№ 4

The Clas­si­cal Joint

Gastown’s musi­cal heart is gone but not forgotten

—The Globe and Mail

Like any North Amer­i­can city, Van­cou­ver is lit­tered with leg­endary nightspots — the long-loved, long-shuttered spaces that peo­ple can’t seem to for­get. Places like the Cave. Or Rohan’s Rock­pile. Or Oil Can Harry’s.

Or the Clas­si­cal Joint.

I’ve been a lot of places,” reflected sax­o­phon­ist and pianist Phil Dwyer, one of Canada’s most estimable jazz musi­cians. “But I can safely say that, yes, there was some­thing there that I’ve never expe­ri­enced any­where else.”

Tucked into a Gas­town store­front, the Joint was a late-sixties’ relic — and it remained, prac­ti­cally unchanged, for more than two decades. From 1970 to 1990, the Car­rall Street cof­fee house was a musi­cal hot­house, with its eclec­tic pro­gram (tilted heav­ily towards jazz), weekly jams and out-of-town guests. As Vancouver’s hip­pie cof­fee houses began to van­ish, the Joint stood — a tiny, beloved (and entirely non-commercial) arti­fact, with an atmos­phere more indebted to Zurich or Paris than to San Francisco.

That affec­tion is per­haps the cen­tral rea­son for the Great Clas­si­cal Joint Reunion — a con­cert Oct. 8 at the Iron­works to cel­e­brate this fabled cof­fee house com­mu­nity. The night will fea­ture a who’s who of Van­cou­ver jazz musi­cians, from sax­o­phon­ists Dick Smith and Bruce Freed­man to singers June Katz and Kate Hammett-Vaughan. Hammett-Vaughan, who is also co-curating the event, will plot out the con­fig­u­ra­tions of a jam ses­sion fea­tur­ing more than 30 musicians.

The Joint may have shut 20 years ago this year, but an anniver­sary didn’t spur this event. It was more a case of “if not now, when?” observed singer (and co-curator) Colleen Sav­age. It was time to finally, for­mally hon­our its pro­pri­etor, Andreas Nothiger.

The story of the Clas­si­cal Joint is, indeed, a story about Noth­iger, a Swiss immi­grant who 40 years ago bought the cof­fee house for $8,000. But it’s also a story about the city’s music scene and about Gas­town, from its resur­gence in the early sev­en­ties to its decline in the late eighties.

Speak with Noth­iger, as I did recently at his Wall Street apart­ment, and he still sways from emo­tion to emo­tion when he thinks back. For nearly two decades, his life was entirely bound up in this lit­tle cof­fee house. “I did every­thing. I repaired the piano. I cleaned up. I threw peo­ple out. I hired the musi­cians. I did the pro­gram,” he said. “Even now, every­body thinks things just mag­i­cally hap­pened in the Joint. Noth­ing hap­pened mag­i­cally … well, some of the time.”

Located in one of the city’s old­est build­ings (built as the Bodega Hotel in 1889), the Joint was a throw­back from the start, with its exposed brick, small tables, long benches, large win­dows and a door that brought you right in from the street. Peo­ple played chess or Go, the Chi­nese board game. Legally, capac­ity was 48. In real­ity it was closer to 65.

With­out a liquor license, many of the Joint’s racier sto­ries include the Dark Cof­fee, a near mythic, under-the-table bev­er­age with a gen­er­ous ounce of Irish whiskey.

Klaus Stolte, a Ger­man pho­tog­ra­pher and ama­teur play­wright, opened the space in 1968. He came up with the name. “His idea was this clas­si­cal join­ing together between bohemi­ans and straight peo­ple,” Noth­iger said, laugh­ing at the memory.

Noth­iger, the Joint’s third owner, was in his early 30s when he took over in August 1970. He’d been work­ing as an archi­tect since he arrived in Van­cou­ver in 1967.

To Hugh Fraser, the com­poser, band­leader and multi-instrumentalist who started out there in the late sev­en­ties, the Joint had this “wild and won­der­ful Euro­pean approach.”

It was like a com­mu­nal cof­fee house where you’d hear what soci­ety had to offer,” he said. “You’d have some­one who was spend­ing most of his time on the street sit­ting next to a well-heeled Van­cou­ver lawyer who had an inter­est in jazz.”

Musi­cally, Noth­iger strove for vari­ety from the start. But the jazz com­mu­nity embraced the space. Sax­o­phon­ist Gavin Walker had a reg­u­lar Thurs­day night gig from 1974 until the Joint closed. Sun­day nights were broad­cast live (The Joint Is Jump­ing) on CFRO. The 1980s were espe­cially fer­tile as local musi­cians who would soon move on — Dwyer, pianist Renee Rosnes and sax­o­phon­ist Michael Blake — started out there.

But by the late 1980s, Noth­iger was exhausted. Repeat­edly, he tried to sell the busi­ness. In 1989, unable to secure a lease, he finally sold. The Joint lasted for just another year before it closed for good. The inte­rior was gut­ted and redesigned. Today, it’s Art­s­peak, a non-profit artist centre.

Gavin Walker, who prob­a­bly per­formed at the Joint more than any other musi­cian, saw its demise as part of the changes in the neigh­bour­hood. “Even though peo­ple were still com­ing, even though it was still hap­pen­ing musi­cally, there was def­i­nitely a feel­ing toward the end — the Joint had had its time.”

And on Fri­day, it will have its time again. At the Iron­works, just around the cor­ner from the old Joint, Walker will take the stage. Noth­iger will be in atten­dance. And, despite the even larger changes that have trans­formed the neigh­bour­hood more recently, it will be a chance to rem­i­nisce. There will be a slide show. Dark Cof­fee will be served. The reunion will allow this incred­i­bly diverse com­mu­nity to be together, one more time.

It was a real social net­work,” Fraser observed. “What they had in com­mon wasn’t money. It wasn’t their tai­lor. It was just their love of being part of this won­der­ful stew of society.”

With its Van­cou­ver roots, many of Greenpeace’s early sup­port meet­ings were held in the Joint’s backroom.

Joni Mitchell.
In the early 1970s, Nothiger’s neigh­bour asked if a friend could play the Joint’s piano one after­noon. As Noth­iger painted tables, he half-listened to the guest play. When she began to sing, he asked her who she was. It was Joni Mitchell.

Jazz roy­als.
In the late sev­en­ties, South African pianist Abdul­lah Ibrahim sat in on one of Gavin Walker’s Thursday-night jams. In the eight­ies, famous gigs included shows by sax­o­phon­ist David Lieb­man and bassist Char­lie Haden.

Chris Botti.
In the early eight­ies, the future king of smooth jazz came up from Port­land, Ore., to play with a group that included a young Renee Rosnes.

Go to a Clas­si­cal Joint photo essay at The Globe and Mail.com