Some personal memories of Swanage Jazz Festival 1990-2017
Updated: Jan 16
Any drinker will tell you that a pub is only as good as it’s landlord. I think the same can be said of Jazz Clubs and festivals- they tend to be a reflection of of the qualities and vision of those running them. Having said that, much of the success of the last 27 years of the Swanage Jazz festival must be attributed to it’s founder Fred Lindop whose idea it was to expand the activities of the Swanage Jazz Club to include what has become an major annual event in the UK jazz calendar.
Fred is quick to emphasise that this was not a one man show- much support came from the club and committee and nothing would have been possible without the army of volunteer stewards and helpers, many of them friends and family.
I’ve played at 27 of the 28 festivals including the first one. Originally named the Swanage Jazz and Blues Festival, this consisted of a small marquee on the front where The Deluxe Blues Band played followed by the Dick Morrissey quartet. In the town the Humphrey Lyttelton band performed at the Mowlem Theatre- myself and fellow band member Stan Greig staying on after the gig to play a Sunday lunchtime duet at the White Horse pub. The piano had been rejected by a piano-smashing competition as not good enough. Stan managed to attempt a tuning (and invoiced Fred for it!) but it didn’t help a lot.
A theme was established right from the start-the divide between the traditional and modern styles that were both represented in different parts of the festival. This resulted in a lot of good natured bantering and eye-rolling as both sides played up to their stereo-typical images. Ye moulde Fygges performed mainly under canvas and the Re-boppers and Hipsters in venues such as the two separate floors of the Vic club. Initially the festival was 60% the former and 40% the latter- a situation that reversed over the following decades probably reflecting Fred’s personal musical preferences. Eventually there were 2 marquees to be seen on site each presenting a completely different style. I always envisaged barbed wire between the two, with reconnaissance parties at night.
I remember once being asked to play with a Keith Nichols tribute to Louis Armstrong in the Traditional tent and was astonished to see a whole audience of people I’d never noticed before. The route between the two tents for those who might visit the other side became known amongst musicians as “The Path of Shame”- a phrase originally coined by guitarist/ banjoist “Spats” Langham. One night a member of the Ken Colyer Trust could be heard expressing horror that the more broadminded members of the Colyer Trust band, Campbell Burnap and John Wurr had defected over this path for their listening pleasure.
The final dying notes of a sensitive ballad in the modern tent could often become overlaid by the shimmering strains of a distant banjo and I’m sure that the recreations of the Cotton Club were not undisturbed on occasion by the sounds of 52nd Street.
There were of course some musicians who managed to straddle both camps and appeal to a large part of each audience. Gary Potter playing his hot club and country styles and more recently Remi Harris spring to mind, interestingly enough both guitarists, but listeners who enjoyed both camps were rare.
Initially, Fred took much advise about which Traditional bands to book from the then owner of the “100” Club in Oxford Street, local resident Roger Horton who suggested both the Dave Brennan and Chris Blount bands and stride maestro and band-leader Keith Nichols, all of whom became an indispensable part of each festival. Roger used to joke to me 30 years ago in his club that my talk of beer and jazz would one day, as part of my natural development, be replaced with an interest in growing my own veg. It never got quite that far but after I’d reminded Roger of this at the festival, he started the annual ritual of presenting me with a bag of his home grown potatoes (beautifully flowery with butter and black pepper) and beans (sprinkled with vinegar at Jack Emblow’s suggestion).
The setting for the festival is absolutely beautiful, with views across the Jurassic coastline and on a hot day, a lovely deep blue sea. Visitors arriving for the first time in the town could be forgiven for thinking that they had been transported back to the early 50’s as they lay eyes on the old fashioned shops, pubs, restaurants, ice-cream vans, beach-huts and a Punch and Judy Show. This latter was operated by a very feisty elderly lady who presented a show with a political slant in which, alongside Mr Punch’s domestic violence and stolen sausages, Mrs Thatcher came to a sticky end.
The fish and chips are superb but their appeal has spread to the sea-gulls, some of whom have kleptomaniac tendencies. A large monument on the front reminds us that, in contrast to the sleepy scene before us, King Alfred won a famous victory against the Danes in the bay.
The walks along the coastline, the boat-trips, the local steam railway and crab sarnies on the front are all to be recommended.
Swanage Jazz Festival could always boast an enlightened and wide-ranging booking policy in which older established musicians would rub shoulders with the new faces. I got my first glimpses of Polar Bear, Pete Wareham’s Acoustic Ladyland, Laura Jurd, Trish Clowes, Tori Freestone and, as part of the Clark Tracey Quintet, Henry Armburg Jennings at this festival and there were many others who benefitted from early exposure at Swanage.
From the older guard I remember remarkable concerts from the Stan Tracey trio, Don Weller both with his big band and Art Themen, Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble,Tony Kofi and Byron Wallen quintet, a set from Nigel Price (more of whom later..), Tina May and Liane Carroll (who seemed to be there every year)
and a lovely morning solo set in the Vic Club from David Newton to a largely hung-over, blurry-eyed but appreciative crowd.
Many musicians have found themselves having an extra set with performers they have never played with before-in my case my first encounters with the lovely, hard swinging Dick Morrisey (I have treasured recording of this), Tony Kofi and Gilad Atzmon were all in the Swanage marquees.
Mainstream Americans were well represented: Ken Peplowski, Scott Hamilton, Warren, Greg Abate and Spike Robinson have all appeared.
The festival continued to grow, eventually adding a third marquee, until the terrible summer of 2012 when it rained solidly for the whole of June and July. Marquee 3 was abandoned a week before the event and on the opening Friday Marquee 1 was 3 inches under water and the rubber matting necessary to make Marquee 2 useable had cost the committee an extra £2,500. It was touch and go whether the council would allow things to go ahead but finally the business side of viewing things won over the retirement side of things- the festival brings a huge amount of revenue into the town. New venues , including the Methodist church had to be hired. The church was, in contrast to the rest of the town, completely dry so there was a rush to the Red Lion in the interval of each concert and this lovely pub became a late opening haven as a result.
My octet performed in the tent that year as the rain continued unabated, forming huge pools in the top of the tent which had to be pushed out with poles at crucial times. We even lost power at one point so we busked a version of “Dancing In The Dark”, followed by, of course, “I’m Beginning To See The Light” when it was re-stored.
Only by using all the savings from previous events, topped up by a collection which raised £5,500 could the committee save the event for the following year.
One year, having a few post gig drinks with John Barnes in one of the tents, I asked him how he planned to get the huge pile of instruments he had brought back to his digs. “I’ll get a taxi” he replied. I suggested that he was not really taking into account in those pre-mobile days that not many cabs would be passing through this field. “There’ll be one” he reassured me. Just at that moment a black London cab trundled across the field as if in answer to prayer. John, who was incapable of doing anything without great theatrical flourish, especially after a few tastes, leapt out in front of it shouting “Taxi!, Taxi” It pulled to a halt and John was well into describing where he was going to the driver before he realised that it was bass player Mick Hutton who had bought this particular vehicle for ease of transporting his instrument.
There was one particularly well-refreshed session featuring myself and those 2 Maestros of moderation Willie Garnett and Bruce Adams. We were playing in the local caravan park with a lovely American tenor player, then resident Cambridge, Kevin Flanagan. Both Willie and Bruce are generous at the bar and a request for a red wine resulted in a each time resulted on a bottle being presented. I think Kevin though he’d been dropped into the middle of a Hogarth print. The walk back to Swanage took a while and was only made possible by the kind assistance of John Bullock who ran the CD stall for some of the years. Alan Ross from Jazz House records also did the same on the other years and the stall was always a hub of social activity.
Early in his career, Jamie Cullum was performing at one of the tents-some of Fred’s grand children were manning the door. His claims to be a performer were met with disbelief “You’re too young to be jazz” he was told. Personally I’d love to hear those words.
All jazz festivals need good real ales and these were provided by the Dorset Brewing Company- my favourites are Jurassic and Dorset Knob.
The festival finally ended in 2017 and it seemed that a well-loved annual fixture in the Jazz lovers calendar had been scrubbed. Fred and the committee just felt that that enough was enough and every jazz fan and musician must thanks them for years of running this superb event.
The good news is of course, that after months of uncertainty, long negotiations and hours and hours of unpaid work, virtuoso guitarist and indefatigable force for good Nigel Price has taken the reins. I refer you back to my opening statement: The pub that is the “Swanage Jazz Festival” now has a new landlord, keeping on the regulars, happy to greet new customers and very much open for business in 2018. See you there!