HOME   UP

KEEPER OF THE FLAME: MODERN JAZZ IN MANCHESTER 1946-1972 by Bill Birch. 328 pages. 25 plus postage. ISBN 978-0-9566670-0-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns March 2011



Jazz histories tend to focus on a few major cities and the musicians who worked in their clubs and recording studios. In the United States, New York and Los Angeles tend to get most of the attention when modern jazz is discussed, with occasional references to Chicago and San Francisco. I have also seen books which chart jazz developments in Seattle, Detroit, and a few other places. In Britain the only place written about is London and other cities are more or less ignored. So, when a book comes along that looks closely at personalities and events in one of the cities outside London it's worth devoting some time to it.

It's possible that several British cities could lay claim to an early interest in modern jazz. I recall a brief correspondence many years ago with someone who was trying to get together material relating to the first days of bebop in Birmingham, though I don't think his project ever got off the ground. And other locations like Glasgow and Liverpool surely had a small pool of musicians and enthusiasts with an interest in bebop. But Manchester seems to have been the city where there was a thriving scene from the mid-1940s onwards. Were there specific reasons for this? I have seen it suggested that the strong brass band tradition in the area had an influence in terms of providing a pool of trained musicians. And the large number of bands and groups working in the dance-halls and clubs across the city and in neighbouring towns could also have been a determining factor. Bebop required a fair amount of skill and understanding for it to be played properly, and numbers of reasonably proficient musicians would have been available in and around Manchester. Still, it's not easy to pinpoint exactly why it became a place with, for a time at least, a concentrated modern jazz community.

Bill Birch's Keeper of the Flame places a man called Tony Stuart at the centre of the liking for the new sounds that were starting to filter through around 1945. He was involved with various clubs and musical, activities, and Birch says: "The famed Club 11 founded in London by tenor-saxist Ronnie Scott and other jazz musicians opened in December, 1948. Tony Stuart always claimed to have brought and played bop sounds to Manchester long before that date. He certainly advertised a jazz quintet as playing within his own 14-piece band in March, 1945, and as stated earlier, dozens of G.I.s turned up at the Astoria from Burtonwood every weekend, some bearing the latest bop 78s once the U.S. recording ban was lifted on November 11, 1944." Burtonwood was a large American air base (around 20,000 service personnel were stationed there) within easy reach of Manchester.

I suppose it's debatable just how modern the jazz being played in Manchester really was. Were the musicians playing bebop? The problem is that no recorded evidence seems to exist. Early examples of British bop on records were mostly, if not all, from sessions in London studios. It's almost impossible to know what the music in Manchester actually sounded like, and even if it did indicate an awareness of bebop it's likely that it was played by only a few musicians. Interest in bebop, even in London, was still limited to a handful of jazzmen and a small coterie of informed fans.

Later in the 1940s there were visits to Manchester by many of the leading lights of the expanding British bop movement. Musicians associated with Club 11 (Ronnie Scott, Hank Shaw, the ill-fated pianist Tommy Pollard, and Johnny Dankworth) made the journey north, as did Kenny Graham's Afro-Cubists, Tito Burns's bright little bop group, and the Vic Lewis orchestra which specialised in the music of Stan Kenton.

By 1950 or so bebop had become an acknowledged (if not always accepted) part of British jazz and the situation in Manchester had opened up in many ways. Keeper of the Flame provides a great deal of information about local musicians who were playing modern jazz. Some - the fine trombonist Ken Wray is just one example - soon moved on to the national scene and worked with top big-bands like those led by Jack Parnell, Oscar Rabin, Vic Lewis, and Ivor Kirchin. Others were employed in the city's clubs and dance-halls. A non-musician who provided much of the impetus for the development of modern jazz was Eric Scrivens, whose Club 43 opened in 1951 and carried on at various locations for many years. In time, when restrictions were lifted and American jazzmen could play in Britain, Club 43 played host to Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Johnny Griffin, and Lee Konitz, to name just a few of them. The club continued to bring in most of the top British modernists from London. Visiting jazzmen, both British and American, were often backed by local players like the excellent pianists Joe Palin and Eric Ferguson.

The breakdown of the ban on Americans working in Britain meant that major concerts could be staged in Manchester. Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, and Duke Ellington brought their bands to the city, and Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic allowed fans to see and hear Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, and Sonny Stitt, while in 1958 another outfit, touring as Jazz from Carnegie Hall, starred J.J.Johnson, Kai Winding, Zoot Sims, and Kenny Clarke. There were also concerts featuring Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and a Miles Davis group. It was truly an eventful period, what with the visiting Americans, modern jazz stars from London frequently in Manchester clubs, and local modernists in venues (sometimes short-lived) across the city. There were also several record shops which catered to jazz fans.

Inevitably, much of the activity was based in the city centre and it's noted that attempts to present modern jazz in clubs and pubs in the outlying areas often failed after a few weeks. If you lived in one part of Manchester and wanted to get to another part it wasn't always easy. And smaller clubs tended to feature lesser-known musicians who, no matter how good they were, couldn't pull in enough people to make a venue viable.

It's also probably true to say that regular visits by American jazzmen and major London modernists inclined audiences to listen to them rather than local musicians in small places in the suburbs. Bill Birch records that by the late-1960s "the city's modern jazz scene was fading." No explanation for this decline, though it's fairly obvious that the rise of rock music in the 1960s had its effect. And many of the people who'd flocked to hear modern jazzmen were now older and had family and other responsibilities that limited their capacity to go out a lot. A few scattered locations continued to spotlight modern jazz, though not always with any success. The book refers to an appearance for a couple of nights by bop pianist Joe Albany at the Black Lion pub in Salford, and claims that the two performances were "sold out in advance."

Well, I was present on one of those nights and only a handful of people listened to Albany who played brilliantly in less than sympathetic circumstances. He played with such intensity that a musician friend, thinking of the pianist's days with Charlie Parker and other boppers, whispered to me, "My God, can you imagine what a quintet of these guys must have sounded like?"

Keeper of the Flame is a fascinating book with only a few minor errors (Bob Gordon for Joe Gordon, the trumpeter with Shelly Manne's group at the Free Trade's Hall in 1960). Its interest isn't limited to those who were around in the period concerned, even if it can be used as an exercise in nostalgia. It has much more to offer. I've mostly mentioned a few well-known names, but one of its real achievements is the way in which it draws attention to numerous Manchester-based musicians. They perhaps never established reputations outside their immediate localities and often seem to have sunk from sight after a few years. Nor did they appear on records. In fact, it's doubtful if any of their work survives unless there are tapes in private hands, but they contributed to the musical life of the city, sometimes by providing backing for visiting jazzmen and sometimes through their work in the clubs. It's worth mentioning that modern jazz didn't completely die out after 1972. The Band on the Wall later brought in many excellent musicians and I can remember hearing Dexter Gordon, James Moody, Billy Mitchell, Al Haig, Red Rodney there. And there was a lively scene for a time at a pub in Stockport (yes, I know that isn't Manchester, but it's just next door) called the Warren Bulkeley, I think. Warne Marsh, Art Farmer, Kai Winding, and others whose names escape me, appeared there. Local modernists, too, continued to play when and where they could.

It's only right to add a note about the book itself. It's beautifully produced, with dozens of rare photos, illustrations of programmes, posters, and other memorabilia, and masses of information about who played where and when. It's a labour of love and isn't being sold in shops for a good reason. Bookshops take far too big a cut for themselves. As it is the 25 that is being charged will only cover production costs so no-one will make a profit from Keeper of the Flame. To order a copy contact Bill Birch, 6 Square Road, Todmorden, Lanes., OL14 7SU. Telephone number 01706 816229.