On a rainy Wednesday evening in early January, as the miserable fog of lockdowns and social distancing was beginning to lift, I found myself in a tucked-away Grade II-listed building in the heart of Forest Gate.
A well-dressed 92-year-old man was nonchalantly delivering a wildly complicated jazz drum solo while his fellow musicians awaited their cues. A raffle had been organised for the half time break. I had just bought a pint of lager and a packet of crisps for under a fiver.
This sort of scene isn’t too far off what my description of heaven would be, were I to be asked. But I hadn’t passed through the pearly gates, no. I had simply stepped out of the driving rain and into the wood panelled red-carpet jazz cocoon of The Red House on Upton Avenue.
St Anthony’s Catholic Club – known as The Red House because of its red brick façade – was founded in 1907 as a social meeting place for members of Forest Gate’s Catholic community.
Over the past 100 years or so it has adapted and reinvented itself to keep up with the times and the changing face of Forest Gate. Today, it’s a modern and eclectic events and community space for locals and visitors.
I was tipped off about the Wednesday night jazz sessions at The Red House by my neighbour, the wonderful Su Leaver, whose pottery workshop An Exaltation of Larks is deserving of its own article in The Forest. She recommended I talk to our other neighbour, the equally wonderful Claire Terry, who is responsible for booking the diverse range of jazz cats who play there every week.
“I took over the running of the jazz club at St Anthony’s three years ago and inherited a very impressive list of phone numbers from the club’s former house bass player John Pamenter,” said Claire.
“Many of our musicians play at renowned venues like Ronnie Scotts, so I consider myself very lucky to be able to book such talent and see them in such a relaxed setting.
“Having had to take an enforced break over lockdown it’s wonderful to be back up and running and listening to fantastic live music again.”
She’s not wrong. And not only will you see some of the best jazz musicians in the country play to a small crowd in an informal setting for £3, you’ll inevitably end up chatting to someone interesting from the local community.
Among the audience members you’ll find cheerful retirees drinking large brandies, local tradespeople on the lager and students constantly nipping out to the beautifully kept gardens to smoke in between tunes. The atmosphere is friendly, fun, vibrant and welcoming, even to relative newbies like me.
As we all know, there’s jazz and there’s jazz, and this is not the sort of place where you’re likely to be subjected to a 17-minute single-note trumpet solo. You’re better off heading The Vortex in Dalston for that sort of business. Here the music is accessible, with new twists on jazz standards being played by highly talented improvisers.
There are also explorations into much-loved jazz musicians and albums.
A recent night was a deep dive in the life and music of Miles Davis, with tunes from Kind Of Blue interspersed with anecdotes and historical context. It was fascinating.
The Red House is still a members’ club and you can pay an annual or monthly fee for access to events like the garden parties and games nights. But for the jazz night, members and non members are free to wig out together, and for my money you’d be hard pressed to find a regular night featuring such high calibre jazz musicians anywhere in East London.
Jazz@St.Ant’s is at St.Anthony’s Club, The Red House, 13 Upton Avenue, Forest Gate, E7 every Wednesday at 8:30pm and admission is £3. There's no membership requirement and everybody is welcome. Press the top bell on the right (marked Club) for entrance.