Settle down folks, it’s not what you’re thinking! Although they take it pretty damn seriously, the folks at The Ellington have not taken their pursuit of jazz authenticity to the extreme of harking back to the racial segregation prevalent in America during the genre’s golden age, so you can rest easy now. I’ll explain exactly what I mean a little later on. What I will say now is that Perth finally having a dedicated jazz venue is something that I was pretty darned excited about and had been planning on a visit ever since I got back from overseas. For me, jazz bars/clubs are one of the markers of a truly civilized environment and I sincerely believe that no city can make any real claim to being properly cosmopolitan without one. Thus, with such lofty expectations in place, some friends and I descended upon The Ellington last friday evening hoping for a night of sophisticated nocturnal entertainment.
The segregation mentioned in the title, as I explained above, refers not to an exceptionally non-PC racial separation policy, but rather that the layout of the place is divided into two distinct areas; downstairs for sitting and listening to the music being played on stage and upstairs for sipping on cocktails and chatting to other hep cats. If you do wish to sit down and watch the performers on stage you need to book a table well in advance, and not having done so (and also desiring a bit of a chat amongst ourselves), we headed upstairs for a few drinks and some food. In terms of decor and ambiance, it’s exactly what you’d expect from an upmarket jazz bar; stylish and modern with dark tones and dimmed lighting all round and patronised by a generally chic, late-20′s-to-early-30′s crowd. Cocktail wise things were very good and the bar staff knowledgeable and professional, but then again when you’re charging near enough to $20 per cocktail you’d expect them to be. I started with a nice tart Tom Collins, followed with a tasty CC & Ginger and finished off
with an excellent bourbon old-fashioned (upgrading to Basil Hayden’s bourbon at the barman’s suggestion). Food wise we went for the Tuscan pizza ($17) and selection of four antipasto bites with bread ($29) with grilled cacciatore on onion jam, mushroom and verjuice pate, stuffed bell peppers and grilled roast duck and mushroom agnolotti. The antipasto was great, very tasty and decent sized portions, however the pizza was another story. Quite small and with a base that appeared to be a bit of toasted pita bread, it was also overly salty and generally lacking in flavour. Very unimpressive!
Now that I’ve covered the nuts and bolts, let me enlighten you on my overall verdict. For starters I’m not a fan of the whole separation of music and drinking/chatter. Everyone downstairs seemed very serious when we walked in and I almost felt like I was intruding or causing offence by entering. Beyond that, apparently everyone was under strict instructions not to talk during the performance and obliged to sit there in stony silence and appreciate the performance whether they liked it or not! In my view, this is more than a little too anal. For me the clink of glasses and the rise and fall of bar-room chatter is part of the soundtrack to live jazz, and while I do love it I don’t think I could sit there for hours and give it my undivided attention, especially seeing as the performance that night was good but fell well short of mind-blowing. They do show the action on CCTV upstairs and pipe the music up though the sound system, but watching it all through a screen greatly detracts from the experience as far as I’m concerned. Beyond that it is nice, but a little too nice. I like my jazz bars with a little bit of edge, you know, a bit quirky and with a few rough edges, and The Ellington’s brand-spanking-new, polished feel left me a little wanting in this regard.
So if you’re a serious fanatic that enjoys sitting in silence for hours just “feeling the jazz, daddio”, or want a drink and some decent food in a posh, by-the-numbers jazz club then The Ellington is for you. Those of you looking for something a bit more relaxed and edgy (not to mention much cheaper), my recommendation would be to head to the Moon Cafe in Northbridge on a thursday night. They have a great instrumental jazz group on in their funky back room, and you’re free to eat, drink and chatter away without fear of incurring the wrath of someone wearing a black beret and turtle-neck.