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Buenos Aires has plenty of jazz clubs. There’s Perro Andaluz and Kebaytina in San Telmo, Notorious in Barrio Norte, and Virasoro Bar in Palermo. Clubs like No Avestruz and Eter Club feature jazz acts several nights a week. Bookstores like Clasica y Moderna host jazz groups with regularity.
All of these places are valuable venues, but if I had one night to see jazz in the world’s pre-eminent tango town, there’s no doubt that I would go to Thelonious. Begun in 2000, by musician brothers Ezequiel and Lucas Cutaia, Thelonious has quickly become the most important jazz club in the city. The Cutaia Brothers champion daring jazz that is solidly based in the music’s tradition, attracting a group of highly educated, forward-looking musicians who make up the core of the new Argentina jazz.
The musicians who play at Thelonious are a distinct jazz community. Many of them studied in the US at Berklee College of Music in Boston, or at instrument specific institutions in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles; they revere the jazz tradition but also look to local musical idioms like tango and folkloric music for inspiration; they play in each other’s groups, forming a network of small combos and big bands with many members in common. The musicians who play at Thelonious also hang out there. On any night, you’re bound to find musicians in the audience, checking out what their fellow musician’s are up to.
There are several small attributes that most good jazz clubs share – limited or no food service (you don’t want a waiter bugging you in the middle of a solo), intimacy, and isolation (a basement or second-floor location is usually a lot quieter than a store-front venue). Thelonious has all of these attributes along with its own bit of high-ceilinged, funky-chandeliered quirkiness.
Throughout jazz history, musical movements have had certain clubs that have fostered their existence – be it Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem helping give birth to bop, or the Half Note in the West Village serving as home turf for the avant-garde. The new Argentine jazz isn’t quite a movement – although the next few years could see it develop into one – but it’s clear that Thelonious is the place in which the music is happening and growing.
Thelonious may be at the centre of the Buenos Aires jazz world, but it is by no means the only club at which creative music is happening. Notorious, the city’s most luxurious jazz club, is a bit stuffy; it’s expensive, has a decidedly older clientele than Thelonious, and features an annoyingly loud coffee grinder along with the music – but it also hosts some of the very best jazz acts in Argentina. It’s not a place to hang-out like Thelonious, but much of its programming is beyond reproach.
Eter Club – a small, new venue in the suburban neighbourhood of Villa del Parque – deserves more notoriety. Eter hosts a Thursday night jam session that attracts many of the same young, engaged musicians that play at the private jam session house. On other nights, Eter hosts both jazz and other varieties of music. For groups that haven’t quite made it to the level of notoriety necessary to pack Thelonious, Eter is a crucial space for nurturing talent.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I expected the jazz scene to be quaint and imitative. What I found was a serious jazz culture that was determined to leave its mark. Buenos Aires may never be the jazz hotbed that New York or Chicago is, but it is nonetheless becoming a vital force on the international jazz scene. In the recording studios, jam sessions, and clubs of Buenos Aires there is a creative music that is pulsing with the rhythm of the streets and the soul of Argentine musicians who have made a foreign music into something that is very much their own.
Thelonious, Salguero 1884, 1st Floor (Corner of Güemes), Palermo, Tel: 4829-1562 www.thelonious.com.ar