what the closure of total refreshment centre means for london’s burgeoning jazz scene
One of the most influential venues in London’s jazz scene, has been closed down by Hackney council. Where does this leave the city’s freewheeling jazz scene?
On a side road, just off Kingsland High Street, lies a small music venue. On the outside, it falsely advertises “fitted kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.” On the inside, one questions whether the painter purposely botched up the job. One of its top reviews asks for it to get “a bit of refurb work” done.
Despite its quirks, enter at the right time on any day of the week, and you’ll experience one of the most influential venues in London’s jazz scene, Total Refreshment Centre. At least you could have before it was closed down by Hackney council last Thursday.
Although jazz has long been an integral part of London arts culture, the new movement is younger, less arrogant; shaped by underground music genres and Afro-Caribbean values. Its resuscitation saw a 56% increase in the number of plays it received on Spotify in the UK in 2017 in comparison to the former year.
But the seemingly new wave of jazz musicians have been working together in venues such as Total Refreshment Centre for years prior to its resurgence, creating the sort of revival that the genre desperately needed.
For tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, Total Refreshment Centre “facilitates the needs of the audience and the artists”. Not only did Hutchings, who won a MOBO award with his band Sons of Kemet in 2013, once live there for four months, he also used it as reasonably priced place to record albums. Total Refreshment Centre began as a studio space for musicians before it slowly grew into the multifaceted cultural hub it is today.
What made Total Refreshment Centre unique when it opened its recording studios in 2012 is that people worked in a very open environment. This naturally led to a community of musicians, video artists and sound engineers who shared their skills and varied interests to creative a form of jazz that evolved from the constraints of its genre.
Head of Music at online music broadcasting platform Boiler Room Dean Bryce says, “a gathering of like-minded people is one of the most pivotal ingredients that can make a venue legendary.” So, with its closure, the chances of the new movements that develop as a result of such communities also dies.
While it was a shock to the public when its closure was announced on Facebook, it came as no surprise to the people within the London jazz sphere. Spaces which promoted these creative legacies have been slowly disappearing. Live music venue, Passing Clouds was forced out of its Dalston home in 2016 after it was bought by a real estate developer.
Increasing business rates, property developers and short leases are only a few of the problems faced by these venues everyday, Total Refreshment founder Lexus Blondin says. The fear of not being able to renew the lease each year meant projects could only be considered on a short term basis and ideas to battle the increasing costs without palming the charges off to the artists were a crucial part of Total Refreshment Centre’s regular battles.
“The main thing we are trying to achieve is to get a set flavour and vibe, and get down costs,” Blondin says. This was done by moving beyond its Dalston base. “We do things in other places, we do collaborations with other people, we’ve started a record label. Not to make up for the money, but to diversify.” The record label was launched last year with a 12″ release of Vels Trio’s Yellow Ochre EP.
In spite of the deaths of smaller London-based jazz venues, the genre continues to thrive in larger spaces. Concert venues such as KOKO have held performances by many of these musicians -- such as Ezra Collective, Hutchings and Oscar Jerome -- but it does not serve as a viable replacement. The relationship Total Refreshment Centre has with its musicians is incomparable.
“It can be taken for granted that certain venues have a connection with certain audiences” -- Shabaka Hutchings
Vocalist and guitarist Jerome explains that the people who run Total Refreshment Centre go above and beyond merely a cultural space by developing an intimate relationship with musicians. This is done through attending their shows in other venues and holding events in alternative places.
The strong rapport enables the musicians to have the freedom to experiment with the space provided for gigs, which can be difficult to discuss at larger venues. “It’s been about 10 different middle people before you actually make something happen,” Jerome says.
For some musicians, KOKO may not even be an achievable option as they may not have the numbers or type of following to fill the high capacity. So, with every closure, there is one less space for emerging artists to regularly perform. “It can be taken for granted that certain venues have a connection with certain audiences,” Hutchings highlights.
Events are often promoted in a creative way to attract the specific audience of Total Refreshment Centre with multiple emerging artists being given a platform on the same evening to present their work. These are complemented by one-off events by notable artists or big club nights. Bryce explains that Total Refreshment Centre gave Boiler Room the “freedom to showcase an established artist like Sampha for his album launch to also the then relatively unknown rising star Moses Boyd’s Exodus project.”
He argues that creating a positive atmosphere with the right people is “even more important than having the best or most powerful sound system.” When describing a Boiler Room event at Total Refreshment Centre, music producer NK-OK of Blue Lab Beats agreed, explaining that it fosters the sort of environment where “everyone loves music and everyone gets along which each other,” which he attributes to the rustic nature of the venue.
For now, upcoming events at Total Refreshment Centre have migrated to other nearby music venues such as BIRTHDAYS, Moth Club and Giant Steps. However, this is only a temporary fix to a potentially permanent problem. Blondin is negotiating with the council and hoping for a solution. But if negotiations are unsuccessful will the venue open up somewhere else like now closed down Plastic People once did during its two decade long existence? Possibly.
“One of the things that we’re really into is dressing up places and making them special,” Blondin says. Though for now, he’s working on keeping its current venue -- with its outdated “fitted kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms” sign on the front for all to see.