Inside the DIY Jazz Spot Reinvigorating Vancouver’s Music Scene

Drawing a crowd of young and old alike, Memorial Jazz is creating a space for musicians across the city to perform and collaborate  

Ana Maria Caicedo // Arts & Culture Editor 

Manjot Kaur // Photographer

“I don’t know what the fuck to do with these pieces of plywood,” Ilhan Saferali exclaims, lifting a plank off the floor and placing it against the wall. I’m sitting on one of many mismatched stools in a loft on Main and Hastings, watching Saferali prepare for the show. Today the space is slightly more dishevelled than usual, he tells me while rearranging furniture and picking up bits of plastic. He places his Stussy coat on a chair, reserving it for his Dad, a jazz aficionado.

Since October of last year, Ilhan Saferali has been putting on jazz nights monthly and they’ve steadily grown in recognition and popularity. Dubbed Memorial Jazz, the event has quickly accumulated a loyal following of attendees who face a dark alley of rats, needles and body fluids each time to get here. 

On my Twitter feed, news was circulating about an underground jazz night that “serv[ed] pizza pops on paper towel sheets at the bar” with vibraphone solos that “fucking slayed.” So when CapU Jazz Student Colin Zacharias told me about a DIY jazz show that might peak my interest, I was really hoping it’d be the same one. Lucky for me, it was. 

At 30 minutes to showtime, owner Peter Marren arrives and starts drilling legs onto the mystery planks to make benches. Saferali is quick to notify him that the Snakes and Ladders set is missing a die. A procession of musicians start ascending the stairs, instruments in hand. They’re residents of what’s universally known to the Vancouver music scene as “Jazz House”— a home in South Vancouver full of Jazz musicians that frequently host open-jam nights. 

It’s just after 10pm now and the space is packed; you’re lucky if you’ve found somewhere to sit. We’re listening to jazz, a genre of music I thought was reserved for elevators and ageing restaurants. The audience tonight, whose ages range from teenagers to seniors, are totally transfixed by the music—and so am I. Just an hour ago, I wasn’t sure the show would pull through. But here we are. 

The space has character—under the glow of disco light, there’s a giant teddy bear slumping on a stool, a chess set is tucked between decaying couches adorned with a High School Musical pillow, piles of magazines hold up a game of Clue. 

Saferali stumbled onto the space after being asked to fill in for a live band on a film set after a last-minute cancellation. The loft is nestled between artist studios, and when Saferali noticed the piano in it, he immediately recognized its potential as a live music space. That day, he asked owner Peter Marren if he’d be willing to let him organize jazz shows there.

“After [the first show] I was like, okay, we have something special here,” Saferali recalls. “Like, this is something that’s gotta continue.” He’s sipping a beer as I interview him, a detail that would otherwise be unremarkable if he wasn’t 17. “This is the biggest thing I’ve done—like, I’ve never had my own keys to a place before,” he gushes, dangling them for emphasis.

Ilhan Saferali during the Memorial Jazz Intermission. Photo by Manjot Kaur.

A classically-trained jazz musician who plays piano and trumpet, Saferali sources performers for the jazz nights from his large pool of musician-friends. “The Vancouver jazz scene is a pretty tight-knit community, so I kinda know the people who are playing a lot and the people who are good and who I should book,” he says. 

Tonight, renowned saxophone player John Gross is playing, accompanied by Jimi James Fraser (son of musician Hugh Fraser) on piano, Max Huberdeau on drums, and Brad Pearson on bass. All three are residents of Jazz House. 

“It means a lot for them to play with someone like him,” Andrea Milagros, one of the only two non-musician residents of Jazz House, says to me. I approach Gross and tell him he’s the talk of the town. He scoffs and rolls his eyes. “I’m just a sax player,” he responds dryly.

Gross has been playing with Fraser, Huberdeau and Pearson for a few years, and originally met Fraser at the Libra Room. “I gave him my card and said ‘let’s play,’” he recounts. “When I was growing up that’s what older players did—play with younger players. So, you know, I’m old, so I play with younger players. Of course, everyone’s younger than me now, but that’s okay. That’s what people did, and that’s what they still do now,” he stresses. “That’s just part of the art; you pass on what you know to other people.”

After hearing the Winston Matsushita trio, Saferali settles the crowd to announce the John Gross Group. 

“This is some of the best music you’ll ever hear,” he says solemnly, pausing and adding with a smile, “hopefully.” The trio begins to play and the room is enthralled. Ripples of whistles, cheers and clapping punctuate the particularly remarkable moments of sound. Next year, Saferali plans to move east to study music at McGill. Recalling his most recent trip to Toronto, he says of Vancouver, “You know how they call New York the city that never sleeps? This city just sleeps.” Even though he’s leaving, he wants to continue these jazz nights once he’s gone. “I’ll give a spare set of keys to Colin, and we’ll try to keep it going, and I’ll book the bands when I’m out of town and I’ll be here when I can,” he says. “I’ll just literally try to keep it going as long as possible.”

To keep up with Memorial Jazz, follow Ilhan Saferali on Facebook

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