THE HOTTEST JAZZ IN EUROPE?
During the Second World War, the US Army used to hire jazz musicians to record exclusive editions – the V-Discs (Victory Discs) – which were sent to the battlefront to cheer up the soldiers’ morale. At the end of the war, an order was given to destroy those discs. Nobody knows exactly how Hot Club de Portugal holds an almost complete collection featuring names such as Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday.
This is one of the many stories told by Inês Cunha, chairwoman of one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world and the one in Europe with the longest uninterrupted activity, who received us on a hot Wednesday afternoon before the club opened its doors. Even in an empty, silent room, we could feel the energy of a place that blends with the history of jazz in Portugal. The walls boast photographs of musicians that played on that small stage – from Dizzy Gillespie to Sara Vaughn – reminding us that this is a place full of untold stories.
The Hot Club de Portugal was officially founded by Luiz Villas-Boas in 1952 with the aim of diffusing jazz music across the country. His charisma, persistence and passion are recalled by Inês Cunha as the spark that triggered the project. Luiz Villas-Boas’ passion for jazz started during the Second World War when he was listening to the US radios with the sole purpose of translating and delivering to the Portuguese Government news on the conflict. “He listened to that new sound, took notes methodically, tried to get the records and find all kinds of literature on the theme…Villas-Boas liked that music, he believed it was very good and different from everything he was listening to in Portugal. Therefore, he decided it had to be played on the radio: he spoke to the national public radio and in 1945 he managed to get a programme in one of the most listened schedules at the time.” The programme was a success, greatly due to the educational side that Luiz Villas-Boas nurtured, and ended up gathering a group of people with the common desire of creating a space for jazz lovers. The impulse prompted the creation of the Hot Club.
From the fascination with teaching resulted the Hot Club Jazz School, opened in 1977, a time during which in Portugal there were no music schools other than those teaching classical music.
“There are belongings of Villas-Boas, mainly correspondence and personal things, that must be shown to the public”.
“The school continues to grow every year, with new students and new courses, but always and only dedicated to jazz. I believe that is the reason why we are so unique” says Inês Cunha.
Six decades after its creation, this is still one of the hot spots of the Lisbon’s night life. “The Guardian” has ranked it amongst the 10 best jazz clubs in Europe and the “DownBeat” magazine has listed it amongst the best in the world. From Tuesday to Saturday there is live music with an eclectic programme which is not limited to a specific genre of jazz nor does it live glued to the past. From Thursday to Saturday there are concerts by guest artists who normally play on the three days. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the nights have jam sessions, with an open stage to the audience resulting in an enthusiastic symbiosis of those who listen and those who make music. According to Inês Cunha, this intimate relationship between musicians and audience has been feeding the Hot Club’s mystic for over 60 years: “jazz is an ensemble of musicians and audience. Jazz has a lot to do with these connections and flows into everything around it. It is the respect for all this that has kept the consistency of Hot Club throughout these years”.
Our conversation with Inês Cunha took place a few hours before the opening of the club. On stage, the instruments were waiting. At any time they will be touched and played by musicians of several parts of the world who gather at the jam of Hot Club de Portugal with a common language: jazz. At the bar it is possible to listen to conversations with different accents of Portuguese, Spanish, English, French or German. The stage will offer generous doses of harmony and melody, sound and silence, syncope, swing… and all that jazz.
RISEN FROM THE ASHES
In 2009, a fire destroyed completely the building that housed the club. Facing one of the most dramatic moments in the Hot Club history, Inês Cunha, who had still not completed six months as chairwoman, felt “a very strong wave of solidarity from people who wanted to contribute to the club’s continuity. It was a very beautiful gesture, showing us the true dimension of Hot Club and what it represents as an institution”.
It was necessary to restart almost from scratch. During the following two years, the club’s activity took place in other spaces in the city while a new space was being created a few doors down the road. This new home respects the memory and legacy of the original one. Today it is unanimous that its identity remains intact. “Everybody realised very quickly that the club is now here, in a different space but with the same spirit.”, she says.
KNOWING THE PAST, INSPIRING THE FUTURE
Before being chairwoman of Hot Club, Inês Cunha spent a few years cataloguing and taking care of the Museum’s legacy, mostly formed by the collection that Luiz Villas-Boas left to the Hot Club. “There are belongings of Villas-Boas, mainly correspondence and personal things, that must be shown to the public. There is a letter from Louis Armstrong that is very funny. The musician came to Portugal and had a very serious problem of constipation and became ill. Villas-Boas who helped him prepare his trip here, went straight to downtown Lisbon and bought some miraculous herbs which promptly solved the problem. When the musician arrived in USA, he sent a thank-you letter and an advertising postcard where he, Louis Armstrong, is sitting in the toilet with his pants down to his knees and the following slogan: “Leave it all behind ya”.
This story makes Inês Cunha confess her dream: to create a House of Jazz in Lisbon. A place where the acquis of the Museum can be consulted by the audience and studied by anyone instead of staying where it is nowadays: closed in a room where the conditions are not ideal. For the time being, the House of Jazz exists only in the heart and mind of Inês Cunha. But then who would have imagined, back in 1948, the importance and awareness that Hot Club would have today? That is the power of dreams… they may come true.