ZWE Keeps Jazz Alive with an Intimate Atmosphere and an Approachable Attitude

Adored by local musicians and always welcoming, ZWE keeps local jazz alive.

The “city of music” may be best known for classical fare, but unsurprising for the birth place of all-time great Joe Zawinul, Vienna has a fertile underground network of jazz dives, intimate locales hosting gifted young musicians that play to passionate locals. Just a few paces from Donaukanal, inside a cosy basement, you’ll find one of the city’s best in ZWE, which, despite its low-key demeanor, is of the scene’s most venerated locales. Named after founder, owner and Viennese original Helmut “Zwe” Rainer, on a typical night, you’ll find the place brimming with an international cast of beaming jazz aficionados, fully on board with the house motto, “life is a party – easy going and keep swinging.”

Starting in 2007 as a coffee house aimed at “artists of all persuasions,” ZWE soon began hosting regular jam sessions. Music students, veteran instrumentalists and newbies alike began to gather, and in time, the shape of the place has shifted. Now it feels more like a well-loved living room or convivial clubhouse than your typical, world-weary jazz cellar or coffeehouse. For one thing, it’s distinctly well-lit, and the decoration is clear and simple. A mixture of cabaret seating around tables and stools leant against the bar all face the humble stage, in-house piano and drum set, patiently awaiting new players. Everything about ZWE is geared towards live music: the walls boast a vast collection of photographs documenting their shows, trophies from a decade’s worth of tunes ranging from Gershwin standards to radical post-bop explorations.

Kind of Blue Danube

And that’s precisely ZWE’s charm: besides its idyllic location, the exceptional intimacy and approachable attitude are what sets it apart from more formal jazz fixtures like Porgy & Bess. It doesn’t take much for a place like this to feel busy, and on jam nights it’s packed, reverent applause breaking out constantly throughout the night, encouraging each solo with ripples of warm approval.

On one such evening, I’m met by a piano trio led by Jörg Leichtfried (by day a jazz lecturer at a local conservatory) in full swing, searching up and down his keyboard with the beautiful energy of a McCoy Tyner or an Esbjörn Svensson. Leichtfried and his compatriots, however, are only really caretakers for the stage, improvising for half an hour as the place fills up with musicians of all ages and from all corners of the globe, eagerly awaiting a turn armed with horns, drumsticks, guitars, and itchy piano fingers. After a short break, Leichtfried’s trio return and a string of saxophonists, guitarists, trumpeters, and more join in for spontaneous improvisations or some beautiful, loose runs through a variety of standards.

Venues like ZWE are a reminder that while jazz may be considered a traditional art form today, it remains very much alive. There’s a ritual element to the proceedings; a kind of oral tradition, with ideas swapped and lessons passed on from musician to musician with barely a word being said. Best of all (for some of us anyway), ZWE recently became a smoke-free, air-conditioned venue. It’s a uniquely humble and forward-thinking jazz space, well-poised for the modern age.

Tristan Bath
Tristan moved to Vienna in 2015, and works as a freelance journalist, radio presenter, and online advertising consultant. He studied media in London, and also makes music, often composing scores for theatre productions. Takes tea with milk and no sugar.

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