As Oxford’s Spin Jazz Club tunes up for its spring season, co-founder Pete Oxley tells William Crossley it is still going strong after 18 years
In 1999 three Oxford musicians decided to set up a jazz club and were offered use of an upstairs room at the Wheatsheaf pub, just off The High.
Almost 18 years on, guitarist Pete Oxley, drummer Mark Doffman and bass player Raph Mizraki are still at the helm and playing together as the club’s house band.
Today, the Spin Jazz Club is one of the leading jazz venues in the UK and has a global reputation among jazz musicians and fans.
Pete said: “Back in May 1999 we had no idea how it would develop – we just wanted a place to play together. The room at the Wheatsheaf had just been redeveloped and the landlord offered it to us every Thursday night.
“As the Wheatsheaf is tucked away down an alley, we thought no one would come along, so we hired John Etheridge, a leading jazz guitarist I know, as our first guest artist.
“We sold out the venue and then started get other big national names to come along.
“After a couple of years we also started to get visiting bands in on the fourth week of each month during our spring, summer and autumn programmes.”
The spring 2017 programme opens tonight with a visit by French horn player Jim Rattigan and his 12-piece ensemble Pavillon squeezing on to the Wheatsheaf’s stage.
As well as the band leader himself, whose work straddles the worlds of jazz and symphony orchestras, Pavillon’s line-up includes leading players on every instrument, including America drummer Gene Calderazzo and pianist, composer and jazz teacher Hans Koller on keyboards.
Pete said: “Pavillon have a strikingly original and thrilling sound, and it promises to be a wonderful first gig of the new year.”
He added: “We still enjoy running The Spin, setting up each week and seeing bands we chose and enjoy seeing playing.
“And the other weeks, guest musicians appreciate us as a backing band, as we’ve played together so much and for so long.
“The club’s reputation has just grown nationally and beyond over the years.
“We were shortlisted several years running in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards for best live jazz club, went down to the Houses of Parliament for the ceremonies, but didn’t get it until 2012, after four or five times on the shortlist.
“I then joined the judging panel for the awards, which is nice.”
The Spin is now spoiled for choice when it comes to booking visiting bands for the 10 or so slots available each year.
Pete said: “Top bands from New York and Europe get in touch with us to ask to play, so we have got world-class names playing on our little stage.
“We’re very proud we get calls from the big names in the States. We may be a small club above a pub, but our reputation goes before us.
“Some bands on tour in Europe will play one venue in London and then come to us for their only other UK gig, which is quite a coup.”
He added: “We hand pick everyone who appears, so we know they’re good. With the bands, Mark and I listen to every CD that has been sent to us by July each year. We have a mass listening session. One year we got through 120 tracks.
“Generally they’re all extremely good, so we’re looking for an X-factor, something that jumps out and grabs us.”
Even so, there are still tough choices to be made: “The worst part is having to turn down some great players, as we just don’t have the slots available as we’re only here once a week – we could book acts every night but getting an audience in each time would be a nightmare.
“Lots of people still don’t seem to know about The Spin, even though we have been around for 18 years.
“There’s so much going on in Oxford that, unless you have a permanent presence, people forget you. We can’t rest on our laurels, so we have to keep it fresh, with a different repertoire each week.”
After tonight’s performance by Pavillon, The Spin spring programme features saxophonist Tim Whitehead next week, backed by Pete, Mark and Raph.
Pete describes him as “one of the best sax players on the world scene. He has been coming to the Spin since our first season, so it will be a great night.”
Sax sounds also take centre stage the following Thursday, when Rob Townsend takes a break from touring duties with the Steve Hackett Band and the James Taylor Quartet to visit Oxford.
Multi-instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon will be appearing on Thursday, February 23, with fellow jazz sax legend Alan Barnes and their new group The Lowest Common Denominator.
Equally at home on sax, clarinet and other woodwind instruments and a regular guest performer at The Spin down the years, Gilad has also played and recorded with leading names in pop and rock music, including Ian Dury, Pink Floyd and Robbie Williams.
A special highlight for Pete Oxley will be the show on March 16, when he and fellow guitarist Nicolas Meier, from Switzerland, will launch their new album, The Colours of Time, which fuses a variety of guitar styles and is the latest fruit of a collaboration that began more than a decade ago when Nicolas played at The Spin after being booked on the strength of a demo recording.
Since then they have been playing, recording and touring together, with bands, or as a duo.
The Oxford gig comes in the middle of a 35-date tour of the UK, running until the end of April, featuring performances partly as a duo and partly as a quartet, with the rhythm section featuring Raph Mizraki’s bass-playing.
- The Spin Jazz Club is at the Wheatsheaf, at 129 High Street, Oxford, on Thursday evenings, except for short breaks around Easter, in the summer and over Christmas and New Year.
- Doors open at 8.15pm, with music from 9pm to 11pm. For more information about forthcoming shows and to book tickets in advance, see spinjazz.net, call 07711 671647 or email email@example.com