Emma Rawicz performing at Jazz SocJazz Soc with permission for Varsity

Sitting in the Iris Café surrounded by serious jazz players, I felt intimidated. After giving up the trombone at age 14, I felt completely out of my depth in terms of musical know-how. I was soon reassured, however, that prior knowledge would not be necessary – in fact, the Cambridge University Jazz Society are working to deconstruct jazz’s exclusionary reputation.

Jazz Soc debuted in November of last year; now, their events in local venue Hidden Rooms consistently sell out. Noam, the society’s president, told me that Jazz Soc started life as a mailing list. “I was looking for gigs for my jazz trio after lockdown, and I’d heard that Cambridge had a buzzing jazz scene in the past, but there was no way of knowing when events were happening,” he said. “I thought about creating a ‘jazz mailing list’, but after talking to some friends, I realised we could make something a lot bigger and better.” After meeting with fellow jazz enthusiasts Jonathan, Joe, and Sophie, Noam was introduced to Ned, who helped run the Oxford Jazz Society during his time there. In early October, the team started work on what would become Cambridge’s newest music society.

“We had about 900 people show up for our first event of term, with a queue of over 700 people!”

The committee wasn’t sure how popular the events would be. “Hidden Rooms isn’t really used for student events,” Ned told me, “and a lot of people don’t even know it exists, so we were a bit worried.” Soon, though, they were overwhelmed. “We had about 900 people show up for our first event of term, with a queue of over 700 people!” Ned said. “Quickly we realised that this was going to work.”

Jazz Soc host regular 'open jams' where all players are welcome to join in Jazz Soc with permission for Varsity

Noam hypothesised that Jazz Soc’s popularity comes from it filling a void in Cambridge nightlife. “We wanted to create an alternative night out in Cambridge,” he told me, “a space that was more open, friendly, and accessible than clubbing.” As we talked, accessibility came up many times; the committee spoke about their quiet spaces, lowered lighting, and welcoming environment for those who don’t want to drink. Joe also wanted Jazz Soc to be culturally accessible. “When orchestras perform, there are lots of unwritten rules, like no clapping between movements. Jazz Soc is a place that’s less intimidating for somebody who isn’t experienced with that kind of musical culture,” he said. Ned agreed: “Halfway through people playing, you can be applauding, shouting, or whatever! You don’t have to play music; you can also just chat with friends. It’s relaxed.”

Jazz Soc is also trying to change the landscape of the gig scene in Cambridge. Noam told me: “A lot of gigs in Cambridge happen by who you know. It’s really difficult to break into the music scene. We’re working on a process where musicians can advertise through Jazz Soc, so people organising events can see all the jazz bands available in one place. It will try to counter all the behind-the-scenes messaging that goes on.”

“A quarter of the Jazz Soc committee are inclusion officers, which allows them to make practical moves towards inclusivity”

Gender inclusivity is also a big part of the society, and they are working to dismantle the predominantly male makeup of jazz. Committee member Milo told me about their previous experiences with open jams: “Whoever shouts the loudest chooses what to play, and that means those who feel uncomfortable never play. At Jazz Soc, we have sign-up sheets and dedicated inclusion officers that welcome people to the stage. Our committee members are confident enough to shout over people to make sure everyone’s included!” They even have tambourines and shakers for the musically challenged like me who still want to join in. Joe told me that a quarter of the Jazz Soc committee are inclusion officers, which allows them to make practical moves towards inclusivity. He worried that “the admin side of things is probably quite difficult to include in a sexy article,” but Milo reminded him that “accessibility is hot and sexy.” I’m inclined to agree.


Mountain View

The magic of soundtracks

For those looking to attend one of these accessible, hot, and sexy events, Jazz Soc runs four events a term on select weekday evenings in Hidden Rooms. The tickets sell incredibly quickly, so the committee recommended buying a membership to avoid disappointment. “Members get access to Jazz Soc tickets 24 hours before anyone else, discounted tickets to Cambridge Modern Jazz events, and any member of Cambridge Jazz Soc is also an affiliated member of Oxford Jazz Soc,” Ned revealed. He also hinted at exciting new ideas for member perks, which included deals with jazz clubs around the country and exclusive stash (jazz socks, anyone?).

As we finished our conversation, I felt like I’d gained more than just an exclusive peek into the inner workings of some of Cambridge’s most popular events: I felt a part of something. Jazz Soc is for everyone, even Varsity writers who can’t tell their “Footprints” from their “Giant Steps”. Maybe my trombone will see new life yet.