New Programme, New Management

New Programme, New Management

All was not well at Band on the Wall at the start of the 1980s. The venue, that a few years earlier presented live music 6 or 7 nights a week and frequently at lunchtimes, was often reduced to opening just 3 nights a week, Thursdays to Saturdays. And audiences at two out of the three were dwindling. These were the early years of the Thatcher government and the economy was in recession; UK unemployment would rise to 3 million by January 1982, with the North West shouldering more than its share: for Band on the Wall and its proprietor these were hard times.

The proprietor was ex-pro musician Steve Morris who had bought out his partner in the venue in 1979 and thus was sole owner of the business, with unlimited liability. According to Steve, the increase in Value Added Tax in that year, from 8% to 15%, had a crippling effect on trade. Interviewed in 1985, he said[i]:1

The VAT increase was a disaster because it coincided with a worsening in unemployment. Drinks and admission charges had to go up, and many people who were worried about their jobs – or out of work already – just couldn’t afford to pay.

Falling Attendances

By 1981 only the Thursday jazz nights promoted by the Northern Jazz Centre Society (NJCS) were attracting good attendances. The Musicians Collective weekly promotions, with their rota of young Manchester bands, had moved from The Band in 1979. The New Manchester Review’s Monday Rock Club – that, with the Review’s backing, had been so successful — had limped on after the demise of the magazine, and finally rocked to a halt in 1981, albeit with a sold-out final gig, by The Things, described as a ‘psychedelic revival band’ that included Buzzcocks drummer John Maher. Traditional jazz strutted out when the club’s longest-running weekly residency, by the Smoky City Jazz Band with vocalist Sheila Collier, came to an end in July 1981. At the weekends, the policy of resident group-with-guests had gone out of fashion, despite the silky skills of many of the soloists, modern jazz players, many of them former playing partners of the boss, Steve Morris.

Steve often tried to revitalise the weekend programme by booking bands along with the resident group. He also augmented the resident trio with additional players, including Richard Wright, an RNCM guitar graduate who now (2017) is principal teacher of guitar at the Yehudi Menuhin School and is a former Musical Director of the National Youth Guitar Ensemble (2002-2004) and Julius Hasford, an almost-legendary Manchester saxophonist. Increasingly this quintet played original material by the leader, Steve Jaffa, a talented young pianist and tunesmith. The music was interesting but perhaps in the economically chilly early 80s, weekend customers were seeking more familiar, goodtime or rock-based music. By booking bands in addition to the resident quintet, Steve Morris had increased his costs on these weekend nights but had failed to increase income. He was also not in the best of health.

By 1980, Steve had accumulated business debts of £30,000 and, with few business assets (the building freehold was owned by Wilsons Brewery), he faced possible bankruptcy and the venue faced closure, or a new era as a strip joint! Reluctantly, he had tried to sell the lease and business but the only interest at a good price was from a potential purchaser who came bearing a suitcase full of cash. He intended to turn the venue into a strip club. Though it was financially attractive, Steve declined the offer; he hoped for a more wholesome future for his cherished jazz club. Jokingly he claimed not to worry:

Fortunately I‘m not the worrying type. I’ve always had a one-way ticket to South America in my back pocket.1

Jazz Society to the Rescue

The jazz connection came to the aid of the club. The NJCS had promoted weekly gigs at Band on the Wall since October 1976, presenting local, national and international bands, and was looking for offices. The NJCS staff of three, Ian Croal, Andy Dodd and Geneta Gibson, had worked from an attic room in the offices of North West Arts Association (NWAA) in King Street, Manchester, and had been promised office space when the Association relocated elsewhere in the city. When the promised space did not materialise, Steve Morris, no doubt with a hopeful eye to the future, offered the offices on the first floor of Band on the Wall, previously living accommodation and unoccupied since the departure of his ex business partner Frank Cusick and wife Anne. The offer was readily accepted. Not only did this solve an immediate problem for the NJCS – and the rent was low — but it also held the exciting prospect of new promotions and education activities at ‘The Band’ (the colloquial name for Band on the Wall).

Also in the move from the NWAA offices to Band on the Wall was Minority Arts Advisory Service NW (MAAS-NW), with one full-time employee, Dr Gordon Geekie, an anthropologist, musician and musicologist, who had been left in a similar predicament in the NWAA building. MAAS-NW was a creation of the Arts Association and for some years had also been given an office in the King Street building but, like the NJCS, was unexpectedly excluded from the Association’s expansion plans at their new location in Harter Street.

Once installed in the Band on the Wall offices in early 1981, the NJCS became aware of the precarious financial state of the venue and began an urgent campaign to save it. The rescue plan involved raising funds to purchase the lease and business (incidentally paying off most of Steve Morris’s debts) and making improvements to the building. At times the implementation of parts of the plan would prove tortuous. The main thrust of the plan was towards a music programme of a new kind.

Fresh Programme Ideas

The programme plan hatched by the new occupants of the offices at Band on the Wall sought to reverse the downward trend of attendances, though it had grander aspirations. It was based on ideas previously aired, before the opportunity arose to carry them out. In 1980, Ian Croal and Gordon Geekie discussed the possibility of a fresh approach, merging both the NJCS and MAAS-NW to form a single jazz and world music organisation. But the idea did not find favour with the Arts Association, a funder of both organisations. However, now their idea of a broad-based, challenging and culturally diverse music programme might be realised at Band on the Wall.

Documents from this period show that a number of considerations were driving the new concept for Band on the Wall:

  • Recognition of the neglect, particularly by funding bodies, of many areas of music that lay between Western ‘straight music’ and pop music, particularly those vital 20th century genres that emerged from African-American culture (e.g. jazz, blues, etc) and Afro-Caribbean culture (e.g. ska, reggae, etc)
  • The ghettoisation of those musics and, indeed, also of much of the folk music of the world
  • The shortage of venues that presented these areas of music
  • The recognition that considerable local, national and international talent existed and that there were shared requirements for the proper presentation of these groups and soloists: venues with good acoustics, sound & lighting and committed promoters
  • The need for music programmes to be freshly marketed and with integrated education activities

These considerations were reinforced by Ian Croal’s work with the Platform organisation that he and drummer Bill Kyle had founded a decade earlier and which created touring networks and regional promoting groups throughout Scotland in the 1970s and 80s, also by his work for the Scottish Arts Council with the Borders Regional Planning Unit in the mid-1970s and by Gordon Geekie’s research with MAAS (NW). A need and potential demand were identified for a venue that embraced a world view of music, providing enjoyment particularly of musics that had a strong social component and incidentally contributed to social harmony and racial well-being.

The NJCS’s fund-raising appeal document of 1981 promised:

a wide range of current music of many cultures, presented in a socially convivial setting….

Underlying the project is the object of creating a music programme of a kind and diversity that is quite new in this country.

The plan put jazz at the centre:

Jazz – arguably the mainstream and biggest influence worldwide in music this century – will be the central theme. So there will be jazz, traditional and modern, plus its related fields of blues, jazz-rock and rock. Integrated with this will be Afro-Caribbean music…. There are also other areas of music that we intend to gradually introduce into the regular programme.

The document also refers to promoting Asian artists, such as the Manchester resident Manikrao Poppatkar, an internationally-renowned tabla player resident in the area, and to presenting folk musicians, big bands, regular educational workshops and tuition programmes.

Dr Basil Deane,*the kindly and supportive Music Director of the Arts Council (1980-83), conveyed his “own warm-hearted support for the project” and added:

 The value of jazz and improvised music has again been recognized by the high priority attached to it by our Music Panel over the last two years. It is my own personal belief that British jazz musicians are amongst the finest in the world and I hope that projects such as the Band on the Wall enterprise will provide new opportunities for performers and listeners alike.2

*While resident in Manchester, Dr Deane, former Professor of Music at Manchester University, attended performances at Band on the Wall on several occasions. He subsequently became the first Principal of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and afterwards Professor of Music at Birmingham University. He died, aged 78, on September 23 2006.

Themed Programme

The new programme was launched in February 1982. Entirely directly promoted, ie no external hires, it introduced broad themes, partly genre-based, of live music six nights a week. These were described as follows in the new monthly publicity leaflet:

  • Mondays – Dance Moderne
  • Tuesdays  – Possible Musics
  • Wednesdays – Occasional Blues
  • Thursdays – Jazz Towards 2000
  • Fridays – Reggae & Afro Caribbean
  • Saturdays – Pick of the Week

The thematic labelling of different nights of the week – with changes from time to time – remained a feature of the music programme at Band on the Wall for around 20 years. This structured approach to the programme had the perceived advantages of building loyal audiences for each night of the week and assisting the marketing of an unwieldy number and variety of gigs; disadvantages were that it imposed an additional layer of difficulty on the programmer and could restrict choice, particularly in the selection of touring bands whose available dates might not fit the programme pattern.

The impact of the new programme was immediate and, after the first two years, the Chair of the Jazz Centre Society in London reported to the then Chair of the Arts Council, Sir William Rees-Mogg, that turnover at Band on the Wall had more than trebled, with the “wide-ranging programme attracting a large and culturally-mixed audience. This is a continuing trend which bodes extremely well for the future”.3

Paradoxically, it was at this time that the Arts Council – or at least one or two of its London-based officers, who at that time had never attended a performance at the venue – verbally criticised the new programme at Band on the Wall and, unwittingly or otherwise, pushed through organisational changes that threatened the future of the venue, and diminished its key role in the development of tours throughout the North of England. For readers with an interest in the history of the Arts Council and its support of non-classical music, information on this remarkable episode is included in ChapterXXXX.

To read more about the programme at Band on the Wall in the 1980s, click on the titles on the Right, under the various genre headings.

1 Manchester Evening News, Article by Bernard Silk, 6.11.85

 2 Letter from Dr Basil Deane, Music Director, Arts Council of GB, to Ian Croal, Acting Director, Jazz Centre Society, 2 November 1981.

 3 Letter from Geoff Wright, Chair of Jazz Centre Society, to Sir William Rees-Mogg, Chair of the Arts Council of GB, 22 October 1984