Sultan Jazz Club latest to close

SINGAPORE - When the 13-month-old Sultan Jazz Club shuttered up for the last time last Tuesday, it left music lovers here with one fewer dedicated venue to listen to live jazz music.

Club owner Benny Yeoh cites high costs and the difficulty in keeping staff as the reasons for the closure.

The club in Jalan Sultan had held gigs by local jazz musicians including singer Melissa Tham. It also hosted visiting artists, including Israeli guitarist Yotam Silber- stein and American pianist Helen Sung.

While the club saw a near-capacity crowd of 50 to 60 on weekends, attendance on weeknights was low.

Sultan Jazz Club joins the list of jazz clubs that have closed in recent years, including Jazz@Southbridge, which was in Boat Quay from 2002 to 2010. It then moved to the Esplanade and was renamed Southbridge Jazz@7atenine and became part of the 7atenine restaurant. It lasted less than a year there before closing down together with the restaurant.

Jazz veteran Jeremy Monteiro laments the lack of jazz clubs here.

While fans of the genre can still catch live jazz acts at restaurant/bar/live music venue Blu Jaz Cafe, which also hosts music events in other genres, he says Sultan Jazz Club was unique because it was a "proper listening room" where jazz fans could "listen to the music like in a recital hall, while sipping on a drink".

The Cultural Medallion recipient himself was involved in two short-lived jazz clubs in the 1990s, both named Jeremy's Jazz and Blues Club. Neither lasted more than a year.

To him, it is hard for jazz venues to thrive here because of high rental costs.

He says: "In countries like Europe, the government subsidises jazz clubs as they are considered arts venues. So for the clubs, rental makes up 10 or 15 per cent of the operation costs, unlike here, where rental can take up to 50 per cent."

Mr Eddie Chan, who started Jazz@Southbridge and partnered Monteiro in opening the first Jeremy's Jazz and Blues Club, says one way for jazz clubs to survive is to emulate Europe and have the authorities treat them as cultural venues rather than regular bars.

"In Singapore, jazz clubs are viewed the same as other bars. We are not given any cultural support. Jazz clubs are in the same category as KTVs," says Mr Chan, who is also the founder of The Thomson Jazz Club and chairman of Thomson Community Club. He adds: "But jazz clubs are different, without bar brawls or noise pollution. We treat the acoustics well."

Monteiro estimates that there are 30,000 jazz fans here. He says: "I think that out of those, there are 9,000 serious ones and only 3,000 to 5,000 hardcore fans."

Jazz fan Robert Yeo was disappointed to hear of Sultan Jazz Club's closure as he had been a regular there with his wife after Jazz@Southbridge closed down.

Says the 74-year-old writer, poet and playwright: "It was a place where we could order a couple or beers and sit down to enjoy good music by people like Louis Soliano and Aya Sekine. And unlike other clubs, you don't get distracted by noise or the sound of people talking.

"But when I went there, the crowd was always half-full. It seems to me that Jazz@Southbridge was always more packed, probably because it was in Boat Quay so it had more walk-in customers."

He and other fans can still get their fix of jazz at The Esplanade, which will be holding the sixth edition of their annual Jazz in July series of free shows at its concourse and outdoor stage.

Esplanade producer Sara Joan Fang says: "The interest in jazz in Singapore has remained pretty consistent over the years but admittedly, it is likely the same devoted audience base that comes to all the jazz shows at the Esplanade."

The Esplanade does not provide attendance figures for events, but she adds: "I do think audiences are developing more sophisticated and receptive palates."

It may not be the end of the road for Sultan Jazz Club. Mr Yeoh says the club might make a comeback. He says: "I'm a jazz fan and I started the club to help build up the jazz scene here. I'm still keen on that so I'm looking into opening it again in future if conditions are right. For now, I am taking a break."

This article was published on May 1 in The Straits Times.

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