The Crypt

In conversation with jazz club founder Russell Occomore on community and diversity at The Crypt in Camberwell.

On Sunday 7th February 1841, a fire started in the organ loft of St. Giles’ Church in Camberwell. So hot did the fire burn that the bells melted and roof with turret collapsed in on the nave, the hands of the clock stuck at half-past eleven. 

On Monday morning, whilst embers smouldered, two weddings were celebrated in the intact robing room and a notice was put out to say that baptisms, marriages and services would be held as usual. A vote was conducted in the parish to decide whether the church should be rebuilt on the remains and a fund was set up for reconstruction. 

In the face of hardship and financial ruin, St. Giles’ Church has been historically robust, adaptable and unafraid to lean on its community. In return, the church has always gone beyond worship in its service to Camberwellians. The crypt became the setting for the Samaritans from 1962 through to the 1980s.

In the same vein, when the church needed to raise funds for refurbishment in 1995, the idea was formed to host a jazz club in its crypt. Therein started a partnership that now enters its 28th year. 

I spoke with the founder of Jazzlive at the Crypt, Russell Occomore, about the club’s origins, role in the community and championing of diversity.

For its Friday night concerts, tickets to the 150 person capacity space sell out every week and the club has formed a deserved reputation as one of the UK’s premier jazz venues. 

Founder, Russell Occomore, has lived in Camberwell for most of his life and comes from a long line of Camberwellians, tracing his ancestors back on his mother’s side to living in the borough in the 1700s. 

Russell said: “Personally, my own driver is that I really feel like this is my community, I really feel like I belong."

Passion for the music and community culture come first for those, including many volunteers, that work at Jazzlive - an ethos that Russell described as infused by the venue itself: “The natural state of the Church community is to be volunteering and helpful, so that kind of transferred itself over to how we organise the club.

“That ethos of getting people who were committed and enthusiastic because they loved the task rather than being paid for it.

“And then that of course meant that more money went to the church to help with repairs.”

The Community

Jazzlive at the Crypt has recently been awarded Freedom of the Old Borough of Camberwell in recognition of how its work enriches the community, as it provides a space for young local musicians to develop and keeps prices accessible for audiences. 

Russell said: “People say to us ‘why is it so cheap? You should put prices up.’

"If you put prices up it makes it less accessible and recently there’s really good reasons for not doing that because of the cost-of-living.

“All we’re interested in is not losing money - our aim is to break even.”

It’s not only the ticket price, for drinks from the licensed bar and high quality food served to the table are very affordable. 

During lockdown, Russell heard from local musicians receiving complaints from neighbours as they played instruments in their homes: “I started to invite people in, particularly local musicians, to come and use the space during the day for free for rehearsals.

“I think that's really good because I've got to know musicians who live around here.

"Also really super talented jazz players I didn't even know about before who are now involved in the club.”

The London jazz scene

For Russell, the community extends wider than local: “We recognize that not only is this club really important to employ some local people and bring people into the area, that kind of contributes to the regeneration of it, but in the wider jazz community the club is extremely important.

“The last few years there's been a resurgence in the popularity of jazz and particularly young players to the point where internationally there's this thing now called the London sound. 

“These people like Kamaal Williams, Binker and Moses, all those local Peckham musicians were coming in here when they were teenagers, just to get to see their heroes who were playing.”

Such is the reputation of the club that last year Jazzlive had around 500 requests from top bands to play, ten times more than the amount of Fridays available. 

Indeed, Jazzlive presents both a place of inspiration for budding musicians and a platform for them to develop with access to world class equipment. 

On the access provided by online streaming, Russell said: “I think it's more empowering for the musicians. 

“I think you’re not so tied to how much effort the record labels or management put into getting you well known. 

“I think that's a real advantage, having that access to different forms of media for the individual musicians, that aspect of it is really good, but you can't beat seeing it live.

"It's a solution during lockdown, just to keep people aware, but the real scene is about going to live gigs.”

Diversity at The Crypt

On championing diversity, Russell recalled a conversation with friend and bass player Larry Bartley when the club first started: “He used to say ‘ah, you’re not going to be one of those clubs that doesn’t bring in black musicians?’ I said no, we’re going to bring in black musicians.

“We aim to have as much diversity in the bands we pick as possible. 

“That’s right through obviously ethnic diversity but we also probably have one of the highest percentages of women-led bands. 

“Ideally, we want 50/50, but I think we get about a third of bands that are female led and that’s quite high compared to other clubs.

“And we also have a high LGBTQ percentage.”

Russell also stressed the importance of Camberwell College of Arts and the character it lends the community. 

On the regular art exhibitions that the Crypt puts on, Russell said: “The focus of the art shows is mostly having women artists because at the start, when I was first talking to some of the art students, all the women were saying we can’t get any exhibitions.

“This was 20 odd years ago, but I thought we should really have a majority of women-led exhibitions because there’s a need for that.”

Music, community and diversity is very much alive in the Crypt.

General admission tickets are £10 and student tickets are available for £8.80.
Photos taken by Sam Montgomery