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Sound engineer and committee member of The Fleece, Colchester.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
Have you been involved with the Fleece since the beginning?
We've been running 20 years. I started around 17 years ago, became part of the committee perhaps 15 years ago and for the past 10 years I've been the sound tech.
Where was the Fleece originally?
The Fleece was originally in a pub in a beautiful village called Boxford which is in Suffolk, but very close to the border with Essex. We do get an Essex audience, and it was an old wooden-fronted pub with a domed roof upstairs in the function room, very, very difficult to do the sound properly, and we ran ¾ round style rather than proscenium style so everybody was really close to the musicians, which could be fun if they weren’t used to it. And it was up a set of stairs which meant any time we had a Hammond B3 that was also interesting getting it up the stairs! The only instrument in the world where you need a van as an accessory!We more or less sorted the sound, we had a piano, in fact you’re sitting in my dining room and you’re looking at the piano, a Yamaha U1. Not really suitable as a professional piano and when it was getting a bit old we now have a very good Yamaha U5, which got up those stairs and back down because the landlord changed and we had a series of new landlords and anyone from this area would know what I mean when I say that the last one was ‘Jaywick gone to Frinton’. It was dirty and the food wasn’t very good and he said, you know, “Either pay me a humungous rent or leave”, so we left. We were temporarily in another venue but the venue where we are now is Stoke-by-Nayland Hotel. It is a beautiful place, it’s got two professional golf courses and it has got us every Friday night. We do our best to turn whatever conference rooms into a Jazz venue. It’s still a bit on the beige side but it’s not bad and the sound is terrific, no domed roof and lively enough to be getting on with. And there's this trail of world-class musicians for 20 years.
How long have you actually been at the Stoke by Nayland?
I think it is now into our fourth year.
You've had some amazing artists there, very international. Can you remember any particular highlights of who would be the most exciting name for you that’s been there?
Well to me the most exciting name is someone who is the only Brit in the American Jazz Hall of Fame and that’s Peter King. So if we can keep up to that standard I don’t think we're doing too badly. My memory for names is terrible, I am somewhat ancient and forget my own name from time to time, but the names probably will come to me but we've had some very good Americans. My favourite singer is an American, her name is Marlene VerPlanck and nobody knows about her over here. If I tell you her first job was with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and she is that old and she just gets better and better and better and she travels every year over here. She did a Ronnie Scott gig this year, she does Pizza Express and a few places in the north and a couple of places in France and then goes home. So a couple of months in this area every year. I have never heard articulation as clear as that in my life, she is that good, and tells a story. And it's brave, she does interesting music. This is the other thing, we get some musicians who do what they do and they do very nicely, but where it gets exciting is when there's a dep who doesn’t really know the music very well and they have to really work hard at getting it together. Can I tell you about one particular incident?
Yes please do.
We had the MJQ Celebration, which is a terrific tribute band for the Modern Jazz Quartet. We were supposed to have them over a year ago, so I and my second Jerry, we had rigged for two mics on the piano, two mics on the vibraphone, nothing on the drums because it's not necessary in our place and something on the place. So when Jim Mullen shows up with a guitar we’re a little surprised. At noonthe leader, the bass player, Matt Ridley, phones his Mum and his Mum says “You've got a nice gig and some friends coming to the Fleece tonight”, he says “That’s next week”, she says “No it’s not they're coming tonight”. There was a bit of a mistake. He was actually coming next week, and most of his band was unavailable so he was just playing with Jim Mullen and Jim Mullen has a huge contact book so he contacts Jim and he is free, he phones Damon Brown who happens to be driving from France with the trumpet in the car, so we had saxophone, trumpet, bass, piano and drums instead. Now none of these people had ever played together before as a group and most of them had not even played in the same band before so they had to do standards and it was a stunningly good evening.
Yes, everyone rose to the occasion.
But they will do, it would have been the excitement of it, if it’s all going well they're going to be feeding off each other aren't they, bouncing off each other I should say, amazing. You didn’t get anyone ask for their money back because they weren’t…because the tribute wasn’t on?
Yes, one person. And one person decided to stay and said the other person was a real fool! The MJQ just came and that was interesting as well because we had a lot of people like me whose first recording was an MJQ recording and they’re older people and they’re sitting there and they’re tense and waiting, you know, “Is this really going to be any good at all?” The first thing they played was The Golden Striker, so Jim Hart on vibraphone, those tones ring out on the vibraphone and you can see the hands relax across the audience, the bass comes in and the grins…they know they're in for a good one. And we get more magic than we deserve, I mean we require competence and we sometimes get genius but to get magic as much as we do, we're very lucky.
I must say the line up you have at your club is spectacular really, it’s absolutely you know, it has to be one of the major Jazz clubs in the UK I would have thought.
Well we think so and so did the Parliamentary Jazz Group who actually gave us the Best Jazz Award, they give one every year so we got one of those. And that was lovely.
When did you receive that?
2009. So it was a while ago but…
No that’s right because the Hideaway only won it a couple of years ago and they’re a brand new club aren’t they, in Streatham, amazing. The Parliamentary Jazz Awards are very influential.
I think so, yeah. And the committee members that actually went to pick up the award, it was Lianne Carroll who gave it.
Who always wins a load with them every year doesn’t she, she's amazing.
She’s a stunning singer and she claims she's not that good a pianist. I don’t agree, I think she’s fine, I really do. I have seen her accompany and you just never know what she’s going to say!
She’s almost what they call now a ‘ladette’ almost isn't she.
She's certainly a force of nature. But it’s not always Jazz. You might remember a rock group called The Communards? Very, very high voice, well we get Sarah Jane Morris who is the baritone in that band.
Yes, Sarah Jane Morris, that’s right.
So not everybody has a 3 and ¾ octave range but she does and it isn't Jazz, it’s Folk music of a kind, it's Folk Rock. But it is, and the musicians that come with her, it is stunningly good. And it always gets a crowd. So we try to vary, we get the headliners when we can; when we get lots of young bands, at least they're young from my perspective. And it’s a joy to have them and every once in a while, we've had very, very few bummers, we've been very, very lucky.
Because that would really damage the club immensely wouldn’t it if you had a few bad ones, because you must be relying on the profit from a night. You don’t intend to break even each time, you must make a profit I guess, you're not a charity are you?
We're not a charity but we are a voluntary society, formally we're not a charity. But none of the committee members make any money on it, we get expenses. I run the website so every year I have to pay for the domain and the funding and the hosting and that kind of thing and I get a cheque for that every year but our expenses are – other than the paying of the musicians – are mostly publicity and some rent to the hotel who actually are very kind to us but we still pay, and they…I've lost my train of thought! But most of the money goes to the musicians.
What I mean to say is you only need a couple of bad ones to, you know, that’s put under many Jazz clubs you know taking a couple of bad hits.
Well it’s the reputation more than the money, every once in a while you can be surprised. Many many years ago we lost a gig because someone was very ill and it was not possible to run a gig at all, but we had to decide what to do, we either cancelled the evening, but one of our members was in a pub and heard this really terrific pub trio, Jazz pub trio and we dropped the price and we had them and people loved it! The musicianship was not of the quality that we’re used to – I mean their competence, one of them was a session musician, as you very well know you have to be somewhat more than competent, but it was just a nice evening. So we don’t consider that one to have been a bummer, that was fine. I remember three bummers in the 16 years.
Really, that’s good going isn’t it? Because sometimes even the weather will kill a night won’t it.
Well we have cancelled because of snow, and because…that was when we were having a musician who was coming from Devon and really didn’t feel like driving in 3 feet of snow, and the petrol strike of so many years ago. That is about the only cancellation. And if Friday falls on Christmas or New Year we don’t run.
No of course not it would be suicide wouldn’t it.
And we run the odd Sunday gig if there's something really special we want. It's likely that in November we're going to have a Sunday gig for the London Klezmer Quartet. If you like that kind of music.
Yes I do. Jewish Jazz Klezmer, it's quite amazing, quite a taste.
'Fiddler On The Roof', think of it that way.
My trumpet player Sid Gauld plays in a Jazz Klezmer group. I'm not sure whose group it is, may even be that one.
No it's not.
And Paul Jayasinha is involved in that as well. It’s quite amazing that music. So I noticed in your…of all the people that have played there there doesn’t seem to be, I've not noticed anyone local playing at your club, is there not much Jazz talent locally at all?
Well there is some. Lenny Bush, rest his soul, he played often at the club, Spike Robinson is just down the road in Chelmsford, there's a few…who else can I think of, oh Shakatak Roger Odell, whenever somebody phones up and says I’m coming from Italy can we borrow a drum kit we get one of Roger’s and Roger has played for us as well. And he is a stunning drummer.
He is an amazing drummer, that's right. I played on one Shakatak album, years and years ago, but yeah Roger’s a lovely guy. What I mean to say is there must be young groups around here or isn’t there? I'm not familiar with this part of Essex.
At the moment, as far as young people are concerned, about the only place where people get to play is about a block and a half from here in Crouch Street in a pub called The Bull. It's a kind of an open-mic pub but every month they have a Jazz gig run by one of our local doctors as it turns out, who’s a drummer, one of the people who worked with him for a long time was another bassist, Mick Hunter. He is now back playing bass, I don’t know if you know but he had a nasty accident and he was unable to play for many years. He played keyboards, he played syn-drums but he couldn’t play bass, he is now playing bass and he's wonderful.
And that’s monthly is it?
Yeah, Mick doesn’t do it any more now that he’s back on the proper professional circuit he’s really London based now.
I noticed that, I don’t know if it still exists, but I did see some publicity for a Colchester Youth Jazz Orchestra. Does that still exist do you know?
Yep and we've had them as a curtain raiser, and many of them we've had as professional musicians. Trying to think, I could be wrong, Jay Phelps I think was…I could be wrong. But they're really quite good. There's also a local big band, in North Suffolk, whose name I will remember if I go and look, we've had them as well.
I don’t know if Crissy’s still got a big band going has she, Crissy Lee?
We’ve had her in a quartet – she had a quartet for a while?
Yeah, she’s amazing.
Yeah, good drummer, swing drumming if I remember correctly. It was an excellent gig as I remember, it was about 15 years ago? Two female saxophonists, both Ipswich based originally and again their names will come to me, I will have to look them up. As a matter of conceit, because I run our website, every gig since 1996 is on there so I can find them and find out who played.
I'm thinking one of the female saxophonists is Lisa Graham. She plays with Jools Holland.
Oh we’ve had Lisa Graham. I hadn’t thought of her, no that's someone else.
Lisa’s lovely, amazing, she's about 4’11” and plays it like a dynamo, got this massive Coltrane sound. She’s tenor, she plays with Jools Holland's band.
That band, of course, we’ve never had but we’ve had Derek Nash many times.
As I always said he’s 'the hardest working man in show business'.
He is isn't he?
Yes, runs a recording studio in the daytime on his own and every night he is out playing, and somehow or other he's got a girlfriend as well. I don't know how he manages to do all that!
He's a lovely man to work with as well, really helpful. That’s again one of the joys of working at the club, being the club sound person. But once in a long while I get to be the band sound man. Many years ago Michael Garrick was asked to reprise a band that was very successful 30 years before then and the BBC was going to do a big thing on them, and in fact did do, but they needed a tour terminating in the BBC gig. And we were the first of the tour. It was piano, bass, drums, saxophone, trumpet and Norma Winstone, we were the first gig on their tour, so Michael phoned and said “Is there any possibility of getting into the venue about 1 o’clock so that we can rehearse because we haven’t played this in 30 years?” It was all the original people, so 'muggins' showed up at noon rigged, and they showed up at a little after 1.00 and that afternoon I got a musical education you couldn’t pay for. Learning technical things like don’t treat Norma like a singer, treat her like an instrument, learning about music and “Shall we do this? Is this chord pattern going to be used? Can we use a different groove in this part of that song and…” no it was an afternoon that is indelible for me and that evening I was the band’s sound man and that's different. That was a joy.
And also you must have felt closer to it as well having witnessed the rehearsal through the afternoon as well.
That’s right, I knew where the troubles were, I knew…I didn’t have to react on the desk. I could prepare and, so there’s going to be trouble okay just bring that down a bit now, ok there it is I can go back up again. It's not a matter of hearing something and having to react to it, I knew it was going to happen, I could change the reverb levels on certain things just to give it a little emphasis because that's what they wanted, I was part of the team.
I've always believed that a sound man is a band member, as long as I've ever played live with my own band I've always taken a sound man because I literally look at them as a band member, you know, it’s the difference between sometimes, to the audience, it’s the difference between the band dying on their backside or having the most incredible gig, if the sound’s wrong out front you know…
Just as much if the sound is right on stage. Happy musicians play better.
That’s right, it's true.
Mind you, in our shop the difference in sound between what the audience hears and, even though we have nice monitors, what the band hears isn't all that different, and again what we're in the business of is gentle sound reinforcement, we're not…
You don’t need it pounding out do you?
Well every once in a while there is a drummer who can’t play the room and everything else has to be brought up to his level. I think the nicest compliment I ever had, we had a band, oh gosh this is a long time ago, called The Baritone Band, six of them, have you any idea how much noise six baritones make? So the piano had to come up to be co-level with the horns and getting it up there without it sounding like it was a keyboard was tough, we worked really, really hard on that, and afterwards a little lady came up to me and thanked me for not amplifying the piano!
It's funny isn’t it because you do have…there's a bit of a movement within the Jazz world, I guess like the same as classical, where they don’t want the double bass amplified, they don’t want the piano amplified, it has to be a pure sound and of course when you think about it as soon as you put a mic on a piano to amplify it in a room in a way you could almost call in an electric keyboard by then because it's not the real sound any more, because you can’t capture the entire sound of a piano.
You can come pretty close. I've done AV experiments with a small audience who were asking about it, they said “What happened if you weren’t there” and I said “Well it would sound a bit dull”. The room is a bit dry that we're working in, so the reverberation from the desk is actually helpful, it doesn't detract. If somebody’s playing a flute reverb for the…you often want that or sometimes it’s a tenor sax, not always but sometimes. Singers often need – the great ones don't – but need a little bit of help in this area. I said “Ok let's do the next song without the desk” and yeah, it sounded nice, but it didn’t have any sparkle.
So what's the situation like at the Fleece at the moment? Is it a strong attendance?
No, we're having – like all Jazz clubs – we're having our troubles. We're keeping our head above water, we have had some help, musicians have very kindly given us two benefit gigs in the past two years so we've had Sunday afternoons and evenings where people have come and played for potentially travel money and dinner. And we've had some beautiful evenings and some really surprising ones. A woman named Kate Short – do you know the name? She plays cello, she plays Jazz cello, she plays classical cello, she's also a stunning comedienne. But she’s a sit-down comedienne because she plays the cello. And when she sticks it across her lap and plays it like a guitar she’s a very funny lady, but she's also a very fine musician. And that was a bit of a surprise. And with benefits you're never sure who’s gonna turn up or at what time. We opened this last one with David Rees-Williams, do you know him. He uses classical music to inform his Jazz.
You can say that about Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea as well can’t you, because you know they’re just as classical, they're just as at home playing Classical as Jazz. It's definitely within their…
Or Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton Marsalis, that's right, because they often say that you can’t be good at both but I don’t think that’s quite the case.
Christian Garrick, plays in a good French orchestra as well as the Jazz stuff.
Yes, that’s right. So in 2013, in June, it’s not a disaster at the moment, but it’s a bit sticky?
Yeah, but you ask any Jazz club and they're in the same boat. We have good friends, the Ipswich Jazz Club are friends of ours and they make sure that we don’t cross people too often and that kind of thing. And share equipment when necessary, but we're the senior club really because we've got more kit. But they’re good and they work well. Unfortunately the Arts Centre is not doing very much Jazz at all, they've got one Jazz gig in the new form of the programme that's just come out. But they used to do one every month.
Which would really help your club wouldn’t it because it would bring…
Oh yeah. And the way we…they have a concession rate for older people, if we did that we’d be instantly out of business!
Quite, same as the Trad Jazz world, yes. I don’t understand it though with Modern Jazz because there’s so many young people playing it at the moment.
I know, they're scary! You know Lewis Wright, vibraphonist?
Yes I do.
Roger Beaujolais suggested one gig when he was with us that he had this student and that we must book this guy, he's wonderful. I said “How old is he?” he said “12”! We're not booking a 12 year old! We waited til he grew up, he was 14 I think! He blew us away. We did a dirty trick on him, his father has to come, he came to all his gigs, he couldn’t drive, he was too young, and, at the end of every gig, David Gasson was our treasurer, has an envelope with all of the £10 notes in it as per the contract. And he was going to give it to the Dad and he thought “No, the kids got to learn the business. I’ll give it to the kid”. So he had to sit there and work out who gets what for who… I mean the business can take over from the music I know, but the business is important to the music as well. You have to eat.
Yes that's right. I’s quite hard to find a musician, particularly a good Jazz musician, that’s a good businessman and I'm a good example of that! We have trouble putting the right shoes on the right foot!
I'm an academic, I have the same trouble.
That’s true of academics, I know.
Two academics in a room, three opinions!
But it is true, there's a lot of young bands around at the moment, I mean recording artists as well, so there’s that whole movement, what do they call it? Punk-Jazz or whatever they call it, Empirical and bands like that.
Empirical are stunning.
All young people.
And the group that Ingrid Laubrock plays with ‘Fire’, that's not their proper name but very dark stuff.
That's not The Fire Collective is it?
The Fire Collective, that's it, thank you.
Yes dark stuff indeed, very state of the art.
Well she's a stunning player. First time I saw her coming up the stairs, she's there a little bit early practising before I came to rig and there was this muscular tenor coming out, “Who are we having?”, and there’s this skinny girl but the power, immense power. And just people with personalities, Annie Whitehead we had.
Annie Whitehead, brilliant trombone player yes.
People who present. There’s an interesting thing, some musicians don’t present, they feel that they have no movement, no physical movement when they're playing and there doesn’t seem to be any expression on their faces and when someone else does an interesting thing, you know, usually an atrocious quote of some kind, most musicians would grin at them, or groan or do something, you know. You close your eyes and the playing is just stunning, I'm wondering about presentation, I guess…is it a ‘cool’ thing?
No, I don’t know. If I don’t see an expression when someone’s playing I don’t really understand it because it's coming out of you, it's an emotion and I just don’t get it. I'm not really…it's rare that I've not seen someone with expression when they're playing, I can think of one or two names but that's it.
Something like 50 years ago I was in Montreal and I saw Miles Davis and that was the ‘cool’ period, the suits with the elastic in, the perfectly fitting suits and very dark suits and ties, super-sharp. And he was playing with the back half to the audience with the mute in and he’s sitting playing away with the trumpet facing downwards and the mute dropped out. It would have been un-cool to pick it up so he continued to play without the mute, and that was funny because it was a funny thing to happen.
That’s a different side of cool isn't it, because that’s the thing where he knows damn well that what he’s playing is heavyweight stuff but he's showing that it's no effort, that’s that different side of cool, you know, that’s his way of going “Well yeah it's not a problem”. He’s doing the most incredible barrier-breaking stuff and he’s going “Yeah, it's alright, it’s no bother, it’s no effort”, you know that's the side of cool for Miles Davis isn't it.
It’s changed in the end, I mean the man changed the history of Jazz, what, 4 times?
Yes, he's always been hip to any movement with Jazz.