The term ‘Cool Cat’ should not be used lightly. In fact, it shouldn’t be used at all, as it is easy to sound ridiculously outdated. There are probably no more than a handful of people in the world who can pull it off and Sonny Rehe is definitely one of them. I first became aware of his coolness at my first visit to his club, Uptown Jazz Cafe, when we engaged in small talk outside, during the gig break. But I just had another chance, when I emailed him a few questions, in order to do an interview about the ninth anniversary of Uptown Jazz Cafe, which will be celebrated with a glorious Duke Ellington tribute gig, by an all-star band led by Eugene Ball, on Saturday 5 August. The way he answered left me with no choice but to basically post the whole thing as follows.
First, all the questions.
Q:What should anyone expect from the Uptown anniversary gig? What would you say to invite someone who’s never been to the club? Why did you choose a tribute to Ellington to celebrate the club’s nine years? How has your experience at the Uptown Jazz Cafe been so far? What has been the highlight of this 9-year run? What has been the greatest challenge you had to face? If you were to start now, what would you have done differently? What’s your favourite night of the week at Uptown? What’s your take on the Melbourne jazz scene? Do you see more competition or camaraderie? What is Uptown’s anthem/ theme song? How did you get into jazz? What does jazz mean to you? If you could have any musician in the world (no restrictions whatsoever) come and play at the Uptown, who would that be?
Then, Sonny’s answer(s).
A: Probably rather focus on Uptown rather than myself if that’s ok?
Well, 9 years.
The Uptown success story really is the success story of the Melbourne jazz and improvised music scene itself. The original motivation to open a jazz club, after moving back here from New York City, was because of the incredibly high level of playing that I knew Melbourne (and Australia) always had. Also, to try to catch that particular sound that is unique to us here, which I don’t think the New Yorkers quite get.
The biggest challenge is obviously to present music that has an appeal to many people whilst still remaining creative, innovative and progressive, and that contains the home-grown element.
Bopstretch Wednesdays are still the regular favourite nights of the week: they’ve done every Wednesday for 7 years, which is quite an achievement, really. Also, Sam Keevers, Stephen Magnusson and, recently, Mark Fitzgibbon‘s regular monthly slots are always amazing gigs to be at.
Highlights, so many…
Performance-wise, I think hosting Bernie McGann 5 or 6 times would have to be up there. He embodies the Australian straight-ahead tradition like no other figure in our recent past.
Hang-wise, it’s probably the night Herbie and Chick came in to see Bopstretch playing, then stuck around for an hour to just hang with us and the band. Stretch were playing Joe Henderson’s music that night and I think that’s mainly why the gentlemen stuck around: they talked to us about their time playing with Joe and how being in places just like Uptown was so familiar to them — although they rarely got outside the concert halls these days — and about the new stuff they’re doing too. That was pretty special. Herbie even did the Miles voice.
The Melbourne scene is probably healthier than I’ve ever seen it as far as dedicated performances go, and, yeah, generally I think Melbourne people and Melbourne places support each other pretty well, rather than competing.
Uptown’s anthem? Mm, it’s moved around a bit through the years. It probably started off as ‘Now’s the Time’, turned into ‘Rockin’ in Rythym’, became ‘Epistrophy’ for a while and lately I guess it’s ‘Stompin at the Savoy’. Although I will always request ‘Hey Guess What?’ at Mags‘ gigs…
If I could have any musician past or present play at Uptown? It would have to be Charlie Parker (although Billie Holiday was my first love).
Any band? It would be the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
When Eugene Ball and I were thinking of the band for the birthday the idea was to have a party band with a trad vibe. Fact is, Ellington’s band always embodied a group that could play for the party and the dancers, but then also achieve this heavenly creativity and skill in the playing from the sections and the soloists. Their music has the grace of all these things co-existing on the one gig. And, as Bernie McGann always said, “this IS dance music…”
You’ll be dancing pretty strange to the Ellington renditions that Eugene Ball’s Nonet puts out this Saturday for our 9th birthday, but we hope to see you there;