Jazz After Dark: Preserving the timeless legacy of Amy Winehouse

4 Mins read

Hidden in plain sight, nestled in the heart of Soho, this venue continues to survive the relentless march of time and the gentrification wave standing as a living testament to the birthplace of a musical legend.

Bold LED lights illuminate the exterior, casting a warm glow on the street. A medium-sized screen plays Amy’s concert footage, refusing to let the legacy fade away.

Inside, the venue morphs into what artist/owner Sam Shaker affectionately calls “Amy’s shrine”.

As you step into the dimly lit space, the ambiance envelops you with a nostalgic charm. Bright red neon signs crown a well-lit bar, while candles made from champagne bottles flicker softly.

The walls adorned with priced portraits and personal snapshots capture Amy’s essence, creating an intimate and sacred atmosphere.

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Sam Shaker with a selection of his paintings at Jazz After Dark [Rafael Bonito Chiera Xavier De Pina]

Jazz After Dark opened its doors 35 years ago, a dream realized by the young artist from Cairo, Sam Shaker, who had migrated to London with an art scholarship. The city’s fast-paced life fuelled his entrepreneurial spirit.

The venue’s history dates back to Bob Marley’s family but was shut down by the police due to “misconduct,” an opportunity Sam seized with enthusiasm.

After a brief stint as a French restaurant fell short, he transformed it into a jazz bar, blending his worlds of art and business.

At the age of 12, Sam embarked on his artistic journey, initially painting furniture for his father and uncle in Cairo, skilfully applying linseed oil.

His artistic pursuits took him to Italy, where he captured the beauty of Italian landscapes on Egyptian scrolls during his formal education.

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Jazz After Dark has also become Sam’s Art Gallery [Rafael Bonito Chiera Xavier De Pina]

Later, in the vibrant streets of Paris, he underwent a radical reinvention, drawing on naked bodies to captivate audiences. However, nothing could parallel the profound artistic transformation in Sam’s work than when Amy entered his life.

“She came here for the first time when she was 16-years-old, started working behind the bar, and one day asked me if she could sing. I could tell she was drunk, but she started singing I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. She was one hundred times better than the professionals I was hiring; from that day on, she never stopped.”

Amy became a second daughter to Sam, ushering in a new artistic chapter in his life – celebrity portraits – getting commissions from guests Amy brought in such as Kate Moss, Lady Gaga, and Robin Thicke.

These were hidden in the small, red VIP room at the back of the venue, a sanctuary behind a curtain, away from the paparazzi’s eyes, the place that also witnessed the creation of Amy’s iconic record, Back to Black.

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Sam painted a number of other celebrities [Rafael Bonito Chiera Xavier De Pina]

Despite her fame, Amy continued to perform at Jazz After Dark right until her very last days.

 “She came here about 3:00 am on a Saturday, in very bad shape after a big fight with her boyfriend Blake. She kept crying so I offered her a bottle of vodka and some chips and chicken wings, her favourites. She stayed here writing Back to Black from dawn on Saturday to Sunday around 7:00 or 8:00 pm,” Sam recalled.

Amy Winehouse with Sam Shaker three days before she died [Courtesy of Sam Shaker]

“This picture was three days before she died. She came on the 20th of July because my birthday is on the 22nd. She was in a very bad situation, severely ill, we would normally celebrate my birthday together, have a drink, but that day she hugged me and said, ‘Sam, I cannot come… sorry, I’m not feeling well at all.’ On the 23rd, it came the news that she died”

Sam immortalizes Amy in his work, with one of his published books named Losing Amy: An Inspiration for my Art and turning Jazz After Dark into a “Life gallery” – telling the tale of an indelible bond between the two through the paintings she once commissioned him as well as personal photo-albums attached in every corner.

He recalls the moments they shared, including preparing Amy’s favourite food – meatballs with tomato salsa – a dish that now permanently graces the menu in her honour.

Amy’s aversion to cutlery, embodied in her habit of greeting people with salsa on her lips, has become a distinctive trademark of the venue as well as the times he patiently guided her in learning to play the drums.

Seated beneath a softly illuminated frame – a self-portrait of the singer – in his usual spot, he recollects the collaborative effort they put into painting it together

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Sam Shaker with one of his portraits of Amy [Rafael Bonito Chiera Xavier De Pina]

These are just a few memories Sam still relives today when walking through the confines of Jazz After Dark the space that ties together the bond shared between the two artists.

 Today, the once-legendary VIP room is unfortunately reduced to a spot where carefree spills and antics prevail. Financial struggles threaten its existence, with escalating rent and the wave of gentrification posing a dark shadow over the venue’s future.

A GoFundMe campaign has been initiated to save this Soho music landmark and Sam’s legacy. The vision extends beyond mere survival, aiming to breathe new life into the space through renovation and revitalization.

The goal is to carry forward its legacy, providing a stage for emerging talent and maintaining its role as a cherished haven for musicians and artists alike.

Support is pivotal in this preservation effort and every contribution, regardless of size, plays a crucial role in sustaining the heartbeat of the music at Jazz After Dark and the prevalence of Amy’s memory.

As Sam puts it: “She added golden glitters in the end, yup, that’s Amy.”

Featured image by Rafael Bonito Chiera Xavier De Pina.

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