Granddaddy of jazz from humble roots

One of Singapore's longest-lasting jazz institutions today is not some downtown bar or a drinking spot in a glitzy hotel. It resides in a grassroots community club in the middle of a residential neighbourhood.

The Thomson Jazz Club counts both professionals and amateurs in its line-up and over the years, about 350 musicians, both Singaporeans and foreigners, have circulated among its ranks.

While they have performed at high-profile events here such as the recent Singapore International Jazz Festival and overseas gigs in countries such as Japan, Canada, Australia and India, their gig at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sunday will be their most significant yet.

This is because the show is a celebration of their 20th anniversary and an affirmation of one long- time jazz fan's dream to keep the big-band style of jazz music alive in Singapore.

Founder Eddie Chan, who is also Thomson Community Club's chairman, tells Life! that one of his biggest motivations in starting the club back in 1994 was to fill in the big hole left behind by the disbanding of music groups such as the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra, which had played big band style music.

"We were filling a niche," the 75-year-old retired architect tells Life! in an interview at the Esplanade. "Some community clubs chose to focus on lion dance, I chose the band."

Mr Chan used to own now-defunct popular jazz club Jazz@Southbridge in Boat Quay, which later moved to the Esplanade and was renamed Southbridge Jazz@7atenine, and partnered local jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro in opening Jeremy's Jazz and Blues Club in the mid-1990s.

For the last two decades, members of the Thomson Jazz Club have met and practised every Sunday. Mr Chan is often at the rehearsals and even taught himself the vibraphone and occasionally joins in the jamming with the other musicians.

In 1997, the band played its first overseas gig at the Jacaranda Jazz Festival in Perth, Australia. Three years later, its members flew to Japan to perform at the Kutchan International Jazz Festival in Hokkaido and, in 2002, they played their first North American show at the International Association of Jazz Education conference in Toronto, Canada.

The club has also released two albums, including On A Little Street In Singapore and Fascinating Rhythm. Mr Chan counts as one of their highlights their set at the Singapore International Jazz Festival in Suntec City in 2001, which featured Grammy-winning American saxophone player Ernie Watts.

"We opened the jazz festival and we were playing with world-class names such as Watts. The audience was packed, it was very impressive."

Today, the club has a few short of 40 active musicians. They play as two separate bands, the Thomson Big Band and the Thomson Swing Band, both of which will perform at Sunday's concert.

Playing jazz standards such as Come Fly With Me, Cheek To Cheek and Take The A Train, the line-up will be bolstered by guest artists including local jazz singer Alemay Fernandez, as well as American musicians Christy Smith, a bass player; Greg Glassman, a trumpeteer; and Greta Matassa, a vocalist.

While Mr Chan admits that jazz is still a niche genre in Singapore, the club has seen more Singaporeans catch on to big band music over the years.

Music teacher, composer, arranger and pianist Susan Harmer, who has been part of the Thomson Jazz Club since 1998, says: "Jazz is never going to be the most popular genre among Singaporeans at the moment, but the interest among them has grown."

Mr Chan says the band is seeing a lot more Singaporean families turn up at the club's annual Big Band Bash concerts at the Singapore Botanic Gardens' Shaw Symphony Stage. Their outdoor show at the park last month attracted a 5,000- strong crowd.

He says he is already thinking of handing the reins over to the next generation of leaders, although he does not know when that will be.

"Thomson Jazz Club will carry on even after I take a step back. There's a limitation to how big we can get based on the number of musicians and the facilities that we have but, frankly, I'd like to see it expand and become even bigger in the future."

This article was published on April 17 in The Straits Times.

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