So much fun: 25 years of Jazz from The Crypt

South London’s jazz scene has deep roots. Just over the border from Brixton in Camberwell, Jazzlive at The Crypt is celebrating 25 years of presenting established and upcoming jazz performers – and more – on its way to becoming one of London’s leading promoters of jazz. Director Russell Occomore recalls the early days and the people who made it happen

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Russell Occomore with Tony Kofi

Twenty five years ago Jazzlive at The Crypt opened its doors for the first time.

Half an hour before we opened, I emerged from the crypt out into the dusky autumn evening and surveilled the excited waiting crowd.

The queue snaked all the way from the front porch, along the church drive and onto Camberwell Church Street.

Looking along the line, I recognised many of the faces, friends new and old, and there were many people I didn’t know.

I remember feeling very apprehensive about how it would all work out. I wasn’t even sure we’d open on time. I’d just come upstairs following a chat with the builders; I’d pointed out to them that the cubicles for the gents’ WCs had not been erected yet and that the pile of rubble sitting in the middle of the main floor hadn’t been bagged up and disposed of. 

“We open in 20 minutes,” I said.

“Don’t worry Russ, we’ll have it sorted,” Tony the plumber replied. We did open on time!

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Twenty five years seems like a long time.

For a grassroots jazz club to survive that long is an important achievement, but for me that opening day seems like it happened yesterday, it’s been so much fun.

But time has moved on. I am the last one of the original founding team to still be involved. Rodney Bomford, Les Alden, Mel Occomore and I were the founders.

Rodney (who was the vicar then) retired years ago to the south-west, Mel (my older brother) relocated to the north-east, and Les (long-time friend and church warden then) retired to the South but sadly passed away at the beginning of this year following a short illness.

The club idea came about to raise funds needed for the upkeep of the church building. The spire of the building was at risk of falling over and needed substantial renovation work.

The club would be one of the ways in which we could raise money to add to the fund to save this important building. 

None of us had embarked on such a project before.

We had zero experience of running a venue or of staging events.

Les and I talked about it being a jazz club. It was music that we both loved and there was very little live jazz music being played in or around Camberwell at that time.

St. Giles Jazz Club was born.

We all had our own ideas of what a jazz club could and should be. It was our mix of talents, and our shared ambitions that made the jazz club happen and thrive.

We easily reached our funding target. Who would have thought that a local project with such modest ambitions would flower into the club we know and love today?

People

I could write much more about my memories of The Crypt, having so many. I’ve met some great people, people with amazing talents and dedication to their arts, such as Tony Kofi who features in the video below.

People who have influenced, inspired and changed my life. I am indebted to you all.

One of the benefits of having a 25-year-old club is that you get to have the long view on what has happened with the jazz scene and what is coming down the pipeline.

Looking ahead, post-Covid, I am optimistic and I’m very pleased at what I see. There’s such good talent out there.

I want to highlight the contributions of Matthew Maddigan for bringing the Electronic Music Night to the Crypt, and of Arnaud Guichard for developing the jam sessions.

Celebrating 25 years 

We had been planning a series of concerts and events to mark this important landmark in the evolution of our beloved jazz club. And then the news of Covid hit at the beginning of the year.

We immediately realised what this would mean for the club, and for our anniversary celebrations. Within weeks we were closed as the country went into lockdown and the club is yet to reopen.

We were pleased to have received vital grant money from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, which will keep us solvent until the spring.

We are working on reshaping our business model to make us even more resilient going forward into next year and to ensure that we can reopen the club safely as soon as possible. More details about our plans will appear soon.

So our celebrations are on hold for now. We will celebrate with you all properly as soon as we can. It will happen.

Professional photographer Daniel Devlin’s website devotes a whole section to some of his fantastic images of Jazzlive At The Crypt
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Thanks

Before I conclude, I must acknowledge some key people involved today. Thank you Winston Skerritt, Jonny Philips and Simon Fernsby for doing what you do so well in the name of the club. You are very much appreciated and valued by us all and by the wider jazz scene.

Special thanks to Mary Devlin who has been the most effective club manager we’ve ever had. You get what The Crypt is about and get on with it. Your countless innovations have been transformative and your staff management skills are second to none.

A big thank you to Pete Watson who believed in the project from early on and spent a considerable amount of his time managing many aspects of the venue for many years.

Leon, our door supervisor, has been with the club since the start, we are indebted to him for his long and ever-cheerful service.

All of our staff help to make the club what it is today, and we look forward to having Matthew and Kojo back in the bar making drinks better than their jokes, and all the other fantastic and energetic bar staff we have had. 

Ayako with her delicious food menu and tireless energy, and Peter on the door who welcomes every guest with a smile.

And lastly, a big thank you to all our customers for supporting us from day one and for bearing with us in these difficult times.

Roll on another 25 years!

A brief history …

Jazzlife at the Crypt was established in 1995 as St. Giles Jazz Club and quickly became one of the UK’s premier jazz venues.

It is housed in a crypt, built many hundreds of years ago, underneath St Giles’ on Camberwell Church Street. In the 1960s, the crypt was refurbished and used as the headquarters for the charity now known as the St Giles’ Trust. The Trust moved to larger premises in the early 1990s and after a further refurbishment, Friday night jazz in the crypt was born.

With a capacity of 150 people, the ancient crypt deep underneath the Gothic revival architecture of the church is a perfect place to hear jazz.

Jazzlive teamed up with musicians collective Jazz Umbrella in 2000 and the two organisations were merged shortly afterwards to establish a charity and a trading arm dedicated to promoting jazz and jazz education.

Its weekly Friday night events have featured top musicians from London, the UK, Europe, and beyond.

This is an edited version the October Jazzlive newsletter

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