Recarpeted, repainted, and for better or worse now adorned with video screens, Hong Kong’s best jazz club is back in business.
There’s nothing like having something unavailable for a while to help you appreciate it properly, and the excellence of the live music in Bert’s is something, perhaps, we sometimes take for granted.
Allen Youngblood, who originally came to Asia in the early 1990s with a band playing at the Grand Hyatt’s now defunct JJ’s nightclub, has been the FCC’s music director since before Bert’s opened. As well as performing there himself, he is responsible for booking everybody else who does.
“My idea was to call it “Round Midnight”, to single it out as a jazz club within a club, but then the suggestion was made to name it after Bert Okuley, and once I knew who he was, that seemed fine. We use the best people in town we can get, and we try to catch the best people coming through town, whatever they play. Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes it’s R & B and soul. It depends what’s available,” he says.
Bert Okuley was a talented jazz pianist, as well as a distinguished foreign correspondent and former club president, and from the outset the bar named for him has had a jazz and blues theme, fully reflected in its decor.
Like most jazz-oriented venues worldwide, though, Bert’s also accommodates other styles, and although Youngblood and his trio Jazbalaya are comfortably settled back in residence, he chose performers from different genres for some of the reopening gigs.
“Bert’s reopened officially on October 22 with the band Red Stripes, which plays ska,” says Youngblood, “but it actually opened before that. We had a little Oktoberfest thing with an accordion. Full dress.”
In addition to the Tuesday, Thursday and Friday live band performances, Bert’s has developed into a special events venue on otherwise generally quiet Saturday nights, and Youngblood plans to build on that.
“Saturday is a day for special functions, once a month when possible. You have to give people a reason to come back into town” says Youngblood. “Usually they sell out.”
Quite often those evenings are sufficiently popular that Bert’s cannot accommodate the numbers, and the bigger draws migrate upstairs to the Main Dining Room – as was the case in November with British Jazz Singer Ian Shaw, who played the club on November 5.
He was accompanied by Youngblood and bassist Scott Dodd, who then joined him on a tour of China, including gigs at the new Blue Note Club in Beijing and the newly relocated JZ Club in Shanghai.
Shaw, a two-time winner for Best Vocalist in the BBC Jazz Awards, is a good example of the Club getting the best, and for visiting jazz musicians Bert’s is what has put it on the map.
Over the years many notable names have dropped in to play, including, since the reopening, former James Brown drummer, Erik Hargrove. “A really musical drummer – just passing through,” says Youngblood.
The Club is also a favourite gig for such high-profile permanently locally based artists as guitarist Eugene Pao, singer, bassist, bandleader and FCC member Elaine Liu, and blues harmonica virtuoso Henry Chung, for whose appearances Bert’s transforms into a juke joint. In the past six months all have sold out either Bert’s or the Main Dining Room.
Performers who have appeared at Bert’s in recent weeks include the Orlando Bonzi band, the Jason Cheng Trio, Skip Moy and his band, and vocalists Jennifer Palor and Miriam Ma – not forgetting the performers who unobtrusively do so much to create the early evening atmosphere including singer and guitarist Mary Jane, guitarist Moy who also performs solo, and pianist Sizwe Peter among others.
The common factor? Not so much jazz as quality, says Youngblood.
“It’s a music room. We try to make it not just jazz, but that said there aren’t that many groups doing other stuff that I’d hire. It’s not what I think about their music. It’s a question of what’s available that’s good.
“Nothing against places like The Wanch, where you get people who can play and people who can’t play, but that’s not what we are. We want people who are seasoned. Don’t be down here practicing.”
New kitchen, full menu
While Bert’s was closed for music during August and September it still operated as a temporary kitchen and food storage while the FCC’s main kitchen, buried deep in the bowels of the building, underwent a HK$6 million refìt.
All major fittings and appliances were ripped out and replaced with modern equipment without needing to redesign the space. The kitchen is now a fully modern working environment allowing the CIub far more flexibility to add new styles of cuisine.
Since October 11, when it was also free bubbly time to launch the renovated Bert’s, a full menu has been in operation under Chef George and his team.