The United Reform Church in St Peter’s Street, Tiverton was founded in 1660 by Theophilus Polwheile. It was rebuilt in 1831 with his name prominently displayed. The church was eventually sold and deconsecrated.
Sue Johnston bought the building in 2014 and has transformed it into an arts and community centre, known as the Oak Room. Several hundred years later, although the church survives, it is being used in ways that Theophilus never could have dreamed of. The removal of some pews has provided space for a range of artistic and cultural activities, including drawing classes, yoga, theatre productions, a cookery club, and, on the first Friday of every month, live jazz.
Now, the space that once echoed to “All things bright and beautiful” reverberates to the rhythms of jazz, blues and folk music. Although many of the pews remain, armchairs and sofas provide more comfortable seats for listening to music from New Orleans, Chicago and the West Country. The licensed bar and coffee area would undoubtedly have scandalised.
The high ceiling and wooden floors seem to enhance the acoustic qualities of the space. As Sue points out, it was built before microphones and public address systems, and it was important that the unaided voice of the clergyman could be heard clearly by the congregation.
Another church that regularly echoes to the jazz beat is St Luke’s in Simonsbath on Exmoor. Although still a working church, it is also the main venue for the annual Simonsbath Festival. The festival began in 2011 and has grown ever since, with each year bringing top-class musicians to the tiny and secluded hamlet. Jazz, opera and classical music as well as folk music from around the world have all been featured. The festival runs from May Day to Midsummer.
The connection between churches and jazz has had, for at least one jazz fan, a pleasing circularity. In 2016, Nigel Penfold attended All Saint’s Church in Dulverton to listen to a fund-raising concert by Le Jazz. This is a quartet of musicians who combine classical musical educations with a love of jazz. It was, he said, an eye-opening moment. “The number of people in the audience and the evident enjoyment they got from the music, convinced me that a club dedicated to good, live jazz could be commercially viable”, he says. A month later, the South Molton Jazz Club (SMJC) was born and has now established a regular audience, who meet on the last Friday of every month to enjoy a wide range of jazz styles at the George Hotel, South Molton.
Exactly what constitutes jazz is sometimes a moot question. The West Country has a long history of embracing “Trad” or New Orleans jazz, featuring trombones and banjos. Indeed, some people claim that this is the only “true” jazz. Nigel hopes that his policy of having a different band each month encourages people to be more adventurous. Gypsy jazz one month, an Oscar Peterson piano tribute the next, and saxophonists followed by vocalists all help emphasise the huge range of music available under the jazz banner.
“People reacted well to the concept”, says Nigel. So, in autumn 2017, he started looking for an additional venue in Tiverton. This led him to the Oak Room. Applying the same formula as in South Molton, the First Friday jazz club in the Oak Room has hosted a wide range of bands including Manouche, with gypsy jazz guitar players from Poland, and the more local group Dark Town Strutters (pictured), a New Orleans band of, as he puts it, “Extremely experienced, not to say venerable, musicians”, who describe themselves as the only band listed as a national monument by English Heritage.
New jazz venues are rare and word soon spread through the musicians’ network. Nigel is regularly contacted by foreign music agents seeking gigs for their touring bands.
The prize for the band which travelled furthest to perform for the SMJC goes to the B. D. Lenz trio. This is a New York based jazz/funk combination of guitarist, bass player and drummer who flew into the UK from the US on a Thursday, performed in Birmingham that evening and drove to South Molton to perform the next day. The journey from Birmingham took them seven hours, on one of the hottest days of the year.
“They arrived forty minutes before they were due to play“, says Nigel. “They set up, they played for two hours and they were brilliant”.
Professionalism and experience like that don’t come cheap but, as Theophilus might have said, “Is not the labourer worthy of his hire?”
Future plans include integrating the impressive pipe organ in the Oak Room into a gig. However, finding a keyboard player willing to tackle the enormous instrument has so far proved difficult. The wooden floor also has musical possibilities. Sue’s partner, Ken Maharajah, is a talented artist and one of his favourite subjects is the swirly, passionate flamenco dancers of Andalucia. Following an exhibition of Ken’s paintings at the National Museum of Flamenco in Saville, Nigel’s ambition is to use Ken’s contacts to bring a flamenco dance troupe and band to perform at the Oak Room.
Live music is alive and well in the South West. Sometimes in unlikely places.