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Leeds Jazz: The Beginning

Jazz To The People!

It was Spring 1984 (exact date lost) when the first meeting of what was to become Leeds Jazz took place in a downstairs bar at the Adelphi on Hunslet Road. There had of course been mutterings of dissatisfaction for some time from people unhappy with continually having to drive/train/bus to neighbouring (and not so neighbouring) cities to see live jazz. But sometime that year came the realisation that if *we* did not do something about it, probably nobody else would.

Those were the days of a thriving alternative scene --- Leeds Other Paper, the Leeds Trades Club (newly bought and renovated with money from the sale of the old Trades Council premises in the city centre in Upper Fountain Street), Red Ladder Theatre Company (one of its then actors, Richard Honey, currently designs the Leeds Jazz programme leaflet), myriad alternative political and grass-roots community and cultural groups --- and it suddenly seemed a short step to the formation of 'Leeds Jazz Promotions' as it was first dreamed up. Who remembers that first meeting? No minutes seem to have survived. I remember sending out the letter calling the meeting, having got what legitimacy and confidence I could from talking to Pam Bone (at that time agent and publicist for Red Ladder, with connections to Yorkshire Arts) and Geoff Amos (ever energetic fixer and enabler of the Northern jazz scene) --- 'yes, do it', they said.

I remember of course Bill White being there --- it was his suggestion to abbreviate 'Leeds Jazz Promotions' to 'Leeds Jazz' (a name style now become almost standard in other towns and cities), and he went on in later years to transform the group from one based organisationally, at first, on trade union and fringe political practices (those weekly planning meetings, with detailed spreadsheets of jobs to be done!) to an effective organisation with staying power. And there were other people, important for the early survival of the group, such as Kathy and John Dyson (and their dog Dylan). Musicians formed a big element in those first beginnings. Bill had also invited his brother-in-law Mike Short (indispensible over the years), and Steve Crocker, whose experience in Sheffield was thought to be useful to us blundering amateurs (neither could get to the first meeting, it turned out, and nor could Geoff). And there were quietly supportive people like Steve Walters, soon to return with little more than his saxophone to Scotland (his friend and clarinetist Brendan Duffy made later meetings).

Other meetings followed --- many meetings --- which gradually saw the assembly of most of the characters who make up the current old guard (the Leeds Jazz 'grey groovers' as someone recently described them) --- the (almost) indefatigable Pete Robinson and Dave Hatfield, and John Smith (only recently moved away). And Denis Dalby of course, then famous for the best fish and chip shop in Leeds, on St. Michaels Lane. Other notable appearances at those early meetings included some pithy interventions by Matthew (Xero Slingsby), who (probably quite rightly) complained we did not support local talent enough. But we could not do everything, and our job, we decided, was to bring the best we could of international level jazz and improvised music to Leeds.

And we did organise --- and how exciting those early gigs were --- a program of concerts. The first, in October, was by a relatively unknown but very exciting young black violinist, Billy Bang, destined for greater things, accompanied by legendary sixties avant-guardist Frank Lowe. And we got an audience! I remember having to make every gig pay (although I think Geoff got us a small subsidy), and this applied to even relatively cutting-edge gigs such as this. Without the support of the old Trades Club on Savile Mount in Chapeltown, and the route to our local audience through Leeds Other Paper, it would have been much harder. As it was we had the use of the large upstairs (murder for lugging equipment) 'Concert Room' --- the decor of which was hard to describe, but unforgettable! --- for almost nothing. We weren't directly relevant to the labour movement aims of the club, but secretary Beryl Huffinley and the ordinary users seemed to recognise plucky underdogs deserving a helping hand, and that was our main home for quite a long time. And what famous figures we stuck up on that proscenium arched stage, humped sound and lighting equipment for, and toured the streets for in the early hours pasting up posters on walls and junction boxes! Early highlights for me, apart from Billy Bang, were Memphis Slim (audience of around 500, this time at the university Riley Smith Hall), and the Guest Stars (in the days when children were admitted to the trades club), an appropriately crowded and festive Leeds Jazz Christmas party (a tradition still going), with balloons too. In the depths of January 1985, Dudu Pukwana and Zila struggled up the motorway from London in an old van, arrived late, and played a great concert full of the joy of life, to another packed Trades Club. And Barbara Thompson, packed out, best remembered by old Leeds Jazz hands for an end of evening wrangle over missing record stall money --- the full story only for telling in private (and often is!).

Looking at those old posters on the Leeds Jazz archive website reminds me how much we did ourselves then. Steve Crocker got the first massive-seeming programme poster done for us in Sheffield, but mainly we did our own, with Letraset and scissors and Cow Gum. The Phil Guy poster reminds me of another very popular gig, we could never get enough blues it seemed. But --- as I look down the famous names from the end of that first hectic year --- one name stands out! ARCHIE SHEPP. We could hardly believe he was coming. There must be a catch. And when it got to ten o'clock on the night of a scheduled 8pm concert, with a surprisingly patient, but growingly restless capacity audience of 420 upstairs at the Trades Club, and no Archie Shepp, I began to contemplate a disaster beyond all disasters ... The atmosphere was electric as he finally walked in with his band, a living legend, and the gig was great. But over all too soon, with the bar closing, and no encore. I think the audience clapped and shouted and stomped for maybe twenty minutes, while a black South African ex-patriot saxophonist called Skaki, living locally, went backstage to remonstrate with the great man. And --- a bizarre end to a bizarre evening --- they came back to play that encore, a double encore, with maybe half the audience already given up and left. Maybe that night consolidated the process of personal escape from a job that had become too exciting by half. By the beginning of September 1985, when the new season started, I was the other side of the Atlantic, living and working in Chicago for a year, and envying from afar the lucky Leeds audiences for Steve Lacy, the Vienna Art Orchestra, the famous Anthony Braxton Quintet UK tour, and other visitors to Leeds unimaginable eighteen months before.

Denis presented me with one of his gig photos, nicely framed, before I left. I still have it proudly on my wall at home --- Archie Shepp in all too real close-up ...

Barry Cooper
June 6, 2002

Leeds Jazz Archive