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Today

As we all know there are no live gigs taking place in the immediate future. However, any links to jazz streaming that are deemed suitable - i.e. with a professional approach - will be considered for posting.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Savannah Syncopators by Steve Andrews

45 years ago today a group of musicians got together in a Tyneside pub to form and rehearse a big band. Not however, your normal big band playing Glenn Miller or Count Basie stock arrangements but a one dedicated to the big band music of the 1920s and early '30s - a unique concept on Tyneside and most other places at the time. The masterminds behind the project were Dave Kerr and Steve Andrews who later formed the New Century Ragtime Orchestra*. Steve recalls the history of the Syncopators below in his inimitable manner - Lance


The Savannah Syncopators
In late 1974 Clive Grey and I were playing at the Redhills Hotel in Durham with the Savoy Jazzmen and one week we had the Alex Welsh Band as guests. Roy Williams and Johnny Barnes told us about the Breda Olde Stijl Jazz Festival which they were playing at in April 1975, and said it was a great festival, so I spoke to Dave "The Doctor" Kerr, and the three of us decided to go.
Dave and I were already big fans of Classic Jazz, particularly early big bands such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and King Oliver, and we were amazed and delighted to find appearing at Breda (amongst others) the New Mckinney's Cotton Pickers from Detroit, The Blue Roseland Orchestra from Germany (leader Claus Jacobi), Kustbandet from Sweden specialising in Luis Russell stuff and featuring Bent Persson on trumpet, and the local Victoria Band of Breda. We drank it in and realised that if they could do it, so could we.
Back home Dave and I examined the problems in recreating a 1920s' big band that DIDN'T copy the Pasadena Roof Orch. or the Temperance Seven: (I) Where to source Arrangements (2) Recruiting jazz musicians of approximately the right style, i.e. not "modernists", who wanted to do it, and who could read music (3) somewhere to rehearse (4) gigs - would anyone want to hear it?
I sat down with my LPs and ruined several by dropping and re-dropping the needle on them until I could write down (a) the chords (b) the leads for 1st tpt and 1st alto, (c) harmonise them as best I could. Bearing in mind that I never learnt to read music except in a very basic way - I knew the notes on the staff and the basic time divisions thereof - this took some months, but eventually I had a few 10-piece arrangements completed, although no idea how they would sound. In the end I wrote some 20-plus arrangements, and I still can't read music, especially if I wrote it. Dave and Phil Collins (our first recruit) also started writing, and Dave picked out interesting, unhackneyed material from his vast collection of records and sheet music.
The musicians we basically recruited from our mates on the "Trad/New Orleans" scene. The major problem was finding section leaders who could read well enough to drag the others (myself included) along, so we put an ad. in the Journal, I think. We got a reply from a guy called Phil Collins (not the Phil Collins...!) who was learning the alto and could read better than he could play - Phil later arranged many numbers and stayed with the band to very end in the 1990's. We got Jimmy Ruddick on second alto to do the jazz, also to sing. Pretty quickly we made him take up the clarinet, too, and by the time he left in 1980 he was playing baritone as well! I played tenor, soprano, clarinet and C-melody, and sang, after a fashion. After a year or two the saxes formed a vocal trio which Joe McMullen named the Singing Poofters. Laurence McBriarty was first choice for trombone, and Eric Miller for 2nd (jazz) trumpet. First trumpet was a problem but Clem Avery agreed to do the first rehearsal. Brian Chester on piano, Clive Grey on banjo (and later, guitar), John Wheatley on tuba (and later, string bass) and Peter Soulsby on drums completed the lineup.
The first rehearsal was held at the Newton Park Hotel on 22nd February, 1976, with the above lineup, and proved that the concept was at least workable with tweaks. Clem couldn't really read and didn't want to continue but the rest were enthusiastic. Wheatley (I think) suggested a young lad called Bob Harrison who was a brass band player and could read anything. So he came in on 1st trumpet. We did our first gig at the Post House in Washington as guests of the Savoy Jazzmen - we had twelve three-minute numbers in the book and played 'em all. At the end the crowd wanted more, so we started at the beginning again! We played a short residency in the basement of a pub in South Shields - all I remember is that one night the lights went out and Bob and Phil stopped playing, but the other eight buskers in the band just carried on regardless until the end of the tune! John Wheatley had fashioned cardboard music stands and Dave Kerr had painted them, but on night somebody opened a door and they all collapsed, as of course did the gentlemen of the orchestra!
In 1976 we got a regular gig at a new pub, the Pheasant at Preston Grange, and we stayed there for a couple of years, often playing to crowds as big as three, and sometimes smaller. Eric Miller was ill, so I conned Joe McMullen who I'd been playing with in various bands including Mick Potts' Gateway-Panama Band, into coming in on 2nd trumpet. He was very apprehensive about reading etc., but, being Joe, gave it 110%. Bob Harrison left when Eric returned, so I put Joe's arm up his back again and he moved over to 1st tpt - very successfully too!
After the Pheasant, we moved to a pub in Benwell called the Mitre, which was formerly the residence of the Bishop of Newcastle. and from there went to the Corner House at Heaton, where we played for many years on Thursday nights. The Mitre, incidentally, closed after us - (is this significant? ed.), and was next used as the setting for the TV Show Byker Grove. So it's nice to know that the Syncopators had a hand in launching the careers of Ant and Dec!
In the late seventies we were noticed by Andy Hudson, who then ran the Newcastle Jazz Festival. Andy - a very nice man who did a huge amount for jazz in the North East - had already given me some gigs on the periphery of the festivals, such as Riverboat Shuffles, and the opportunity to play alongside Bud Freeman at the University Theatre. He hired the SS to play as second band to George Melly and John Chilton's Feetwarmers in the theatre, which was interesting (we thought we could drink, but those lads.....!) and in 1978 offered to get us an Arts Council (I think) grant of £200 to perform something at the university. We selected Duke Ellington's first extended work, Creole Rhapsody (Victor version) from 1931 - DE also recorded it for Brunswick in a shorter form. My school friend Kevin Elliott had long since replaced Brian Chester at the piano (and occasionally on drums or trumpet as required) and wrote out the score from the record (another knackered LP), and also learnt Ellington's extremely demanding piano part. He got £100 for that and the rest of the band shared another £100 for the rehearsals and the performance!
I augmented the band for Creole Rhapsody - Bob Harrison came back in on 1st trumpet, with Joe on 2nd and Eric on 3rd; Albert "Blaster" Bates played 2nd trombone; I played the Barney Bigard solo clarinet part while Phil played my tenor in the section, and, because there was a very fast technical Johnny Hodges' solo, I called in Nigel Stanger, one of the nicest guys on the scene to play first alto. The performance was very successful, but sadly, we never did it again. My former English teacher, Dick Bradshaw and his wife Hazel came to see the gig - I had occasion to call on him shortly afterwards.
In 1977 the band was booked for the Cambridge Jazz Festival, then Claus Jacobi, who now is one of the organisers of the Whitley Bay Jazz Party, asked the band to go to a Classic Jazz/Big Band Festival in Gottingen, Germany in late 1978, Pete Soulsby couldn't go so we got in a guy called Joe Elliot on drums at very short notice. Joe was a teetotaler, a first for us! After that we did a short tour of Belgium in 1979 - Ghent, and two other places I can't recall the names of. In Ghent we were ejected from the club because Clive Grey nicked a load of beer glasses and the band were firing beermats at the audience! At the second gig Clive Grey fell asleep on the stage although his hand was still silently moving over the banjo strings, and at the last one, in a place called the Banana Peel Club in a cowshed somewhere, a drunk started a fight and we had to scarper while the audience were breaking chairs over each other's heads - we found that Dave Kerr was missing, so had to send a search party back into the mayhem, only to find him standing chatting to someone at the bar, oblivious to the chaos around him! Kevin couldn't go to Belgium so I inveigled Dick Bradshaw into playing piano just that once. He never escaped and ended up leading the band for several years after I left in 1987.  

That was followed in 1979 by our first visit to the Breda Festival as entrants in the International Jazz Band Competition, where we won third prize. In 1980 we did a short tour of Holland, playing jazz clubs in Harlem, Amsterdam, and Eindhoven. We entered the International Jazz Band Competition again in 1980 and this time got fourth place (oops!), which was a big disappointment because people were telling us we'd won before the results were announced, but it wasn't all doom and gloom because that year I first met my much-loved wife of 37 year, Ans.
We played the Edinburgh Jazz Festival each year from 1979 to 1983. Great fun but hard work at four gigs a day all over the city. Definitely a young man's game! It can also be very unnerving playing the hangover hour at 11am with Doc Cheatham sitting in the front row, watching and listening intently!
1980 saw the beginning of our long residency at the Corner House, and some changes in the band. Jim Ruddick left and was replaced by another old school chum George Cranmer; Pete Soulsby, who had been replaced by Joe Elliot at the drums, came back in in the early '80's; Blaster Bates replaced Laurence McBriarty. in 1984, Jim McBriarty replaced George Cranmer, and Kevin Elliott who had been in and out of the band left for good to seek fame and fortune in London, leaving the piano to Dick Bradshaw, whose singing was a real asset to the band and in addition was writing very good arrangements. Laurence replaced Albert Bates in '84, too.  By this time the "Book" was well over 200 arrangements, written by Dave Kerr, Phil Collins, Dick Bradshaw, Kevin Elliott and myself as well as quite a few original stocks that we'd cut and pasted. We even had Debroy Somers' Savoy Christmas Medley!

There were, of course, many players who depped or played for a short time in the band, including Colin Parmley on trumpet, Chas Coles and Mac Rae on drums, Matty Hutchinson (a terrific alto player and a very quiet man who used to go and stand in the hallway during the intermission), Mike Carton on trombone, and the brilliant Cormac Loane who played one of the Edinburgh Jazz Festivals (1981?) on 2nd alto. There were more deps, of course, but other regular members at various times included Bruce Dixon on tuba and string bass, who replaced John Wheatley about 1984, and Ian Porter who took over the drums when Pete Soulsby left in the mid-'80's. There are probably more people who contributed to the band that I have forgotten at this writing, but all were appreciated.
Over the years we played host to many guests, including Digby Fairweather, George Kelly, George Chisholm, and our favourite, Benny Waters, with whom we recorded an LP in 1983 (some copies still available!).
The Syncopators couldn't have started or survived for such a long time without Dave Kerr whose enthusiasm, encyclopaedic knowledge of Classic Jazz, and hard work doing all the things that I couldn't be bothered to do, left me clear to play the horn and stand up and tell the jokes. John Wheatley also shouldered a lot of the burden of organising trips away, driving minibuses, etc., and after he left Dick and Hazel Bradshaw took over a lot of that, for which I was profoundly grateful! Mind you, people still used to ring me at 6.30 on a Thursday night to say they had just remembered it was their wedding anniversary, or they had to wash their hair, and other fatuous excuses, so could I organise a dep for tonight?
In 1987 my job took me to Cumbria, so I left in March. Dick Bradshaw took over the band for a couple of years, then Jimmy McBriarty, and finally the reclusive Doctor Jazz, Dave Kerr, until it petered out in the 1990s'. Dave didn't give up though: as we all know, he started his New Century Ragtime Band around 1998 and that continues to the present day, with its annual special concert at the Caedmon Hall in Gatehead coming up on the 29th of this month (Jimmy Dorsey's Birthday!)*
Thursday nights at the Corner House became, over the years, something of an institution. We always tried to vary the music and avoid the most hackneyed tunes, although we had quite a few "corny" numbers in the book, some featuring audience participation, like "Positively, Absolutely and How!" and, of course, "What? No Spinach?” complete with German and French verses. In those days the jokes were not exactly politically correct, and sometimes the audience used to give them numbers, as they'd heard them so often. The banter on stage with such wags as Joe McMullen, and the weekly "poem" by the band poet, "The Mad Mooler", Eric Miller, were highlights for the sad people who turned up every week for their fix.
I'm glad that my last two gigs with the band at the Corner House were videoed, announcements, doubtful jokes and all, so I can look back at my slim figure and all that hair, and remember what were, without doubt, the happiest (and funniest) days of my playing life.
Steve Andrews
The New Century Ragtime Orchestra can be heard at Caedmon Hall, Gateshead a week today (Feb. 29). See poster in RH column for ticket details.

3 comments :

Patti said...

Fabulous memories, Steve! I remember coming to the Corner House with my Mike - this was when we first came back to the North East after living abroad. It was our introduction to the local jazz scene! And who can forget old Peter Drake sitting in the front row, noting all the tune numbers in his little book ......

John Hallam (on F/b). said...

In the closing years of the Sav Syncs I used to do occasional deps on bass/tuba or even tenor banjo. After John Wheatley died, Rita gave me his tuba which was in a bit of a state. It was OLD and in High Pitch. John played it 'at arms length' using a combination of extension tubes! One of the valve was missing. Rita thought John might have taken it for repair into BSRA where John worked. Anyway, I had the instrument converted to Low Pitch and a new valve made. Shortly after, the interior of another valve developed a hole....perhaps rotted out by the fumes of all the ale that had passed through it?
I've still got the tuba.

Anonymous said...

So interesting to read about the history of the Syncopators. I listened to the band as often as I could throughout my time at Newcastle University in the late 70s. Think I first saw them play at the Newcastle Beer Festival at the Guildhall. Thursday nights at the Corner House were legendary with great music and humour. I Was lucky to be there on the night Benny Waters played with the band and still have the LP. What a great gig. Steve Andrews laconic humour made a Savannah Syncopator gig so entertaining. My favourite memory was that of Steve looking over the audience after a number when there had been less than the usual enthusiastic clapping to say ‘Thank-you everyone, its strange, but I’ve never seen dead people smoke before!’
Thank-you for all the great memories.

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