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Musician, organiser and promoter of jazz at the long-running Electric Palace, Harwich.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
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What’s your role here Chris at the Electric Palace?
I’m one of the founder members of it and was involved right from the beginning when the building was in a terrible state and it was rescued and then restored. That took about six years but our purpose all the time had been to re-open it and use it for films primarily, but also because it’s a small stage we wanted to put in live events as well.
I see. Because you’re not local are you? You’re not from around here?
I was born in Aberdeen. My family moved to London when I was twelve and nobody could understand a word I said so I had to adopt a sort of Kilburn, Cricklewood accent but there’s still a bit of Scots there.
Yes there is a strong accent there – you’re getting towards the highlands there from Aberdeen, Elgin
Yes, it’s a very nice dialect I feel.
So, when did you become an Essex boy and move down to Essex?
We moved around quite a lot and eventually came to Harwich in 1973
Did you? And I understand that you’re a musician as well is that right?
Oh yeah, I play, I’m an amateur musician, I play trumpet and various bits of brass, trumpets, flute and horns mellophones, tenor horns, things like that
Has your main interest in Jazz always been towards New-Orleans or Trad/Mainstream or have you always been interested in kind of the whole picture
I suppose that’s how it started because I was at school in Kilburn in the late-50's and we set up a Jazz band but that resulted in us being sort of thrown out of the music classes. “You mustn’t play this terrible music”, of course that just made us resolve to play it even more
Of course, yeah
And those were the days of Humphrey Lyttleton, Chris Barber and Ken Colyer etc. etc. So that’s where it started and I went to London University and joined various bands there and yeah, it just went on from there
I see yes, so when you moved down here was there anything happening at all to do with Jazz?
Yes, there was because there was a very large holiday camp here in Dovercourt, it’s the one that was used as the set for Hi-De-Hi and there was a lot of Jazz that took place there. I remember one evening where I had the privilege of sitting in with Kenny Ball's band, that was, I suppose around 1976, just for a couple of numbers, that was really great fun.
Was that at the holiday camp?
That was at the holiday camp, yes, they used to get Acker Bilk and…
That must have been out of season because the season was very set wasn’t it?
No I think it was in season, at the height of the season and it was absolutely packed, you’d get probably at least a thousand people there in the ballroom
Yes we used to go there on holiday
So there was quite a lively scene, there was also a pub, which was has also gone, called the Phoenix
I remember the Phoenix
You remember the Phoenix yes?
Now it’s a big house, big flats, yes?
That’s right, but that was quite a good scene in there and we had one famous occasion, I’m trying to remember when it was, when Humphrey Lyttelton came down with his band, I’ve still got the poster at home, it’s Humphrey Lyttelton, tickets £1 with food, I think that’s what it said. Show’s you how times have changed and in that band we had Spike Heatley on bass and Spike is playing here in this building next week.
Yes because he went off to France didn’t he to live?
That’s right he lives in Brittany now, but he comes back every year or two and does another tour.
An absolute legend! Because I seem to remember at the Phoenix, there was an area where there was a stage and a piano and when I was a kid that was an enormous area, I don’t know if my nostalgia is playing tricks on me but I seem to remember it as being an enormous pub.
It wasn’t as big as this auditorium but it was, as pubs go, it was quite a good space, and it was very popular
Was that regular then, the Jazz at the Phoenix?
Yes, they did have it probably about once a month.
Did they? Yes, because I believe there was a Jazz club in Harwich before yours, I don’t know..
There was, that was before I came to Harwich and I think it was in the Railway Club in Parkstone, a friend, I actually met him this morning, who used to have a lot to do with that, we weren’t talking about that this morning. It was just a co-incidence and that was quite a thriving club in the days of the trad boom, yes.
Right back to the 50's?
Well yes 50's, early-60's I suppose, yes.
Yes that’s right because Tom Collins’ ex-wife said to me today that she remembered there was somewhere in Harwich in a club, yes in the Railway Club.
Yes of course in those days Colchester Jazz Club was really thriving, you’d get seven, eight, nine hundred people there so it was a very busy scene.
Yes that’s right, all round north Essex in fact, Wickham Bishops, Dunmow, blah, blah, blah, down to Maldon, yes all over Essex in fact, which is what I’m learning on this project that we’re doing. So, when you started up Jazz here at the Electric Palace were you in competition with anyone?
No, because by that time all these other venues had sort of faded away, so there was a vacuum if you like and having got this place into good condition.. I was working full time at the time, but I thought it would be good to get concerts in here but could only really do that about once or twice a year and we had some quite interesting ones in the early days and the late-70's and early eighties. Ken Colyer did a concert here which was absolutely packed out and we had a concert by a band called Sphere and the sax player with that..
The Jazz Fusion band called Sphere were they?
Well sort of, fairly Hard Bop, a bit of Fusion but the outstanding player was Andy Sheppard, and this is of course before he became famous, and we’ve had one or two people like that. The guitar player coming with Spike next week is Andy Williams who is Roy Williams son and then we’ve had a lot of players come over from New Orleans, because I went to Mardi Gras in '89 and was actually living in a flat owned by Barry Martin the drummer, who went from Virginia Water to live in New Orleans and obviously got to know him and various other players like Les Muscutt and Chris Burke and invited them to come and do concerts here. So they came over regularly, every year for about twenty years
Hasn’t he achieved such a lot in New Orleans, I mean an incredible amount.
Very nice guy and wonderful player, I think he’s completely retired now, last time I heard.
Is Virginia Waters around here is it?
No it’s on the other side, sort of on the west side of London
Ok yes, I’d heard of it, I just wasn’t sure where it was. Of course, funnily enough, I don’t know if you know, the Frog Island Jazz Band ?
I do, they’ve played here.
I’ve played with them in different contexts
Because they’ve played New Orleans about four or five times haven’t they? It’s quite amazing.
Yeah, they’re one of the few bands that really can create the King Oliver sound, very authentic, really good
Very committed aren’t they, to it? Very committed. So was the idea of the Jazz club here or the Jazz nights here at the Electric Palace, was it meant to be Jazz broadly speaking, like right across, you know from modern to .. or was it more a kind of mainstream New Orleans, Trad....
No, it had to be practical. You could say that the core audience was mainly Traditional and Mainstream and we just couldn’t afford to get in Modern players if they weren’t going to attract in an audience, economically it just wouldn’t make sense, but every now and again we would try and get something slightly different in and we’ve done that a bit more recently and it works very well.
I was going to ask how the regulars react, because obviously it may attract some different people in mightn’t it?
It does yeah, it attracts in quite a lot. As time went on we did a concert, we got Humphrey Lyttelton to come and do a concert. The initial idea was for it to be in here but the demand for tickets was so much we actually had to move it into the church. But it was still done under our auspices and that was great because it was, I think it was about ’86 at the time and it was just in the last year of his life but he was playing great, and what a trouper. At the end of the show in the church in December it was pretty cold and there he was in his overcoat, he had just played for two or three hours and he sat down and he signed autographs for a full 45 minutes, that’s the kind of trouper he was, absolutely amazing.
That’s real respect for the audience isn’t it?
Absolutely yeah, they just loved him, he was such a big character in other ways as well. And then we had Georgie Fame. He came with his two sons and his original Hammond organ
Yes the B3, yeah
That’s right and he set it all up here, that was a good night. Then we had Paul Jones, came with Digby Fair-weather. So that was good, then the other big name we’ve had was Tina May. She came and did a very nice concert, the theme of it was Piaf, so she was singing all these French songs with Nikki Iles on Piano, another great evening. So we’ve had some really good evenings here.
In the thirty years it’s been going, has it always been monthly?
No, when it started, I mean I just didn’t have time to do any more than about once or twice a year and then when we saw that it actually was beginning to get it’s own momentum then we did say, three a year, then four a year, then, when I retired, which was about ten years ago, we’ve taken it right up to about one a month. I think two years ago we actually got about fourteen or fifteen in, in a year.
Did you? Some specials? I can imagine, I mean, what a glorious place to play as well, you know, what a treat for the bands, not just for the …
They love it, they all compliment us on the acoustics and it is good.
Are people allowed to come up and dance at the front if they..
No, because we’ve got a table for the raffle and the bands like to sell their CD’s, so when you’ve set up all those tables there’s not really very much room.
I know the Trad crowd do like a dance.
They do yes.
Still, there’s aisles, you know…so if the band are that wild......
I suppose the core type of music is still the traditional music and we’ve got some regulars who come every year like Brian Carrick and we are bringing in more bands from Europe like we’ve got the Bohem Ragtime Orchestra, they came last year, an enormous hit, tremendous, so they’re coming back, I had an email from them yesterday
They’re from Holland aren’t they?
Hungary, oh blimey yes, yes. Superb, they’re all fully trained, I suspect classical musicians, they play a really lot of really top class big band stuff like Ellington, Basie stuff, but when they come here they do the Ragtime and it’s very entertaining, they put on a really good act, they’re all such good players.
Yes, there’s a lot of that going on in that part of Europe.
The other band we had last year, lead from a guy from Serbia, they are called Manus Rouge which I think means 'red moustache'. I’ve booked them in, they’re coming back in September and that was a wonderful band, they had the guy from Serbia, two Italians, accordion and guitar and a very good fiddle player or violinist from the east end of London and again, that’s something different.
I was going to say yeah, yeah, because there is a band called Trio Manouche in London isn’t there?
Manouche is quite a common title.
Mmm but they do the same, the Grapelli, 'Hot Jazz' scene.
When they come back this year I’ve asked them to do more of the eastern European, Balkan type, it’s really wild stuff that, that’ll go down very well. Yeah there’s a lot of people saying that they’re definitely coming back for that, so you know we try to get in different styles all the time. Last December we had a sort of Christmas show with Ray Gelato and the Giants and that went down really well.
Well Ray’s such an amazing entertainer isn’t he so…
Yes, again it would have been even better if it had been dancing allowed.
It’s a very big room what does the auditorium hold?
200 seated. There is wheelchair space as well. I would say the average attendance is around about 100 sometimes it goes down, and it is very sort of on a knife edge. You’ve only got to get the word 'fog' featured in a weather forecast that morning and you lose about 30% of your audience, say the word snow and you lose 50%.
I was going to say have you had any disasters here in that time?
What, financial disasters? Not really no, no it very seldom dips below fifty and obviously the fees to the band vary a lot, you know, between a sort of East Anglian Trad band up to Humphrey Lyttleton or Ray
Or Ray yeah – was that a packed house for Ray?
It was pretty good, yes, and one psychological thing about this is if you get say 130 people in 200 seats the way they split themselves and spread themselves out it looks as if there’s a full house but if you count the empty seats – I think we are always amazed how many empty seats there are, even though it looks full, but it’s psychologically is good the old feel that this is a great show you know.
So how’s the future looking for the Jazz here?
Yes fine, you know we just go from year to year and I like to slot in say three or four new bands every year but we do get a lot of returns but I think it keeps it on edge.
That’s commercial sense though isn’t it to get…
Yes, we've got George Tidiman coming in September. I’ve played with George quite a few times. And he’s bringing Cody Lee with him.
Oh yes the pianist ?
Yes that’s right.
He has Tim Huskisson playing on clarinet with him doesn’t he?
Yes, we've had Tim here, I set this up myself actually, it was Keith Nichols and a guy called Julian Vincent from Bath and they had done.. they had got a past history of doing a lot of Ragtime and I put it to them – “How about you two and Tim coming here and doing a little ragtime recital?” and yes they went for it, so we did that two years ago, great success so we got them back again this year and another great success.
Well, what’s great about that is – I mean I don’t know the chap from Bath you’re talking about, but you know, both Keith and Tim are very much into the history and getting it right aren’t they? They are into the authentic, they can play many styles of Jazz but they know what makes the difference between that and the other styles and they really get into that particular style don’t they? So I can imagine that the Ragtime would have been amazing.
And they put a lot of work into it, they worked out a very nice programme, well you know Keith obviously and he’s a..
He’s a 20's fanatic more than anything isn’t he.
He’s just amazing and I’ve been to Jazz festivals where there may be four days with you know about ten bands appearing and you can almost bet that Keith will be involved with about half of them.
And Tim the same.
And Tim as well yes. We went to one at Whitley Bay and I saw Keith on the last night and said “How are you?, “Shattered” he said. He really pulls out all the stops. Amazing.
Yes amazing guy. There’s such a lot of amazing talent to do with Jazz in Essex. Absolutely remarkable.
Keith helped us before this place was renovated or restored. To raise money we put on several shows where he accompanied silent films and two of them were at the Phoenix, and then we put on a special concert at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, especially to raise funds for this building. yeah I mean he was a the heart of that. Then he put on a show at the Princes Theatre Clacton, with the Midnight Follies obviously, and that was a great show.
That was him and Digby wasn’t it I think that started that or?
Allen Cohen and I think Allan Elsden was in the trumpet section.
Yeah right, I think Digby was one of the originals.
He may have been yeah.
Midnight Follies, that was one of Keith’s big things wasn’t it?
It was, it was a great plan.
Well it’s fantastic here. Long may it continue along strongly.