From weekly jam sessions at the Elks Hall, to packing the room every Thursday at The Avalanche Bar & Grill, the Georgia Strait Jazz Society has come a long way in its 10-year history.
The GSJS officially turned 10 years old on Friday, and its evolution has been an impressive one.
It started as nothing more than musicians from the local, low-key jazz scene getting together once a week to enjoy each other’s musical talents, rarely more than a “family and friend” gathering for an audience.
That all started to change roughly eight years ago, with a question posed to Malcolm Holt.
“‘Do you like jazz music?’ That was the very innocent question asked, and my answer was, of course, I like all kinds of music, from opera to blues, but jazz is right in there. So I was asked to ‘Come on down and see what we are doing at the Elks,’ and that was the beginning of getting to know some of the jazz musicians.”
From there, Holt was brought on board to develop the society into something more than it was. At the next annual general meeting, he was elected president of the Georgia Strait Jazz Society, and, as the proverbial saying goes, the rest is history.
“It’s been seven-and- a-half years now, and no one has offered to take the job away from me,” Holt said.
No wonder. The development of the society under Holt’s tenure has been a blessing for jazz musicians and jazz fans in the Valley.
“At the time I got involved, it was really a fledgling organization that had not really focused on getting organized the way it is now.
“My suggestion was that really, there was probably a large section of people out there that would like to listen to this music, rather than just limited to the few that were interested in playing it. So we eventually moved from the jam culture into the performance culture.”
It was not without its growing pains, including a period when the society was in danger of having no place to call home.
As the scene gained popularity, it also drew the attention of the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, and, in particular, a new inspector to the area.
“There was a new liquor board inspector that arrived in the Comox Valley and when he saw what was happening, he pointed out immediately to the Elks that we were not members of the Elks and therefore, really, we were not allowed to be in the club. It was explained that we were there by invitation, but according to the rules, we could only be invited a limited number of times in the year; we couldn’t be coming every week and saying we were visitors.”
Within two weeks, the society had found a new home – the Avalanche Bar, where it has been ever since.
The society has been the benefactor of a major renovation project at the Avalanche. A year-and-a-half ago, the owners turned the bar into the type of venue perfect for showcasing live music.
“We were very surprised to see the changes,” said Holt. “They changed the ambience of the Avalanche into what closely resembles, on jazz nights, a really good jazz club. The lighting, good sound, good stage set-up; they removed a lot of the original ceiling … We constantly get compliments from visiting bands about the ambience of the room, and the sound system.”
Holt said the growth of the GSJS since the change of venues has been steady. There was a bit of a scare when the move first happened, however. The membership immediately dropped, from 90 to about 60 people.
“We were really quite concerned about that,” said Holt. “But what we found was that now that we were visible – people could see us from the street – we picked up quite a bit of incidental foot traffic coming in who didn’t know anything about the society. Our exposure was immediately better, simply due to the location. Our membership immediately started to climb again, and it still is climbing.”
The Georgia Strait Jazz Society currently sits at a membership of 155, representing about 230 individuals, when family memberships are accounted for.
Alongside its membership, the society’s reputation continues to grow within the jazz scene.
“We have the reputation as a place where people come specifically to listen to the music,” said Holt. “And, particularly with the out-of-town performers… they’ve gone away and said to their colleagues and their peers, ‘We played in Courtenay, and you wouldn’t believe the place.’ The result of that is, Bill Street, who handles the bookings, is receiving requests from all over, to play here.”
A sure sign of success is when the booker is getting the calls, rather than placing them.
The concerts continue this week, with the Strathcona Big Band taking to the stage.
Admission is $10 for society members; $12 for non-members. Show starts at 7:30 p.m.