The No Black Tie club, nestled in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, has been pretty much the toast of anything jazz-related in the capital since the late 1990s. The cosy club, with its wooded interior and tasteful live programming, has single-handedly carried the jazz scene in the Klang Valley for 20 years.
For all of two decades, Jalan Mesui in the heart of KL has been No Black Tie’s home, from when it began a few doors down the same road in 1998 to settling on its current 17, Jalan Mesui address in 2004. For Evelyn Hii, No Black Tie’s (NBT) founder and owner, the venue was originally conceived as an alternative platform for classical music after she first arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1996.
The Miri-born musician is a classically trained-pianist, and the plan was to establish a live space for classical works.
“It was first (set up) for me to perform on stage,” shares Hii about NBT beginnings.
“Hence it was classical music. Later, I started exploring the live music scene in KL and I found some of the top jazz artistes in KL, you know, guys like Michael Veerapen, Lewis Pragasam and Jose Thomas. They played in All That Jazz (a club in Petaling Jaya). I was thinking, ‘Why don’t we invite the jazz artistes to come and play in No Black Tie?’ From there, it was a whole new discovery of ‘do we have enough talents to fill the calendar of a jazz club?’ And the answer was … yes,” she adds.
With this influx of jazz performers, NBT needed a bigger performance space.
“So the stage was extended. I thought it would be great to have jazz artistes to come and perform because we already cultivated a listening audience through the classical concert series,” she continues.
When NBT started, as Hii points out, it was the start of economic recession – 1998-99. It was also the beginning of deejay culture and dance music in a big way in KL, and it was bold for NBT to go against the grain.
“In the early years, NBT was KL’s word-of-mouth destination. The buzz grew locally at first, then regionally, and soon NBT was a niche venue on the international map. The building blocks were set. Many homegrown acts in the last 20 years have passed through its doors (singer-songwriter Reza Salleh, guitarist Az Samad, folk singer Azmyl Yunor, singers Bihzhu, Elvira Arul, Rozz, Poova and Dasha Logan and drummer John Thomas).
Today, if you look at the increasing number of artistes performing at NBT, you’d find the connections made through an international network. The list has been diverse – improv and experimental Scan-dinavian jazz acts, a cappella groups and a variety of touring jazz groups.
Undoubtedly, NBT is the sort of place for the “musician’s musician”. Grammy Award-winning jazz musician Bob James right to pianists like Paris-based American jazz veteran Kirk Lightsey, Italian jazzman Danilo Rea and French-man Jean-Michel Pilc have played at NBT, while acclaimed guitarists Martin Taylor and Ulf Wakenius made a stop last year.
“Any respectable artiste coming to tour in the region, invariably they will send us an email and say ‘Can we come and play?’” says Hii.
So what has kept NBT going all these years then? Arguably, it could be the single-minded focus on jazz as well as music originality, particularly for local artistes.
“I think now the scene is extremely vibrant, but while there’s many more live music venues, it still mostly focuses on entertainment, not really artistic output. I think NBT is the only one encouraging original compositions, encouraging music as an artistic expression,” explains Hii.
The experience of performing at NBT, as many acts will testify, is the venue’s intimate set-up and dynamic acoustics.
“We have a very attentive audience. It’s really a very good opportunity for the artiste, especially the young ones to step on stage and understand the requirements, the prerequisites, the preparation that needs to be done to go on stage, to command an audience that is listening to you.”
Hii also reveals plans for a 20th anniversary celebration at NBT, which is slated for October.
“The announcements will be made soon, stay tuned.”
She isn’t limiting NBT’s scope to just the Klang Valley. NBT is also taking up the festival route. Hii is the curator and co-organiser of the 13th Borneo Jazz Festival in Miri, Sarawak from May 11-13.
The festival line-up includes artistes like Swiss-French ensemble Chris Stalk Quartet, Italian vocalist Cecilia Brunori, Chinese saxophonist Gaoyang Li, multi-talented Polish artist Grzegorz Karnas and Singaporean jazz icon Jeremy Monteiro leading the 18-piece Jazz Association of Singapore Orchestra.
Homegrown acts include Zainal Abidin, Michael Veerapen, Az Samad, Nadir with Bihzhu, WVC, Dasha Logan, Elvira Arul and more.
“I’m very excited about Borneo Jazz, because I think it will hopefully shed a little more on NBT and our work.
“A jazz club presenting a jazz festival that goes to show that over the 20 years we have really cultivated a valuable network of artistes that respect and admire what we do and support what we do so we can tap unto that network to actually curate a festival to draw attention to Borneo. Plus I was born in Miri,” she says proudly.
Then there’s also NBT’s record label, which had its debut release back in 2010, and numbering 10 releases to date.
“We are having an album and a book launch at the festival. The book is by one of our headlining artistes. It’s actually a song book by Zainal Abidin, where all his evergreen songs will be scored and published.”
Hii admits that the work definitely never stops. “Honestly, I’m very fortunate to be working with an extremely dedicated and talented team. I was a one-woman show before.”
Despite the jazz-centred programming at NBT, Hii also hopes to see NBT returning its classical roots – in a small way.
“We’re trying to revive the classical night, we’re trying to make it … at least once a fortnight on Mondays. The idea isn’t new. That was our beginning, the ambience was so amazing so we need to revive it.”
Be it classical, jazz or anything in between, Hii does feel strongly about one thing.
“Every big city in the world has a jazz club, so I’m glad that we are able to fill that void for Kuala Lumpur.”