Good news for lacklustre jazz scene

Good news for lacklustre jazz scene
Musician-composer Susan Harmer (far left) performing with Tropic Green at BluJaz Cafe in 2013.

SINGAPORE - In a jazz scene that has become dreary of late, a piece of good news has perked some aficionados up: Barely a month after jazz venue Sultan Jazz Club closed down, another jazz club has taken over its premises within The Sultan Hotel in Jalan Sultan (see story below for more on the club).

SingJazz Club promises to be a listening room for serious jazz lovers, just like the now-defunct Sultan Jazz Club.

When the new club opens next Thursday, insiders say it will become the only proper jazz club catering to an estimated 50 professional and 300 semi-professional jazz musicians in Singapore.

The only other places to play at are bars and hotel lounges, multi-genre clubs such as BluJaz in Bali Lane, and private and corporate shows. Singapore's most recognised jazz man, Jeremy Monteiro, says the prospects here right now for jazz musicians are "bleak".

There are fewer live venues to play at and even fewer corporate shows, even as the number of jazz musicians are growing, says the musician and composer, who is a Cultural Medallion recipient.

"While it used to be standard to have a live band in a four- or five-star hotel in Singapore, that doesn't happen any- more," says Monteiro.

The 53-year-old musician laments too about how, in the last five years, more jazz gigs have gone to less-than-stellar talents.

He says: "The trouble now in Singapore is that there are too many mediocre players and many of them price themselves cheaper.

They know how to market themselves, they dress well, they have good stage presence and are excellent at self-promotion. But some of them can't string three notes in tune in a bar."

Monteiro himself does three nights a week at Bob's Bar at the luxury Capella Singapore hotel on Sentosa. One of the scene's most seasoned players, he also does regular gigs overseas, including Britain, France and China, as well as private or corporate gigs.

The latter is where the real money is for jazz musicians here, he adds. According to him, he can earn as much as 10 times more for a private or corporate gig than for a club show in a place such as Sultan Jazz Club.

Still, a place such as the former Sultan Jazz Club, where a musician can play more "serious" types of jazz to a discerning audience, is important.

"The amount of attention and appreciation you get is directly related to the amount of money you earn," he adds. "The more money you earn, the less attention you will get for your playing. And that's the reality."

Susan Harmer, a musician and composer who plays in several local jazz outfits including Tropic Green, Thomson Big Band, Susan Harmer's LittleBigBand and Susan Harmer's SmallBand, says that her bands, which play less popular forms of jazz, instrumentals and original tunes, "find it hard to get hired".

"Recently, I received a letter from a club which used to hire Tropic Green, saying it will now hire only bands that play 'customer pleasing' tunes," says Harmer, 59, who is Singaporean. "So bands that play original material are out."

Tropic Green, an eight-piece band, plays her compositions and have released an EP, Jazz From The Tropics, late last year.

Formed in 2010, a lot of their gigs are at music festivals abroad, such as the Samui International Jazz Festival in 2011 and 2012, and the Borneo International Jazz Festival in 2012.

They will play at the Kathmandu Jazz festival, Jazzmandu, in October. Locally, they have played at the Singapore International Jazz Festival in March and the Esplanade's Mosaic Music Festival in 2012 and last year.

Harmer says: "Unlike clubs, festivals actually seek out bands which are original and different as they have a different target audience. So festivals help to keep jazz and other genres alive."

She says that because she does not get a lot of gigs, she supplements her income by teaching and working on music.

She adds: "My gigs are, on average, once a month, which is not a lot. If I were to go out and get a regular gig, it would be different. But I choose not to get a regular gig because I spend a lot of time writing and arranging. I also teach, which I need to do to pay the bills. It pays much better than a regular gig."

Despite the lack of venues or a proper jazz circuit in Singapore to hone their skills, young jazz hopefuls are coming out of music college, perhaps dreaming of making it big.

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