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Jazz in Leeds

John Robert Brown

Louis Armstrong first visited Leeds in 1932, then again in 1934. Pops appeared at the Empire Palace Theatre in the centre of town, now a branch of Harvey Nichol's store which makes no reference to its former glory.

Harrogate, fifteen miles to the north, was visited by Duke Ellington in 1933, when he directed a two-and-a-half hour concert in the Royal Hall. When Duke's orchestra played Leeds Festival in 1958, Queen Elizabeth was revealed to be a fan. Duke was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet her. Subsequently, Ellington composed a suite of six songs. One of these, the piano piece A Single Petal of a Rose, he composed in recollection of their meeting, and dedicated to the Queen.

Midway between London and Edinburgh, Leeds dominates a cluster of Northern towns. Dewsbury, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford, York, Harrogate, Ilkley and Wetherby all lie within twenty miles of Leeds. Thus, this area of Yorkshire has a population approaching four million. Here began the British post-war revival movement. The Yorkshire Jazz Band, Diz Dizley, Dick Hawdon, Eddie O'Donnell and Ernie Tomasso all commenced their careers in Leeds. There is still a wealth of jazz activity here.

In the mid-sixties, Leeds City Council funded a new further education diploma course in jazz. Called a jazz and light music course, it was the first of its type in Europe. During the next forty years this grew into what is now known as Leeds College of Music (LCM). During its heyday, a staff of former professional player-teachers was formed under the leadership of Dick Hawdon. Hawdon had worked with Chris Barber, Sid Philips, Tubby Hayes and John Dankworth. The team he assembled at Leeds included saxophonists Bill Charleson and Al Wood, arranger Tony Faulkner, pianists Bryan Layton, Bill Kinghorn and Graham Hearn, and guitarists Eric Kershaw and Adrian Ingram. At one time the team included Graham Collier and Teletubbies composer Bob Hartley. These pioneer jazz educators helped a crop of excellent young players into professional careers: Graham Ather, Alan Barnes, Jonny Boston, Matthew Bourne, Gary Boyle, Snake Davis, Paul Eshelby, James Evans, Nikki Iles, Paul Lacey, David Milligan, Paul Morgan, Dave Newton, Andy Schofield, John Thirkell, Rico Tomasso and Pete Wareham all attended the college. Those who went on to be active in jazz education included Simon Barnes, James Birkett, Eileen Guppy, Richard Iles, John Joyce, Peter Sklaroff and Trevor Vincent.

To appoint Nigel Slee, an ex-student of LCM, to the post of Development Officer for Jazz Yorkshire was an excellent stratagem. A double-bassist, Slee arrived from Southampton in 1995. Yorkshire and Humberside, the area for which Slee now has responsibility, includes North Lincolnshire, Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Sheffield and York, a massive patch. Funding comes directly from the Arts Council. Jazz Yorkshire is a regularly funded organisation, receiving £50,000 a year, for three years. Two years remain of this current funding agreement.

"My role is to carry out the day-to-day work of Jazz Yorkshire," says Slee. "I've just written the mission statement document with the funding scheme for the voluntary promoters in the region." Jazz Yorkshire's mission is, as you'd expect, to encourage audiences existing and new to come to jazz, and to support excellence. How does Slee feel, doling out £1,000 per week?

"It's not quite like that," he chides. "Historically, a proportion of the money has gone to the voluntary promoters across the region, money that has been targeted to jazz and has been invested in voluntary promoters. So a portion of it goes to them. Another portion of it covers my working salary, or fees. Then there are administration fees, and a bit left to play with. What's interesting is that Jazz Yorkshire is both a developmental and a funding agency. The two things are normally separate. That does make it a little bit tricky, especially when there's only one person working as a part-time officer. The two things are quite separate."

Voluntary promoters are those enthusiasts who give up their own time and effort to put on high quality jazz. "Sheffield Jazz, Leeds Jazz, Huddersfield Jazz, Hull Jazz, Scarborough Jazz," quotes Slee. "As opposed to a commercial, professional promoter. For example there's a gig on tonight in York, being put on by a professional promoter, with Courtney Pine. So the professional promoters put on things that they know are going to be a guaranteed success. The importance of supporting voluntary promoters is that they are putting on things that are excellent, really high quality, but may not be particularly commercial. To keep supporting people who are doing things like that is vital."

At the end of March, Slee is mounting the first of a series of regional musicians' showcases. "We're going to do this at The Wardrobe in Leeds, promoting three bands each playing a forty-five minute set. These will be bands we'll be trying to help to the first step of the ladder to getting out there touring, and having their music heard by different promoters. We are doing that by paying the musicians to rehearse in the day, then play in the evening. The gig is going to be recorded. We are going to have a professional photographer who is going to take their picture. We are also inviting the media along. These young musicians will end up with having a recording of the gig, and pictures they can use in their press pack. I hope they'll have some press cuttings as well.

"When the deadline closed last week I had thirty-three applications. The quality of the bands and the projects has been mind-blowing. I've been really taken aback. I'd forgotten the quality we have across the region. Many of the bands have got some sort of profile - they've had a CD out, or they've done a jazz services tour. It's given me a data base of bands across the region, so I'm going to be commissioning another part of the Jazz Yorkshire website, to feature all these bands and their projects, to enable promoters to see the amount of projects that are going on. There will be a picture, contact details, an audio clip, and a link back to their own website."

"So much of the good stuff happening here is because of the presence of a large music college, pulling people into the area. Jamil Sheriff for example, from Bolton, he's stayed here, as have Matthew Bourne (Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 2001), and Richard Ormerod. They want to stay here, they don't want to go to London. It's really good for us if they do stay. Part of my role is to make this area more sticky for these guys, so that we don't lose them."

Part of what makes the area sticky is diversity. The centre of activity is The Wardrobe, opposite the BBC studios, a building that once served as the costume store for West Yorkshire Playhouse, hence the name. A large and unpretentious bar, with decent food and chatty staff, The Wardrobe is one of the few places in the city where a lunchtime visitor is guaranteed either live jazz or an excellent selection of jazz recordings, plus abundant information about other jazz available in town. Among forthcoming gigs at The Wardrobe is a promising date by saxophonist and arranger Saffron Beagley, on 31st May. Two of Beagley's ensembles will appear, one being her Jazz Orchestra, playing pieces by Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler.

Singer Louise Gibbs, who has worked with Rufus Reid, Chico Freeman, Tony Coe, Mark Levine, Ian Carr and a host of other names, has recently moved from London to Leeds and can be caught at various venues around town. Similarly, the pianist, composer and Cuban music expert Mark Donlon has also moved here from London. Donlon, an inspiring musician who also holds a pilot's licence and lived for a period in Cuba in order to be better acquainted with the music, is responsible for occasional visits by the Conservatoires UK Big Band, which he directs. Other local professionals worth catching are saxophonist Jon Taylor, guitarist Derrick Harris and singer Julie Edwards.

Outside the city, but not far away, there are several well-run venues. Wakefield Jazz, on Fridays, promotes professional performers, and deservedly won the 2005 All-Party Parliamentary Jazz Award.

Another commendable long-running club is at Boston Spa, with a Saturday night traditional and mainstream programme. Guest musicians such as Scott Hamilton, Karen Sharp or Tommy Whittle are accompanied by a rhythm section that usually includes the legendary Bryan Layton on piano, Ken Marley on bass and John Perry on drums. The jazz takes place jazz in a bare village hall which doesn't serve alcohol! Audiences arrive carrying their own drinks, though the organisers do provide bottle openers, called gig spanners in the trade. The atmosphere, enthusiasm and camaraderie at Boston Spa are tremendous. The place is usually sold out. That's what makes stickiness.

Bill Charleson directs Manhattan Sound

Mark Donlon, composer

Jazz Yorkshire

Wakefield Jazz

Louise Gibbs

The Wardrobe

This article first appeared in Jazz Review, March 2006. Used by kind permission.
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