De Blauwe Kater, a bulwark against an ever encroaching student scene, provides live jazz, great beer and a bartender with principles.
Leuven, a transitory city where students come and go like autumn leaves. A very small percentage of the city lives here permanently. Among a shifting cultural landscape, Café De Blauwe Kater (or the Blue Cat Café for you Anglophones) remains a shining star of consistency and quality music. At their weekly event entitled Blue Mondays, live musicians take to the stage and either entertain the crowd with fast paced jazz or send them sinking into their beers with a little melancholy blues.
I wanted to find out more about this café and was lucky enough to sit down with Sebastian Van Rhijn, the head bartender (or in his words “glorified bartender”) at the Blue Cat. Friendly, talkative and relaxed, Sebastian’s wit was only exceeded by his love of jazz. Sitting in the Blue Cat with a beer in hand, he was the perfect person to take me through the ins-and-outs of this happy little café.
A little history: from Puppet Theatre to Jazz Bar
At the Blue Cat, jazz is king, but this was not always so. Up until about twenty-five years ago, the back venue of the Blue Cat used to be a puppet theatre, and the bar area was a lounge in which visiting patrons of puppetry could enter and hang their coats. This was a situation not to last however, as the whole location was eventually to be remodeled into a proper Belgian bar. This bar eventually went under, and the owner sold the bar to the current owners who turned it into De Blauwe Kater.
Initially, it was a small bar with no back venue, but after about two or three years they changed it into what is it today. “The idea was to have a typical Belgian brown bar, except for the music which was more towards jazz,” Sebastian claimed. “In those days there was more jazz than blues because in those days jazz was the hype in Leuven. In the late 90’s to the early 2000’s, the focus was more on blues because blues is more of a, let’s say, drinking style music…” The current owners have had the bar now for about twenty-two to twenty-three years, and Sebastian himself has been working here for about sixteen.
Blue Mondays are what I really wanted to know about! Every Monday around 9 p.m. the bar is jam-packed with customers, jazz fans, blues lovers or simply those who appreciate the combination of good beer and live music. You’ll find jazz of all kinds here on Blue Mondays: Voodoo Jazz, Swing Jazz, New Orleans Jazz…
“The thing is, at the moment in Belgium, and specifically in Leuven, the main focus in jazz bands is more like the…I hate to say it, free jazz…the eclectic, not the extremely out of the park, like dog whistles and that kind of thing, but still kind of eclectic and free jazz. We try to steer clear of that a little bit, so we have normal basic standard jazz, swing jazz when we can find it…”
I was relieved to hear that the Blue Cat’s taste in music was as fine as its beer. But what was the vibe at the Blue Monday’s like? “The atmosphere during jazz nights is quieter, which is the way it should be…most of the jazz bands are semi-acoustic, whereas most blues bands are amplified, so the noise is a little bit higher and people can talk…Normally, most all of our gigs are packed to the rafters, there’s going to be noise no matter what. Which is okay, it’s a bar and people should be able to talk, it can be annoying for the musicians, but well then they shouldn’t be musicians.”
Packed to the rafters indeed! Blue Mondays, as I have experienced them, were busy and boisterous with a flood of excited customers pouring through the door. This kind of atmosphere is most certainly good for business.
“…if you get a swing band, or voodoo jazz…or New Orleans jazz you give it a vibe for everybody, and then they’re more in a party mood and they’re meant to be willing…well not so much willing…but able to drink. They don’t mind making noise or clinking their glasses…or dancing on the tables, but we try to keep that to a minimum.”
But these jazz nights were not just a commercial ploy as Sebastian was quick to make clear. “We didn’t start the concerts just to make money; it was a thank you to the crowd and to create some kind of a platform for jazz musicians. And also for our own enjoyment of course.”
The Jazz Scene in Leuven
All this talk of jazz made me wonder if there was a jazz scene active and alive in Leuven itself. Sebastian, wise in the ways of such things, was happy to fill me in. “In Leuven there is a jazz scene, you’ve got Leuven Jazz [an annual jazz festival in Leuven] for instance…which is quite nice, you’ve got several bars working in it…there is a jazz scene, as far as how serious it is, that’s a difficult way to put it, because Leuven is a transient town…”
Leuven is a transient town, a place where the majority of the population are either students sticking around only for a few years or men and women who spend their time working in Brussels. That is why the Blue Cat is so fascinating. It is a shining constant; a fixed star in the midst of a shifting cultural scene. The Blue Cat does its own work promoting jazz in Leuven.
“We were one of the first to create a regular event – the Blue Mondays, it’s on every Monday, well not every Monday of course it’s not on the weekends, or the holidays…and nowadays you’ve got a couple of more bars who do it…but when it comes to promoting the city events, we join if we can, if we’re asked, sometimes we do sometimes we don’t, it depends on the people organizing it. We join in with Leuven Jazz…not every year but we have, depending on whether it fits with our programming…”
A number of excellent musicians, both Belgian and international, have played upon the hallowed, beer stained stage of the Blue Cat.
“El Fish, Blues Lee, Boogie Beasts, they’re awesome Belgian bands and old friends of ours. They’re doing pretty well, especially in Belgium. Ben Prestage was awesome, a great American one-man band. Helen Gillet from New Orleans was great, great jazz and a lovely woman as well, which is always a plus…Bob Pearce was a great gig, the list goes on and on.”
Blue Cat Beer
The Blue Cat is a bar and takes pride in its most important product: beer! Like any café or bar in Leuven, the number of beers sold is immense. “When I started working here the bar had about 60-70 different types of beer…at the moment we try to stay between 100-110, sometimes we go a little bit over, sometimes we go a little bit under…mainly because we want to ensure that the beer that we serve is in good order.”
The Blue Cat prides itself in its quality selection. Behind the bar they store a few special beers including: Westvleteren, Blauwe Kater, Bartolomeus and an IPA from Brouwerij Het IJ. Apparently they are the only bar in Belgium that sells this IPA, “it helps to know the brewer…” Sebastian confided in me with a knowing smile.
Depending on the time of year and proclivity of the customers, certain beers are sold more than others. The Blue Cat tries to keep a high stock of popular beers without storing up too many unpopular ones. Speaking with the true wisdom of the bartender’s trade, Sebastian reminded me that beer does not keep for very long, and every bottle not sold is one that might need to be thrown away. “Which is bad for business,” he stated firmly. “And it’s morally wrong!”