch” for ten people. I finally picked a tiny connecting alley, between both rooms, with a small bench. I had found my spot, ideally located at exact distance from both the bar and the stage…

As my eyes wandered around the room, the sense of excitement grew. The place has an aura of the souls and evenings of music that have taken place over the years. Each inch of Jazzland is filled with the marks, stains, of its history.

The comfort and ambience with the décor blending Austrian Heuriger furniture reinforce the warmth brought by Jazzland. It simply felt good to be sitting there, enjoying the dazzling view of five saxophones being played at once by musicians who moved their bodies like snakes.

Jazzland is the oldest continuing jazz club in Europe and it is by far the pioneer of the jazz locals on the Viennese scene. Axel Melhardt, founder and director of the club, himself something of jazz legend, wanted to put Vienna on the international circuit, and made Jazzland a place to present performers from all over the world, playing very different styles of jazz.

Hundreds of international bands and musicians from the United States and Europe as well as the top Austrian talents have played at Jazzland – this year celebrating its 35th anniversary – people like Big Joe Williams, Teddy Wilson and Benny Carter.

The 500 year-old cellar space, originally a little city-owned wine cellar called the Weinfassl (“The Li’l Wine Cask”), presents live jazz six nights a week, a remarkable feat of organization and management by Melhardt for what is essentially a small family business.

Moreover, Jazzland has the reputation of not only being a musical club but also the home of good Viennese cuisine, where people enjoy a choice of Austrian Suppentopf, Schinkenfleckerl or Wienerschnitzel and the popular house specialty, the bean goulash. The wine menu is short and local, but very satisfactory and happily inexpensive.

One of Melhardt’s only regrets, as added on the Jazzland website, is that he feels jazz is earning a lot more respect elsewhere in Europe.

In Austria, it “seems forever tied to the old mindset, equating jazz with rock and pop, rather than granting it the respect it’s long since earned as ‘serious’ music.”

However, one of Jazzland’s great strengths, one that makes all the difference is its ability to adapt to the ever-changing jazz music. It has continuously flourished in styles over the years and Jazzland, with the support of Vienna, has offered the possibility to make it being discovered every time again.

“Vienna has finally made it,” Melhardt says. “No other city in the world offers as many seats in jazz clubs in relation to its population as the Austrian capital does.”

On stage, the band 18th Street Saxophone Quintet had by now started jazzing for a few minutes, spurring the feet in the audience to already beat the tempo. Four men and a woman shared the notes coming out of their saxophones, catching the tails of each others’ melodic tunes, separating and merging again in seeming perfect balance.

At Jazzland, the hours drift gently by, punctuated by a fusion of musical tunes. The next song came up soon after. As I allowed myself to close my eyes, the melody traveling to my ears brought me to the 20’s, dancing in swirls with a gentleman in a double-breasted suit in a bright, art deco dance club in old New York.

The walls melt away in the spacious room, filled with laughter coming from intoxicated couples whirling on the dance floor.

But the jazz I was enjoying at that precise moment created a very different image in my mind than the older jazz I usually listen to- bringing me back several decades to this cozy setting of underground cellar, small tables, smoky atmosphere and whiskey. This was better than ever- it suited my mood to perfection.

The next piece, originally from the group “Super Sex,” had been arranged by the band for five saxophones- a very shallow-mellow ballad under the trees in Central Park, springtime.

The omnipresent concept of communing with jazz music and repetitive tunes became palpable with the next song, “Birdland.” The air was filled with a tasteful sprinkling of contemporary beats, very dynamic in style and positive in mood.

The musicians spiced up the melody with little unexpected touches, making it more exotic, almost fruity!

At the final piece I sat back once again, eyes closed, to find myself sitting in a plane with a suitcase on my lap, to a great adaptation of the melody from “Mission Impossible.” Jazz tells stories, and film often does its bidding.

Before leaving the club and entering back into reality, I met a young American man who was sitting by himself, Wesley Mattingly, from Kentucky, studying for a doctorate in philosophy in Germany and visiting Vienna for a few days.

Wesley might have been an oasis, out of place in his own time. Passionate about jazz since a very early age, he talked about “how important it was to still be able to get lost in free jazz.”

We all become artists in a way when we learn to enjoy, discover, and attempt to understand the art of jazz- the thoughts and language of sounds in which we each find a voice our own way.

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