The Lady and her House of History. House of Struggles. House of Jazz.
Originally: February 12th
Website Up:March 8th 2023
A gleaming double-bass lies on its side on the small stage, waiting to be played.
A couple is already seated in the audience, slouched comfortably in two leather armchairs. In the row behind them, three white-haired men sit in an identical pose behind their drinks – leaned back, arms crossed. Shoulder-to-shoulder, a unanimous front of solid anticipation.
Slow jazz plays overhead. Behind the bar, a lady taps beers as more customers trickle in. A few hesitant gazes glide around the dimly-lit space, as if to reassure themselves they didn’t just step into a stranger’s living room. Drinks in hand, they find their places in one of the three tight rows of chairs. Knees touch, elbows bump. There’s an amiable chorus of ‘excuse me’s’ and reassuring dismissals.
“Welcome everyone, to the first concert of this year!”
Café-owner and bartender Sharon Doelwijt addresses the small crowd as two guitarists and a double-bassist step onstage. The thick curtains are drawn, shrouding the windows. Cozy lights dot the tables. The musicians nod at each other, and start to play.
Shoulders relax, heads tilt.
And – arms still crossed – the wall of elderly men, just ever so slightly, begins to sway.
It’s promising to be another lovely night at Le Petit Theatre, the smallest jazz café in Groningen.
Le Petit Theatre is easy to miss. Tucked away between the hyper-modern Kunstwerf building and the high-rise buildings towering across the street, the petite brown building looks a bit lost – like a small kid who accidently got caught up in the wrong crowd.
But in this humble building lies a whole history of the city.
Built in 1892, it was once part of the gemeentelijke gasfabriek, Groningen’s gas company. This former regulateurshuisje housed the machines regulating gas pressures: gas from the factory passed through the regulator house, where the gas pressure was adjusted before being dispensed into the city network. Now an official Rijksmonument, it’s one of Groningen’s national heritage sites.
It is one of the last company buildings left standing. Extensive soil decontamination in the area caused most of the buildings to be torn down. Above its entrance, a stone tableau reads: “Gas – 100 years.” A gift from the employees commemorating its 100-year anniversary. A stubborn remnant of its past.
Through time, it has housed a porter’s lodge for the electricity company, a range of squatters, and a sandwich kiosk. Then in 2019, it was transformed into the Le Petit Theatre by the loving hands of Sharon.
It wasn’t very charming when she first walked into it.
“It was horrible!”
Sharon’s laugh bursts through the cafe. Underneath her sober suit jacket, reindeers smile on a vibrant blue-green Christmas sweater.
“When I walked inside, it was like I could hear the place screaming. ‘Help me!’”
The tall windows were naked. The floor was cold and bare. A massive bar swallowed half of the room. An awkward table took up the rest of the space. The walls were a strange yellow.
And yet, she immediately felt a connection. And an urge to take care of it.
Now, sleek wood panels line the walls. Lush velour curtains droop from the high ceiling. A small bar is draped along one wall. A modest stage is tucked against another. Below a warm chandelier, tiny tables and chairs are huddled around the room, like friends around a campfire.
It has visible touches of Sharon: a plant sitting in an old drum in the corner. An old grand piano soundboard set decoratively against the back wall. And in the background: jazz.
Born in Paramaribo, raised in Zwijndrecht and Groningen, Sharon Doelwijt is a colorful woman, with too many stories to tell. In her 50 years, she has studied theatrical design, run a scuba diving school, worked for the tourism board of Trinidad and Tobago, opened a restaurant and taught cooking classes, raised three kids, sang fairytales on jazz at parties, given stage presentation and spoken word workshops, performed jazz in Amsterdam and Paris, and recorded two albums (a third still in the making).
She travels the world in a single conversation. From the problems of an underfunded cultural sector in the Netherlands, to her ancestry of Surinamese slaves, to the magic of waiting for leatherback sea turtles to hatch on the midnight shores of Tobago.
Storytelling is her charm, and her art. At concerts, she shares poems and the spoken word between songs. She’ll talk to audiences about life, love, her feelings and observations. Just to get people drawn into the moment, opening their worlds and, for a moment, living outside “the box”.
Has she had moments in her life where she felt she had to fit “in a box”?
She spreads out her hands. “That’s how we live in the Netherlands,” she replies.
In what way?
“Everything is organized here. There’s no space for thinking a little bit differently. If you look at all the rules and regulations – everything is inside the box.”
To Sharon, the rigid Dutch cultural sector is no exception. Unlike large city venues, Le Petit Theatre gets no government funding. Two years of lockdown left it financially reeling. It still suffers from the aftermath. “It has to do with the way we perceive culture at the moment in the Netherlands. It’s all about the money. This makes it difficult.”
Despite the headache to keep it afloat, Sharon does cherish good memories from during covid. Two days after immediate lockdown was announced, Sharon hosted a Jewish wedding in the café. She refused to cancel it. Catering brought the food, then she locked the gates, closed the doors, closed the curtains. As if nothing was going on. “And we had this amazing wedding here.” Her eyes shine. “But my heart was in my throat the whole freaking afternoon!”
“Out-of-the-box” is a repeating theme with Sharon. One that has echoes in her favorite music: jazz, a genre that emerged in 1920’s America, lined with improvisation, off-beat rhythms, and swing.
It’s also a genre notably saturated with struggle against the persistent racism suffered by the black community that largely crafted it. From it emerged songs like Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. John Coltrane’s Alabama. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, bemoaning the lynched bodies of black Americans strung like ‘strange fruit’ from the trees.
This music now plays every week from the heart of Groningen, a city with its own dark history of racist practices. The city was very much involved in the Dutch slave trade. With wealthy shareholders in its Kamer van Stad en Lande, Groningen was a large investor in the Dutch West-Indian Company. (In 2022, the city’s exhibition Bitterzoet Erfgoed brought this to the spotlight; Sharon was an advisor.)
It’s a history that’s etched into Sharon’s own life. Her DNA is like a reading on Dutch colonial history. On her dad’s side, there were native Aruac from Suriname, Chinese from Macau, Indonesian from Java, Ghanese, and Dutch. On her mom’s side, there were Portuguese Sephardic Jews, French Creole. Both slaves and slave owners make up her ancestry.
As a woman of color, she’s been judged. Assumed to be unintelligent. Assumed to be the nanny of her lighter-skinned daughter. It’s something she doesn’t shy away from talking about. “We have to open our eyes to see that it’s happening. If we keep closing our eyes all the time, saying ‘no, is it really happening?’ No, it is happening. So let’s see that it is happening and deal with it.”
Racism and colorism both dot her life. In the Netherlands, she’s too black. In Trinidad and Tobago, she was not black enough. While, in reality, she’s not black at all. “I’m nice and brown,” she says with a daft smile.
It’s these humorous reflections that get her audiences thinking. Thinking about African kingdoms erased by history. About the craziness of online hate and public shootings. About the ridiculousness of the sudden hype around coconut oil and ginger. She confronts them with ease – not with a pointed finger, but with a critical gaze and a generous laugh.
In the 1840s, British abolitionist John Scoble visited Groningen. He witnessed it was one of the first Dutch cities where large opposition to slavery was alive, and growing. 180 years ago, the down-to-earth Northerners were willing to think outside the box.
And that’s what Sharon lives for. “Music is my life – the creating of music, of worlds for people for a short period of time. To get them out of their ‘little box’ for a second. To let them absorb some other stuff and then put them back in their box and see what happens.”
And she does it through her beloved jazz.
“For me, jazz is a way of life. A way of being not-conformed, not in a box,” she says.
The guitarist from New Zealand introduces a new song. He doesn’t use a microphone. The back row is no more than five steps away; the front row can touch his feet.
The melody unravels, swings. Instantly, one of the elderly men throws his head back with recognition. He bumps his friend with a satisfied nod. “Django’s Waltz.”
Onstage, the double bassist meets his beaming smile.
Tucked away in the tiny brick building, a rigid crowd comes loose.