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A new venue for Jazz Cafe owners? Columbo’s clues…

As the Jazz Cafe celebrates its first birthday since a major revamp, its new owners reveal they have plans to open one more venue in the next year

18 May, 2017 — By Róisín Gadelrab

Columbo Group co-founder Steve Ball

IT’S been a year since The Columbo Group extended their reach over Camden’s music scene, taking over and refurbishing Jazz Cafe last May and then revamping Barfly and re-christening it Camden Assembly in September.

And now, Columbo Group co-founder Steve Ball has revealed the company has plans to open one more venue in Camden in the next year – watch this space for details.

In the meantime, the Jazz Cafe’s first birthday under the new owners is here and five days of celebrations are planned for next month to reflect the variety of performers and genres welcomed on to the world-famous stage over the past year. Events begin on June 14 with hip-hop group Souls of Mischief, followed by renowned record label Mr Bongo presenting French fusion group Cortex (June 15), critically acclaimed Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure (June 16), Henry Wu continuing his role as musical director with a live tribute to cult bassist Jaco Pastorious, followed by a Nightmares on Wax DJ set (June 17) and ending on June 18 with Ruff Sqwad Orchestra performing an orchestral rendition of some of grime’s most iconic instrumentals with special guests.

“The past year has gone incredibly well,” said Steve.

© Photography by Jake Davis

“When we first opened, we opened late, we overspent because of our love for the Jazz Cafe. We’ve got a few venues and the Jazz Cafe was something we got into essentially because we were just passionate about it.

“My own personal musical journey was led by going there as a young man. I’d get the programme every month and choose which ones I was going to, it opened me up. Fast-forward 10 years, we spent far too much money on the refurb, getting carried away, but the year has gone amazing, virtually every night we’ve sold out. We’ve put on some shows I wouldn’t dream we’d have been able to put on: superstars like Kelis, KRS-One, Lee Scratch Perry, Jocelyn Brown, Sampha – his voice is incredible, it was his debut London show. We couldn’t be happier with the way it has gone. I’m absolutely glad we did the things we did.”

The key to the venue’s continuing success, it seems, was to refresh it without messing with the formula.

The Jazz Cafe in Camden Town

Steve said: “The path we followed with Jazz Cafe is well-worn. The business has been there for 20 years, an absolutely integral part of Camden music scene. It was unloved when we took it over and had fallen behind how it was in its heyday.

“For us there was a very obvious template. Jazz Cafe was never a blank sheet of paper. For us, it was really about restoring this venue to its former glory, from a bookings perspective making sure it showcases the best new bands in the scene.

“During the tenure of the previous owners, it showcased old acts, it was all about retro. There’s a credible, vibrant new scene of jazz and blues and soul, an incredible south London soul and jazz scene. Jazz Cafe wasn’t showcasing this exciting new music but that template was written for us, already established, so we carried on with great vintage acts like Omar, Jocelyn Brown, but we’ve brought it up to date with Yusef Kamal, Ruby Rushton, made it fresh.”

It seems doubters may have been won over.

“People who are passionate about a business will always have a sense of caution and apprehension when someone takes over,” said Steve.

“There was an element of ‘what’s going on here? Are they going to ruin the Jazz Cafe I love?’ But I was one of those people that loves the Jazz Cafe and we’ve achieved what we set out to do – stay true to the heritage of the venue but also bring it up to date.”

He said the birthday line-up reflects this: “We really wanted to showcase old and new, so we’ve got some exciting, new, cutting-edge acts along some Jazz Cafe greats.”

The Columbo Group is very much invested in Camden: Blues Kitchen is about to undergo a refurbishment, a mysterious new project is underway and Camden Assembly houses one of the best sound systems for a venue of its size in London.

Steve said: “We see Camden Assembly as the home for new music in London, the audience is a bit young for Jazz Cafe. We’ve had some amazing bands perform there. When I look at the diary, I’m confident that a year on we’ll look back and the bands who are making it next year will be ones who have come through Camden Assembly.”


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