In March 1976 the London-based Jazz Centre Society (JCS) appointed Ian Croal as its first Regional Organiser. The post was based at North West Arts Association (NWAA) offices in King Street, Manchester, and, with a wide regional remit, was funded by the Arts Council and NWAA and the Regional Arts Associations of Merseyside, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire & Humberside. It was the first stage in a strategy to have jazz development workers covering the whole of England. The JCS would have a significant impact on the future of Band on the Wall. Ian Croal:
I decided that we should have a weekly focus for our regular activities and reckoned that this should be in Manchester as this was where, outside of the London area, the largest number of musicians lived; also there appeared to be a gap – few of the best contemporary, touring jazz groups were visiting the area.
I checked out numerous potential venues and finished up with a choice between Band on the Wall and The Midland Hotel in Burton Road, Didsbury (now The Metropolitan). At that time, the big function room at The Midland was a significant jazz venue. I saw performances there by saxophonists Don Rendell and Gary Cox, as well as regular performances by the Alan Hare(16) Band and the Galloway/Backhouse Big Band.
On balance I opted for Band on the Wall because of its atmosphere, more central location and good acoustic; also it was a big plus that the venue management included an ex professional musician and jazz enthusiast, Steve Morris.
The Northern Jazz Centre Society (NJCS) was launched in September 1976 at a one-off ‘Jazz Sunday’ at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, then just recently opened. The bill included: American trombonist Slide Hampton in a quartet with Peter Ind on bass and Al Levitt on drums; French virtuoso pianist Martial Solal who played a startling solo set; trumpeter Kenny Baker with the Eddie Thompson Trio, tap dancer Will Gaines with the Blue Magnolia Jazz Orchestra, the South Yorkshire Youth Jazz Orchestra and the innovative NW fusion band, Both Hands Free, comprising Phil Chapman (sax), Richie Close (keyboards) and Dave Hassell (drums) and Pete Glennon (bass guitar). The all-day event sold out.
One of the reasons for booking world-class pianists, Solal and Thompson, was the availability of the new Steinway concert grand piano that had been purchased for the new theatre. However, shortly before the event, the theatre management said that, on the advice of their piano technician, they could not permit the instrument to be played by jazz players. For Croal, it was a familiar story: a few years earlier, he had faced a similar argument against the use of the concert grand at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. The pianist in this instance? Duke Ellington.
In Manchester, heated exchanges then occurred between the Northern JCS (NJCS) and the Royal Exchange Theatre. After failing with routine arguments, Ian Croal claimed (falsely) that the contract with Solal specified a Steinway concert grand and this could not be hired elsewhere at short notice. The theatre management finally agreed an uncomfortable compromise, allowing Solal to play their Steinway, but not Eddie Thompson. The NJCS was forced to hire a separate instrument for Thompson’s afternoon performance.
The hired instrument was a good Bosendorfer chamber piano but it wasn’t the Steinway concert instrument, said Croal. As it happened, Eddie Thompson* stayed on with friends in the theatre foyer that evening and would have heard something of the Solal performance. Blind from birth, Eddie obviously would not have seen the piano but, with his superb ear, he would have known straight away that this was not the instrument that he had played in the theatre a few hours earlier.
*Eddie Thompson was a consummate pianist who prior to becoming a full-time musician, was an expert piano tuner and technician. He was the first house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s Club and played at the club’s launch in 1959. For many years he held the piano residency at New York’s famous Hickory House. Back in the UK, he had a BBC TV jazz show in the 70s when he also held residencies at The Warren Bulkeley, Stockport, and the Anchor Inn, Brighouse, Yorkshire. He died on 6 November 1986, aged 61.
This event was followed by the club launch of the NJCS at Band on the Wall in October 1976: a packed house rocked to a thrilling performance by Don Weller’s Major Surgery, a distinctive and creative jazz fusion group that featured Don’s majestic yet witty sax playing, as well as his engaging compositions, with titles like ‘Foul Group Practices,’ ‘Fred Bear the Threadbare Bear’ and ‘Shithotto Risotto.’
The New Jazz arrives (with some hostility)
From then on, a new dimension was added to the jazz programme at the venue through the NJCS promotions. Prior to these Thursday promotions, there was no venue in the North West in the 70s that regularly presented the UK’s best modern jazz groups.
In the 50s and 60s, jazz fans in Manchester and area were spoilt for choice: there were the regular gigs at the famous Club 43, with appearances by some of the greatest modern jazz players, such as Sonny Rollins, the Horace Silver Quintet and the Tubby Hayes Quartet; also concerts in big halls, particularly the Free Trade Hall that in the 60s mainly featured American legends, such as Ella Fitzgerald (10/2/67), Buddy Rich and his Orchestra (4/4/67) the Modern Jazz Quartet (23/10/64 & 24/9/66), Thelonious Monk’s Quartet (20/3/64) and the Miles Davis Quintet (27/9/60). Elsewhere there were numerous pubs where trad jazz could be heard and, at the tail-end of the trad boom, in the early 60s, Messrs Bilk, Barber and Ball had their own concerts at the Free Trade Hall: Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band (several times – and referred to by some disdainful musicians as ‘Utter Bilge and his Pac-a-mac Jazz Band’), the Chris Barber Band (3/3/63) and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen (10/9/61). (A colourful history of the era that he calls the golden age of jazz in Manchester is told in text and pictures by Bill Birch in his ‘Keeper of the Flame: Modern Jazz in Manchester 1946-72,’ ISBN 978-0-9566670-0-7).
In Manchester, by 1976, Club 43 had long ceased and jazz concerts were infrequent at the Free Trade Hall and other concert venues. There remained numerous trad sessions in pubs, usually free admission, and at a few venues presenting soloists with local rhythm sections. Locally big bands continued to thrive – mainly on enthusiasm rather than remuneration, though a few such as the Syd Lawrence Band have had commercial success and continues, led by trombonist Chris Dean, following the death of the founder, trumpeter Syd Lawrence, in 1998.
The music – as it always does – was changing. Many of the new generation of jazz players in the 1970s were more interested in original repertoire than jazz standards, rooted in the stage shows of the1930s and 1940s; some had ceased playing tunes and abandoned fixed sequences and metre. Others were influenced by rock and funk rhythms; some by folk melodies and patterns. The new jazz, evolving in its various forms from the 60s, could rarely be performed effectively by a pick-up group; it required dedicated rehearsal and performance by a stable group. A few local bands, such as Both Hands Free, the Kenny Shaw Band and the Jim Galloway Quintet,chose this path and found gigs locally, but other modern UK groups – of economic necessity mainly based down South – rarely made the journey to Manchester and area. Travel and accommodation costs and lack of interest from broadcasters rendered these bands financial non-starters for local promoters and venues. An element of subsidy was needed, and this is what the NJCS brought to the scene.
There was hostility from some local jazz promoters to the arrival of the JCS. Unwelcoming articles appeared in the Manchester Evening News and the New Manchester Review in 1976. Some of the promoters, usually amateur enthusiasts, seemed jealous that the JCS had obtained Arts Council/Arts Association funding where they had failed; others thought that the JCS represented unfair competition. The opposition was led by the Northern Jazz Federation of local promoters but it subsided when the NJCS fulfilled one of its original aims: to introduce a system of financial support to jazz promoters and venues throughout the North of England.
At Band on the Wall for the first time in the 70s in Manchester and, indeed, the region there were now regular performances by complete groups led by the UK’s leading modern jazz players. Those included: the Stan Tracey Octet, Jeff Clyne’s Turning Point, Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia, Elton Dean’s Ninesense, Harry Miller’s Isipingo, Henry Lowther’s Quarternity, the Kathy Stobart Quintet, Trevor Watts’ Amalgam, the Mike Osborne Quintet, the Morrissey Mullen Band and theDon Weller/Bryan Spring Quartet. In all, some 70 of the UK’s outstanding visiting jazz groups were presented by the NJCS at Band on the Wall in the 3 years at the tail-end of the 70s and this comprised about 50% of the Thursday programme. The remaining programme on those nights comprised performances by a total of more than 40 Manchester or Northern groups, and a number of visitors from the USA and Continental Europe.
Piano and Films
In September 1977, the NJCS presented a ‘Jazz Piano Celebration’ that ranged from boogie woogie and stride from Neville Dickie to more modern styles performed by the talented (and largely unrecognised) local pianist Dennis Freedman. For the first time at The Band the programme included short films – on Fats Waller, Meade Lux Lewis and others. The formula of music and films on music would be repeated several times in future years and would prompt the idea of a greater use of visual imagery that would gain momentum with the venue improvements of 2009, particularly the creation of The Picturehouse.
Manchester/Northern area bands included: Semuta, led by the brilliant vibist Ian Ballantine, at that time a student at Leeds College of Music; the Gary Boyle Band; the Barry Whitworth Septet; the Chris Williams Quartet, the Blackpool Bebop Preservation Society; Loose Change; The Inversions and Munch Manship with Stray Hat. There were also Northern area big bands: the Galloway/Backhouse Big Band, the Tony Faulkner Big Band, The Professionals Jazz Orchestra, directed by Bernard Herrmann (former leader of the Northern Dance Orchestra) and the Alan Hare Big Band.
A wide stylistic range was covered by the visiting American musicians, from the New Orleans pianism and gentle vocals of Alton Purnell (ex Bunk Johnson, George Lewis) to the contemporary quartet led by drummer Andrew Cyrille (ex Cecil Taylor). There was also some classic blues, including guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Rogers, formerly Muddy Waters right-hand man, and harmonica player Sugar Blue, from New York, who had gained recent fame recording several tracks with The Rolling Stones. First choice to accompany the visiting bluesmen at The Band was Norman Beaker’s No Mystery, and the No1 choice to accompany visiting jazz soloists, also on dates throughout the North, was the hugely talented pianist Joe Palin* and his trio, usually with Dave Lynnane on double bass and Ron Parry, drums.
Other Visiting Bands
From the Netherlands: Gigs Hendriks Quartet and the Leo Cuypers Trio. From Poland: Zbigniew Namyslowski Band and Crash. Multi-national groups included MUMPS (Albert Mangelsdorff, Stu Martin, Barre Phillips & John Surman) and European Jazz Concensus.
*Joe Palin died 18 September 2007, aged 73.
A not-so-Swinging Affair
Most famous of all the Americans to play at The Band in the 70s was the great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon who appeared on February 17, 1977. The previous year, he had made his triumphant homecoming to USA, after 15 years as a resident in Europe, and when he arrived in Manchester he had just completed a stint at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London. Unfortunately, his performance at The Band was memorable only for his inebriation. Ian Croal:
It was painful. He could hardly stand and was losing his way, even on a12-bar blues. Somehow he managed to get through two sets without falling off the stage. He was a hero of mine. As a teenager, I hitch-hiked from Edinburgh to London to see him in the early 60s at Ronnie Scott’s. He was magnificent.
At the end of the gig at The Band, as promoter I had to face some choice remarks from members of the audience, including from one angry professional musician who was particularly abusive.
I couldn’t get angry. I just felt very sad for this giant of jazz who year after year, night after night, since the 1940s was expected to perform at the highest level. In the following two days, I presented him at concerts in Preston and Sheffield;* he was a different person, sober and in control, he was superb.
* in association with promoters Hurlfield Jazz, subsequently to become Sheffield Jazz.
Throughout the remainder of the 70s and into the early 80s, the Thursday promotions at Band on the Wall were the starting point for monthly regional and subsequently some national tours organised from the venue by the NJCS. The NJCS also produced a ‘Jazz in the North’ regular brochure with a free circulation of 40,000.
The NJCS committee was an expert panel that encouraged a jazz touring network throughout the North of England through a system of grants and guarantees to local promoters and venues. Seeing the success of this scheme, Northern Arts Association soon joined, thus completing the inter-regional scope of the activities to the five Northern Regional Arts Associations, covering the entire North of England. The Band on the Wall Thursday nights formed the basis of a weekly three-day hub for the NJCS tours, along with direct promotions in Sheffield (on Wednesdays, in association with Hurlfield Jazz), and Fridays in Liverpool (various venues, including Eric’s Club, formerly The Cavern).
Other venues on the jazz touring circuit that was organised and financially supported by the NJCS included: York Arts Centre; Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster; Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal; Southport Arts Centre; Hebden Bridge New Arts Association; East Lancs Jazz Club; Huddersfield Big Band Society; Washington Jazz Club; Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-round, Scarborough; Leeds University; Darlington Arts Centre; Humberside Theatre, Hull; Grantham Jazz Society and Bury Metro Arts.
Concerts & Festivals
The Northern Jazz Centre Society in the 70s also presented concerts at larger venues. In Manchester, these included the Gil Evans Orchestra and Stan Tracey Octet at the Free Trade Hall on 27 February 1978 and the Gary Burton Quartet at the Royal Northern College of Music, on 23 April 1978. The latter venue at that time was a jazz desert – unlike today when it has a high-profile and wide ranging contemporary programme – and perhaps then justified the following in the New Manchester Review:
As far as I know, then, the RNCM has never taken responsibility for any jazz promotions. A pretty dismal record which can only add weight to the arguments of those who regard it as an elitist and somewhat philistine institution.(17)
In 1979, the NJCS secured its first entirely commercially sponsored and broadcast international jazz festival in Sheffield, centred on The Crucible Theatre. This would be the first of a dozen international jazz festivals organised by the NJCS from Band on the Wall.