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Detail of a poster ad for the Classical Joint Coffehouse in Vancouver: The famed nightspot was open from 1970-1990. (Andreas Nothiger Collection)
Detail of a poster ad for the Classical Joint Coffehouse in Vancouver: The famed nightspot was open from 1970-1990. (Andreas Nothiger Collection)

Music

Classical Joint, Gastown's musical heart, is gone but not forgotten Add to ...

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 (titled 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."

The Great Classical Joint Reunion, with more than 30 Vancouver-area musicians, will be held at the Ironworks on Oct. 8 (www.coastaljazz.ca).

FAMOUS CLASSICAL JOINT DENIZENS

Greenpeace 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.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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