Montreal’s House of Jazz is one of our city’s oldest jazz venues. Created by entrepreneur Georges Durst in 1968#, the place was not always a jazz pub per se, but grew accustomed to its visitors and changed according to the latest fads. At first it was named after its owner, George’s, but it changed names several times (it was at one point called Stiche’s, then Maxwell’s). When Durst opened the pub in 1968, he thought he had found the perfect place – just across the street was Montreal’s famous Playboy Club. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Montreal’s night scene flourishing. A forestry engineer by profession, Durst first got involved in the restaurant business when his employer, The Irving Paper and Pulp Company, laid off 8,000 employees, one of whom was then 22 year-old Durst. He got a job as a bartender Montreal’s famous Russian restaurant Troïka. In ‘68 he opened his first bar, Don Juan, and soon after George’s, which officially became a venue for jazz in 1980.
House of Jazz was, for a long time and arguably still is today, closely tied to the name of Charlie Biddle, a Philadelphia-born jazz bassist, who came to Montreal in the 1950s and lived the rest of his life here. In 1981, the pub was renamed Biddle’s, after Charlie, even though he did not own it. He played there weekly until the months before his death in 2003.
Throughout the years, House of Jazz has maintained its old times charm. As soon as you walk in, you feel as if you were transported in New Orleans in the 1920s. It has a decor that can best be described as downright spectacular. At the entrance, about a dozen pictures of great jazz musicians are smiling right at you – Charlie Biddle, Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, Oscar Peterson, and many others’ portraits have been stuck on the assigned “House of Jazz wall of fame.” An elderly dame wearing red lipstick greets us at the coat check, and a sleek-haired gentleman dressed in a tuxedo tells us to go sit at the bar. I’ve been here before, but my friend who is coming to House of Jazz for the first time is completely dazzled.
The place looks like an unsightly black box from outside, especially on a dark and cold winter evening, but once inside, you feel as if you’re in an underground palace; perhaps the large amount of mirrors is responsible for this illusion. Saxophones and trombones are hanging from the walls. There are a couple of big crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Despite the chandeliers, the place remains dimly lit, almost dark. It’s difficult to say how many levels the restaurant has; the stage seems lower than the tables, and the bar is situated slightly above the tables, on the left side when seen from the stage. There are leather séparés and benches; not one table is like the other. Behind the bar where we are sitting is a large, square, well-lit green leather séparé with colourful pillows and a square table in the middle. My friend and I joke that it looks like the setting of a Scorsese film, where mobsters could have drinks after hours. The decor could best be described as all wood, mirrors and leather. There are also a couple of old table lamps with stained glass. A few Monte Carlo signs hang on the walls, most probably in homage to one of Durst’s first dance clubs, the Monte Carlo, which was a private members’ club situated in Old Montreal, visited by the likes of Charles Aznavour and PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Just above the kitchen entry, there is an old “Tabac Journaux Newsstand” sign.
At 6:30 on a Friday night, the House of Jazz is not yet busting at the seams; the evening is just getting started. There is an elderly couple on one side of the bar, another couple who look like they’re on their first date on the other side, and me and my friend in the middle. I can hear a small group of Russians giggling on a nearby table. The Glenn Bradley Trio is scheduled to start playing at 6:30 and their act is on right on cue. They have a piano, a double bass, and a saxophone. They play part blues, part swing, and they’re not there to cause a stir among the audience, but rather to function as great background music to the venue. Mixed with the chatter of the people, The Glenn Bradley Trio creates a lively ambiance. There are no vocals, just instruments. The band play a very good instrumental rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” that has the audience swoon their heads while listening.
The audience at the House of Jazz is varied, and it would not be fair to say that only 40 year-olds are in attendance. There were more young faces than my friend and I had expected. No one is dressed too snazzy, but it is obvious that everyone who is here wants to look good. Most people are wearing jeans with blazers and look as if they just got off work. Unfortunately, there are no women in flapper dresses or men in tuxedos (except the waiters). Most people are probably here to grab a drink after work and to listen to some good music, and the House of Jazz is a much better choice for that than, say, Les 3 Brasseurs where the same music that plays on the radio all day long is blasted while people try to have a conversation. The menu isn’t anything pretentious; most people are having a glass of wine with a plate of nachos. House of Jazz is famous for its Louisiana-style cooking, and the most famous thing on the menu, the waitress tells us, is the Louisiana-style ribs and chicken combo.
The Glenn Bradley Trio take a break next to us, at the bar, and order some red wine while everyone is listening to a Diana Krall DVD playing on the TV. Their break is no longer than 15-20 min, when they get ready to take the stage again. “Break a leg,” my friend and I tell them and they smile at us. When The Glenn Bradley Trio take the stage again, the saxophone is replaced by a flute and the music is much more lively and louder. It is now 8pm and more people are pouring into House of Jazz. The sleek-haired greeter at the entrance seems busier now that he’s running around trying to find free tables for people.
The performance by Glenn Bradley Trio seems to rely on improvisation, which of course is the base of any good jazz performance. There is a flute solo, but overall the band plays together throughout. The musicians are having fun jamming, and so is the audience, with conversations now growing louder and livelier, as people are past drink number one at this point in the soirée, at 8:30pm. It is no groundbreaking or jaw-dropping performance, but it serves the purpose of tying the ambiance together. The live jam helps decor and conversations blend, it is what ties together the entire experience of going to House of Jazz. It is definitely a place worth revisiting because it is the most original jazz venue in Montreal, and just the decor alone makes it outstanding. There is live music every night of the week in every branch you may want to hear: funky, merengue, Cuban, acid, etc. House of Jazz really has all that jazz.
By Radina Papukchieva
Follow me on twitter @Papukchieva
Photos by: HotPhoto