On a Thursday night at Hermann’s Jazz Club, the house band takes a break and owner Hermann Nieweler makes the rounds.
A woman from Colorado in the audience greets him enthusiastically.
“Thank you!,” she gushes, explaining she found the off-the-tourist-track venue through a tip from a friend.
Her husband takes in the exchange from a few paces back.
“We came here to figure out, ‘Who is this guy’?” he says, to others gathered around.
It’s a good question.
Nieweler, 76, boasts he runs the longest-running jazz club in Canada operated by only one person throughout its history. The club celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.
In 1986, Nieweler moved the club to its current location on View Street – the same year he moved to North Vancouver. Ever since, he’s been commuting every week or two. He flies on Harbour Air, checks into Paul’s Motor Inn, and stays long enough to catch up with the books, with any repair work, and with his staff and musicians.
It’s a big commitment for someone who doesn’t have jazz coursing through his veins.
“It’s the people here, in Victoria,” he explains. “The people kept coming and coming.”
The musicians and the fans are like a big family, he says.
For years, there’s been speculation about his retirement. Those close to him, however, know he can’t bring himself to sell the place. Keeping the jazz alive – for the fans and the musicians – means too much to him.
But change is coming.
“The time has come to step back a little bit,” he says, with obvious reluctance.
Over the summer of 2010, Nieweler received a kidney transplant, ending three and a half years of dialysis and a long period of illness prior to that. Nobody, including his manager, knew.
Through it all, he continued to book all his own bands.
“My life is kind of half and half,” he says. “Half is the serious side, and the other half is the fun side.”
The club has been the fun half. “It’s what pulled me through.”
In the corner of the room, a ghastly-looking manikin sits propped up with a black-marker mouth, oversized glasses and a red jersey and cap.
“It’s me on dialysis,” Nieweler jokes, adding it’s a way he can keep an eye on staff when he’s not around.
While Nieweler has recovered well, his sickness made him think about securing the future of the club.
“It’s his baby,” says Tom Vickery, who’s led the house band almost from Day 1.
“He loves the camaraderie of it,” he says. While he’s brought in some big names, from around North America, Nieweler has “made a commitment to the local musicians,” says Vickery.
That includes his own trio, as well as the Dixieland Express. Both bands have played the venue for 30 years. For the past 25 years, Hermann’s club has also made space every Thursday afternoon for band students from Esquimalt High school. For the first time this year, four high school band programs will get involved.
“Sometimes it’s a money maker, other times not,” Nieweler says. “It breaks even, but we have to look after young people. That’s the most important thing.”
Nieweler is now seeking to lease the space, a compromise that will allow him to keep some control.
The live music, he says, must continue.
The bright orange walls and eclectic decor are also non-negotiable. “I wanted to have it a little bit like a rumpus room, where people feel comfortable,” he explains.
Finding a replacement, however, will be a tall order, admits Vickery.
“With his big heart and dedication, and love of the musicians, I think it’s going to be difficult, because that aspect of it is not so businesslike,” Vickery says. Failing is a possibility that worries them both.
“We have to keep it happening,” says Vickery. “We’re saying to ourselves, how long can this go on?”
Nieweler immigrated to Canada from Germany as a 21 year old, and his career as a carpenter sent him all over Canada.
His life as a jazz club owner started almost by accident in Victoria 30 years ago. At the time, Nieweler was part owner of the Bastion Inn when a man named Barry Stubbs asked him for seven rooms free of charge, to house out-of-town musicians. In exchange, the stranger offered him an afternoon performance at the inn.
Two hundred people showed up, and Nieweler cleaned up.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “During the period they were playing, I would bring them schnapps,” he says. “It has to be done at the right moment. If you give a band a shooter, he plays twice as good.”
The schnapps became a tradition, along with an old German drinking call: “Zeke Zake, Zeke Zake, Hoeu, Hoeu, Hoeu!”
From then on, he and Stubbs were a marketing duo, and the music became a regular feature at the inn, soon renamed the Dixieland Inn.
“I started with Dixieland music, but then, the Dixieland people got slower and slower and the younger people moved in with their own jazz,” he says.
The shift affected more than the music.
“The Dixieland people, they were the beer drinkers. When the new music, the modern music came in, I had to start with cover charge … because they weren’t drinking as much.”
Deep down, Nieweler admits, “I’m a Dixieland fan.”
Jazz, he says, has grown on him. “There’s some good bands, but I’ve never had an opinion. For me, I always was thinking, anybody who goes on the stage there has a lot of guts.”
Back at the club on this Thursday night, Vickery takes up his post at the piano, and his bandmates follow.
For most of the show, Nieweler is out of sight, in the back room doing the books.
But at just the right moment, he appears with a tray full of schnapps.