‘It is very, very good for the music': Cafe Oto has helped transform east London

London is full of things to do, places to see and major tourist attractions. Dalston, in east London, however, is probably not on the top of many must see lists. Not so far back it was an area which was slightly down at heel and almost inaccessible by public transport but it is now easy to reach by the London Overground rail network and buses.

The area has benefitted from an influx of Vietnamese, Greek and other nationalities, bringing with them a huge variety of cuisines and cultural influences and there are numerous small restaurants, cafes and a thriving multi-cultural community. It is one of these areas of London where you feel a sense of the cosmopolitan — a bustling mix of languages, stores and people.

Music lovers, however, have been going there for years. It is home to two of the best jazz venues in London. Slightly better known is the Vortex, once in Stoke Newington but now firmly established in Gillett Square, Dalston.

The Vortex is a volunteer-led organisation, run on a not-for-profit basis providing a platform for music largely outside mainstream. They have long been known for showcasing new and different music — with improvised and free jazz forming a large part of their program. The Vortex can accommodate up to 100 people at its Dalston Culture House venue. Professionally run, it still manages to have the feel of a small urban jazz club and attracts a hugely diverse clientele. Staff are friendly and the ambiance welcoming. For years, if you wanted off the line music, the Vortex was the place to go and it has consistently come high in polls of live music venues. The Vortex keeps going with the judicious use of individual and occasional grants but does not receive major public funding.

While the Vortex set the bar high, many other small venues have risen from the ashes of what seemed at one time to be a decaying jazz scene in London. Some are tiny like FLimFLam, run in Ryan’s Bar in Stoke Newington, some large and some have failed whilst others just about tick over. The quality of music on offer varies but what they have in common is the willingness to offer a platform for emerging musicians to play their music to a seemingly unquenchable audience.

Yet, for the past five or six years, a slower but perhaps even more powerful force has also been at play. Just around the corner from the Vortex (literally) in a small road called Ashwin Street is Cafe Oto. From the outside by day, it is just another cafe — cozy, pleasant but unremarkable. However, at night it is a very different place. Still friendly, and welcoming, Cafe Oto turns into a jazz venue.

They opened as a music space in 2008 — cheekily smiling into the face of their bigger, older brother the Vortex but in an odd way, both venues have benefitted because between them, Oto and the Vortex offer music lovers a choice of musicians, poetry, plays, films even almost every night of the week and the choice is not limited to local players. Big established names like Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, John Edwards, John Russell, Joe McPhee, Matthew Shipp, John Butcher, the People Band, Yoko Ono and many many more have played there and the venue encourages both established and newcomers alike.

When it opened in 2008, Oto proclaimed its aim was to provide a home for creative new music that exists outside of the mainstream and it has not only succeeded but has forged a link between the old and the new, the large and the small and the fringe and mainstream. Oto and the Vortex even offer the same musicians at times on different nights so if you miss them at one, you can catch them at another, making the choice easier.

The audiences are mixed at Oto — old, young, from all backgrounds and not all from London — some will come many miles to see a favorite musician and Cafe Oto attracts them from Europe, across the Atlantic and further afield like Japan and Nigeria. Sometimes the place is heaving, sometimes it is not but either way, the ambience is good and everyone gets their moment. Flying in the face of commercialism, Cafe Oto runs on its own enthusiasm, powered by a small band of volunteers, the unprepossessing people of Cafe Oto have hit the jackpot in terms of reaching into the hearts of music lovers, musicians and those wishing to try something different.

Talk to any musician about the reasons why there is such a positive vibe in the jazz scene at the moment and they nearly all mention Cafe Oto. “The Oto effect,” as it has become known, has taken hold: It may have taken a while and it may have taken a good few years of hanging in there by the skin of their teeth, but the Oto people have changed London’s music scene and had far reaching effects perhaps without really knowing it.

Musicians love Oto, audiences feel welcome and it is one of those places that feels homey yet sublimely professional; relaxed, yet somehow organized. Attention to detail is one of the keys — and the judicious use of volunteers. This gives the place the feel of a small-town jazz club yet it is in the heart of a busy, bustling area of London.

With no regular public funding, small venues face a dilemma — how to keep to their principals of attracting new and different music whilst still turning enough profit to keep going, especially in areas with expensive rates like London. How to compete with big name, big venues like Ronnie Scott’s? The answer is to provide something the other venues cannot — involve the community, use volunteers who take proprietarial interest in the place and it become something locals value. Slowly but surely, Cafe Oto has achieved this and now big names want to play there as much as emerging players. They also maintain good quality beers, clean tables and look after musicians and audiences alike.

Some of the success is down to the British character as well. Brits will not be told what to listen to, support or like and will always give different music a chance. So, if a venue offers something different, it will usually get people who are curious to hear something new. However, you cannot charge huge entrance fees and you cannot set the rules and you have to keep people coming back. As a venue, you have to listen to what people want, concentrate on an area and stick to your guns. Oto has done this and then some. People come once, they come back because they get something different yet in familiar surroundings. The British love pubs, they love good cafes and Oto is both — with good music as well, it is well worth the relatively small admission fee.

Without their stalwart volunteers, Cafe Oto would be hard pressed to maintain the quality of musicians on offer. John Chantler of Oto comments: “Cafe Oto has volunteers helping out on the door, stamping people/checking tickets etc, sometimes collecting glasses although our bar staff are employed. I think it is fair to say we rely on volunteers and they are an important part of the space.”

Some free and experimental players are well-known enough to almost guarantee full houses, whilst others need somewhere to start. It is here where venues like Cafe Oto have stepped up to the mark, offering customers both worlds. Saxophonists Brotzmann, Gustafsson and Parker are almost regulars, offering customers a journey into freeform and improvised sound and Oto, still true to its raison d’etre in the first place, intersperses these acts with those just starting out.

Across the UK, there is a very positive feeling about the music scene once again. Venues like Oto in the capital encourage others and small venues are emerging who are more willing to take risks, making more music easier for audiences to access. Ian Storrer’s Jazz at the Albert in Bedminster, Bristol, Miss Peabody in Falmouth (joint winner of best small venue with Cafe Oto in a recent poll) and Band On The Wall in Manchester all offer platforms where many musicians would not have the opportunity to play and would be lost to audiences.

Brotzmann is a regular at Café Oto and, whereas once he might have played two or three times a year in London, now he plays far more often because he says: “It remains one of the best places for my music.” Oto has made a real difference, not only because the venue offers a diverse and interesting program of music, poetry and films but because it is a larger than most venue offering diverse music.

One surprising consequence has been they have got younger people into the gigs. More women, it has been noticed, attend now and the scene has taken on a vibrancy which was being lost. Clever marketing means they appeal to a wider range of people and the venue is now very much one of the in places to be seen. Sax player Alan Wilkinson of FlimFlam acknowledges that women are increasingly being drawn into Oto gigs: “It is a lot to do with being anonymous. You can be anonymous at Oto, but not at a smaller FlimFlam gig,” he says. “It is important not to forget the small-door money gigs like FlimFlam, where we’ve all been able to encourage and develop the music for many years. The advantage somewhere like Oto has is that it attracts a more varied and larger audience, which is great for everyone.”

Gustafsson agrees that the free-form scene in London is thriving and acknowledges Oto as one of the key venues. He comments: “London has always been one of the most amazing places for free and creative music, and it always will be. Key players like Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, John Stevens, Steve Beresford, Paul Rutherford, Roger Turner and John Butcher all helped build up a totally ass-kicking scene over the years. London became one of the most creative scenes in the history of jazz and improvised music. The problem is that venues in London always had very limited funding. But things changed a lot lately with the appearance of Cafe Oto. It is an amazing place; the people there, the vibe, it is very, very good for the music. There is also the fact you can play for two-to-three days in a row, which is pretty sensational and very good for us, the musicians.”

With the smaller European venues losing opportunities to offer free-form musicians new on the scene the chance to play, London seems to have taken over as the main venue in the UK, if not Europe overall. However, with success there are some drawbacks. Wilkinson comments: “Oto was much more open when it started, but it’s now more difficult for lesser known players to get a gig there. Having said that, I think the growth of places like Oto and the Vortex, which is promoting much more free music, as well as other trendy venues that are popping up, is very healthy — and I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in this country, when it’s possible to see so many great musicians on a regular basis. Suddenly, London has arrived on the touring scene like never before.”

However, due to the uncompromising and defiant support of venues like Oto, the London influence is expanding across the UK. Further from London venues include the Albert, Bristol and Point Blank Theatre, Sheffield — where the Noise Upstairs, a showcase for free-form and improvised music, is a monthly event on Wednesday nights.

One of the things about Oto is the lack of a stage. There is, instead, a performance area — loosely the area in front of the small people sit to listen, eat or drink. This space is moveable, can expand or contract according to the size of the band performing and, most importantly for many players, it gives them the chance to play up close and personal, giving direct and immediate feedback to a player who can look the listener straight in the eye.

Cafe Oto has not stopped at the music. With the success of the fringe music offered, they have opened their doors to many creative projects and ideas which may not otherwise have seen the light of day. For instance, they have set up the OtoProjects, a non-profit community-interest company that will manage creative activities including workshops, film screenings and salons that will run alongside the core programs. They have also developed the OtoProject Space, which allows artists to develop new work and for workshops presented by OtoProjects. Just around the corner from Cafe Oto, these take place in a building built by a team of more than 30 volunteers.

They fund smaller community efforts through the Oto Projects Promoters and Artists Fund, set up to support the creation and delivery of new live events with UK-based musicians — and even commission projects in conjunction with SAM (Sound And Music), a pilot commissioning project providing small event organisers with the resources and opportunity to produce bold new programming. They also contribute as a curator to the Free Music Archive, an interactive library of high-quality, legal audio downloads directed by WFMU, the most renowned free-form radio station in America. Then there’s Oto Broadcast, which goes out on Wednesday nights on London’s art radio station Resonance FM from 9:30-10:30 p.m., featuring guests, concert recordings, interviews and sometimes a live broadcast from the venue.

By diversifying, encouraging others with new ideas and, most of all, continuing to give a place to play for new musicians and talent, Cafe Oto remains a formidable, yet small and friendly, force in the music scene — not only in London but, through their example, across the UK.

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Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.