Some memories of Band on the Wall by Alex Webb

It’s quite hard now, looking back over a career largely spent in and around music venues, organizations and institutions, to remember just how exciting it was to find myself part of what was then a distinctly unglamorous Manchester venue, in a run-down part of town. Band on the Wall had been a lifeline for me as a student jazz fan, almost the music’s sole refuge in Manchester. Then, one day in 1983, with a fresh Politics degree in my pocket and armed with precious little experience but a lot of nerve, I somehow managed to blag my way through an interview and find myself working for the Jazz Centre Society, based at Band on the Wall.

What is rarely grasped by people who visit venues like ‘The Band’ is that for the people who work there it’s like running a pub, a concert hall and a restaurant all in one go. Without the staff for any one of them. On top of which we were trying to put on jazz across the North of England and hang on to the extremely modest public funding that enabled this. It wasn’t easy, and the hours were silly. But I was young and I was where I wanted to be – inside the music I loved. On my first week there we put on jazz trumpeter Art Farmer, a favourite who I only knew through records.

In the three years I worked there I got to know some extraordinary and dedicated people – Ian Croal, whose dedication to the venue and to good music knew no bounds; the irreplaceable manager and veteran saxophonist Steve Morris; our good-humoured office manager-cum-secretary-cum-everything Lizzie Johnson; the hugely knowledgeable band booker Steve Forster; and a strange but lovable assortment of human types who ran the bar, catering, door and so on. A kind of family, in fact – an eccentric, extended and occasionally fractious family, but a family nonetheless.

The Band was a place where you left your pretensions at the door. It was about good music and camaraderie; it was a standing rebuke against shallowness, shininess and all the money-driven madness that Thatcherism encouraged in that decade.  We really programmed the best artists we could in very tough economic circumstances – across reggae, folk, blues and of course jazz. What’s more, in my early 20s I found myself unexpectedly catching the end of an era – when great American jazz musicians from the 1940s and 1950s (sometimes even the 1930s) – were still available to play little club dates and you could see and feel their music close-up. I remember meeting and presenting the likes of Red Rodney, Joe Newman, Lee Konitz, George Coleman, Teddy Edwards, Sheila Jordan, Slim Gaillard and, one memorable night, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

The club also provided a lesson in the sometimes neglected greatness of British jazz musicians. Bobby Wellins, Stan Tracey, Don Weller, Tony Coe, John Surman and many others provided world-class performances that still live on in my memory and, surely, in many others’.

We also pushed the boundaries. We frequently presented the edgier end of jazz – including Billy Bang, Maggie Nichols, Paul Dunmall, Keith Tippett, Johnny Dyani and many others whose work was not always an easy listen.  It could be interesting to watch the audience when something at the stranger end was playing. Often print workers from the Daily Express presses up the road would pop in for a swift one between shifts … one night they found themselves watching a drummer playing with lengths of privet, accompanying atonal explorations on an alpenhorn. In a pause, one of them called out, “Can you play Happy Birthday?” The musicians did not reply but the Avant Garde themselves could show a sly sense of humour. One night, during an evening of free duets between guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Han Bennink, Bennink ran around the room with his drumsticks playing absolutely everything he could reach – impeccably – then sat down to watch Bailey doing his inimitable thing. And there he sat, and sat, visibly absorbed, until eventually Bailey lifted his head and said, “We’re on the same money, you know.”

You learn a lot about live music by living so close to it. How some bands swing, how others groove, how yet others do neither. How some personalities project themselves from the stage, how some draw the audience in. How difficult some artists can be, how pleasant others are. And just how potent true professionalism is. Maria Muldaur’s amazing country blues band started their show at a level of energy and polish which I’ve rarely heard in my life – right from the first note. Unforgettable.

But presenting live music was tough, and it still is. In a small venue, you make money slowly but you can sure lose it quickly. We had a few disasters. But we had a good number of triumphs, too, when you know you’d helped curate a transformative experience for the audience. When US saxophonist Bobby Watson came to the Band as part of a Charlie Parker celebration week the gig sold out. And he rose to the occasion, playing like his life depended on it, blowing molten metal from his horn to the whoops and cheers of the crowd. It was like a scene from Kerouac come to life.

And then there were the reggae nights. I ended up booking these and doing the sound, trying to coax the biggest sound I could from our creaking sound system. But what a buzz it could be – quite literally, as you could get stoned just by breathing in, in those pre-smoking ban days. Steve Morris, then in his late 60s, had a soft spot for real Roots reggae and always sat in with his favourite bands. The sight of this small, bespectacled white man – who started playing as a kid for silent movies – wailing over the pounding rhythms of reggae while tall rastas bounced around the stage is something I’ll never forget. And a reminder that there was an important social cause advanced by the Band on the Wall – bringing people together. There was a lot of love in that venue, a lot of great people. And a lot of great music. Shame about the beer*.

Alex Webb, May 2011

Alex Webb was employed at Band on the Wall from 1983-86. He left to complete a Master’s degree at the University of Connecticut, USA. He worked at The Bass Clef in 1988-89 and The Barbican Centre, 2003-11. He is a pianist and song-writer and has directed and performed in music and spoken word productions, including MD-ing the ‘Café Society Swing’ in New York. He has worked for the BBC World Service, BBC News Online and Radio 3. He is also a university lecturer in music and events management.

* Beernote: Now Band on the Wall is one of the few club venues that always has a selection of real ales and quality bottles beers.