Sandy Brown Jazz

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Jazz On Eel Pie Island

 

Eel Pie Island Hotel 1952

 

Brian Hackett welcomes us to Eel Pie Island in this brief piece of film. His memory is of the 1960s and the music that was played there then - but the story starts much earlier.

 

 

 

Eel Pie Island in the river Thames at Twickenham was a musical mecca in the 1950s and 1960s. It is often referred to in relation to Rhythm and Blues, but Jazz was a key component of the music there for a time. The 'musical' part of the island centred on the Island's Hotel, sadly no longer there but you can see it in the above photograph.

Twickenham, at one time in Middlesex, is now part of the London Borough of Richmond. It is just over four miles from Hampton Court Palace by road and around ten miles by river.

In the 1920s and 1930s the hotel hosted ballroom dancing but it was in 1956 that trumpeter Brian Rutland, who ran a local band called The Grove Jazz Band, started jazz sessions at the newly reopened hotel. Sometime afterwards Arthur Chisnall took over the running of the club and continued to promote various jazz bands and then in the 1960s Rock and R&B groups became more prominent.

 

The Grove Jazz Band 1956

Brian Rutland's Grove Jazz Band in 1956.

Brian Hannigan (piano), Peter Cohen (trombone), Richard Baker (banjo), Jim Abbiss (drums), Brian Rutland (trumpet), Mike Atterberry (clarinet).

Photograph courtesy of Brian Rutland.

 

Eel Pie Island had a 'reputation' and has been described as 'infamous' as well as 'famous'. For many parents, including my own, it was a 'no go area' as they were concerned about stories of drink and drugs. Others went despite their parents' concerns, and of course many jazz musicians played there. Until 1957 the only access to the island was by a hand-operated ferry that was hauled across using a chain on the riverbed and getting instruments and other kit across was cumbersome. It must have been equally diffucult for dance bands in the '20s and '30s. In 1957 a footbridge was built and apart from boats, that remains the only access to the island. As one person has said: 'There are two types of people: those who live on the island who don't want a car outside their door, and other people who choose not to live there because they do'. It seems as though some musicians' smaller cars squeezed across the footbridge as reeds player Brian Hills says: 'I remember Eel Pie Island well - very narrow bridge one could only just drive over to get to the club - if you had a smallish narrow car - Austin seven would do!'.

 

 

Clinging To A Mudflat

 

Twickenham, at one time in Middlesex, is now part of the London Borough of Richmond. It is just over four miles from Hampton Court Palace by road and about ten miles by river.

 

Eel pie

 

 

Dan Van Der Vat and Michele Whitby's book about Eel Pie Island, published by Frances Lincoln Ltd (click here) tells us:

'Eel Pie Island is the only inhabited island on the semi-tidal Thames. Its most famous contemporary resident, Trevor Baylis, OBE, inventor of the clockwork radio, has been heard to describe it (with some exaggeration) as "120 drunks clinging to a mudbank". Named for the favoured snack of Henry VIII, who was said to stop here on his way to and from Windsor ... in the middle of the twentieth century it was a venue for jazz and later English R&B groups, where the likes of Chris Barber or George Melly, and then the Rolling Stones or Rod Stewart, performed in the dance hall of the hotel. A surprising number of people all over Britain and beyond remember Eel Pie Island and its gigs - usually with a nostalgic smile.'

 

 

 

It is easy to forget that this is the largest inhabited island on the Thames and that it has about 50 houses with 120 inhabitants. It has a number of boatyards, businesses and artist studios as well as residential properties. The island's history has seen boatyards, studios and the hotel destroyed by fire at various times.

 

Trombone player Mel Henry remembers Eel Pie Island:

'Eel Pie Island brings back memories. I played there in the '50s - with the University College Jazz Band (only one of us actually went to U.C.). In those days, we had to get there on the chain ferry (no bridge). Our drummer lost some of his kit on the journey - not a good start. Then the piano in the old hotel was right in the crack - our pianist just sat in front of it all evening without playing a note. Finally, the landlord refused to pay us because of no piano player. The raucous crowd couldn't have cared less, even if none of us played a note! Much later, I was a G.P. in the area and one of my patients was a cello maker - lovely guy - he had a workshop on the island until it burnt down in a big fire in about 1990.'

The impressive dance floor at the hotel was presumably constructed for the early 1920s and 1930s dances but remained a highlight for later years. Craig Sams says: 'I remember seeing the Temperance Seven there in 1961 or 1962.  The maple sprung dance floor was ideal for skip jiving.  It gently heaved and dropped on every beat, ensuring that everyone danced on the beat, regardless of how good they otherwise were at dancing in time to music.  Just standing on it was enough to get you going. My memories of Eel Pie Island are a bit fuzzy, but no doubt other respondents will remember if the cost of crossing the bridge was 2d or 3d'.

Others remember paying 2d to a lady in a booth by the bridge, and Brian Hills says: 'Everyone attending had to have their wrist stamped with a blue ink stamp to say you had paid to get in!  I remember a silly pun - when one band member was winding up the amp volume and said 'Howzat?', the reply was 'Oh, that'll be ample'.

 

Eel Pie Island stage

 

This photograph of the stage at Eel Pie Island hotel courtesy of the Eel Pie Island Museum
might well bring back memories for some.

 

Bassist Ron Drakeford sets the scene in those early days before the footbridge was built:

'The place was nearly always packed, and as it used to be a hotel, there were other rooms where the punters would lounge, drink, chat and indulge in who knows what. Not particularly elegant, but neither was the clientele! I would reckon about a good 200+ on a good night in attendance. If you can recall a school hall during assembly with wall to wall pupils then that  was a similar picture, but at least 50% bigger. Try going from the bar side to the other side with a pint and not spilling any! The trick was to get a pint and drink half at the bar!'

'The  dance floor was definitely sprung and with all the jivers in full swing you could not only feel the rise and fall, but see it too! Never knew of any rot or failures on the floor. Rather think Ron Rubin's bass incident happened on stage (see below). I certainly never had any such problems with the stage. Outside seemed to have as many  people as inside during summer evenings and the lush bushes hid who knows what activities! The last trolley bus back to Hampton Court left at around 11pm so there was usually a bit of a rush to catch it (along with other buses of course ending around the same time). Prior to the bridge it was therefore essential to get at the front of the queue for the ferry. Unfortunately those  at the front of the queue were at risk from the crowd rushing for the ferry. A slight nudge from the back meant everyone jumped down one step  and those at the front would be on the bottom steps which were inevitably submerged. A bit of a domino effect. I never encountered or witnessed any trouble during my excursions to the Island despite it's somewhat undeserved reputation. It really was the place to be for a rave'.

 

Opening Night Eel Pie Island

 

Opening Night At Eel Pie Island.

L-R: Peter Cowan (trombone); Brian Rutland (trumpet); Norman Gamer (clarinet); Jim Abiss (drums); Brian Godding (banjo); Brian Hannigan (piano).

Photograph courtesy of Brian Rutland.

 

Brian Rutland's was the first jazz band to play at Eel Pie Island and I am grateful to him for sending us these images and a copy of a letter he wrote to the Richmond Informer in 2007 in which he wrote:

'When my band, at the time called The Grove Jazz Band, started sessions at the Eel Pie Hotel in the mid-50s, we brought with us from the Barmy Arms a substantial following of young fans. Art students, university and law students, apprentices, young people from the fashion, acting, newspaper and advertising sectors - there was a really mixed and cosmopolitan cross section of the youth of the day. Arriving on the first night to start playing, we found the ballroom, which had not been in use for many years, full of broken chairs, tables and armchairs in various states of disrepair. Wallpaper was hanging off the walls, the place was covered in cobwebs and there were ladders everywhere. Before we could start playing we had to spend time cleaning up to make room for the band and the dancers. Most clubs depend for their success on the venue and the ambience created within, as well as the musicians and the mix of people attending. Eel Pie Island certainly had all these the ingredients and could hardly fail to be a success.

Now in 2017, Brian's band is still playing by the river at the Tattershall Castle on London's Victoria Embankment. Brian Rutland (trumpet), Roy Williams (trombone), Al Nicholls (tenor sax), Ted Beament (piano), Dave O'Brien (bass) and Denis Smith ( drums). Brian says: 'Amazingly there are still a number of folk that come to these sessions who were at the opening night at Eel Pie. Hardy bunch these Islanders!'

 

Opening Night Eel Pie Island

 

 

 

 

Opening night at Eel Pie Island.

'Most of the crowd had followed the band over from the Barmy Arms pub'.

Photograph courtesy of Brian Rutland.

 

 

 

 

 

Banjo player Don Coe points us to a comprehensive listing of bands who played on the Island from 1956 to 1970s click here '.... among whom, of course, was Sandy Brown. (Plus me with Bill Brunskill, The Jubilee JazzBand, Mole Benn, Ian Bell and a few others I cannot recall!' says Don.

You can see from this informative listing how the music began to change around October 1962 when the programme begins to feature Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers; Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages and the Rolling Stones. In 1967, jazz was still played but was a much smaller part of the programme and by 1968, it had virtually disappeared from the listings.

In 1967, the Rank Organisation made this nine minute film about Eel Pie Island. It features the Brian Green Jazz Band and you can get a very good idea of the dance hall, the atmosphere and number of people attending. The film looks at the Hotel's questionable reputation and introduces a positive side that grew from Arthur Chisnell's approach and the nature of the community that went there for the music.

 

 

 

 

 

Ron Drakeford adds:

'Much is a matter of record vis a vis the traditional jazz played by the "professional" tour bands at Eel Pie Island on a Saturday - Colyer, Bilk, Lightfoot, Charlesworth etc., but not much is recorded about the Sunday sessions where the Riverside Jazzband were in residence (I wonder how they came by that name?!). The band was a semi-professional outfit, some may have called them 'amateur'.The group was managed by John Mortimer and led by Alan Cresswell (Creswell?) on clarinet. Sometime around 1960 the two of them decided that there was little progress being made musically and the trumpet player and trombone player were asked to step down. John Rodber was playing bass and probably sensing some turmoil, decided to take a sabbatical. I believe Dave Evans was playing drums and he also voluntarily stood down. This left a bit of a duo of clarinet and banjo, so other musicians were sought to fill the breach. Step forward the Canal Street Jazzmen! Mick Hill on trombone, Dave Preece on Drums and myself on bass. AEel Pie Island competent trumpet player was  sourced elsewhere. Apart from the trumpet player the other players from the Canal Street band were supposed to be temporary until replacements could be found. So the new "Riversiders" emerged without missing a Sunday gig. I stayed for about 6 months until Rodber came back, but Hill and Preece left the Canal Street band and permanently joined the  Riversiders. The band was well received mainly because it generated audience participation and the crowd felt part of the whole experience, so it was about  entertainment as well as jazz. All carried off with a laugh and a joke, mostly off the cuff. The band, well manager John Mortimer in cahoots with Cresswell, conspired to fix the Melody Maker Annual poll of 'best musicians'. I don't remember how they managed it, but they must have had access to a lot of Melody Maker copies and "bribed" the Sunday night crowd somehow. Needless to say the Riverside Jazzband members came among the top  musicians. Vote rigging without the internet no less!'

Various projects have taken place in recent years to research the story of Eel Pie Island. Over the summer and autumn of 2013, Aurora Metro Arts and Media, in association with Arts Richmond and the Eel Pie Club, produced a major arts and education project The Eel Pie Island Music Project about the extraordinary music history of Eel Pie Island in Twickenham (click here).  The project quotes Rod Stewart from his autobiography saying: “When you dressed up in your finery and carefully arranged your hair and set off for Eel Pie Island, you had that palm-tingling sense you were heading somewhere truly exotic…the place was its own country…a fantastically exciting destination, and the place where I really began to understand the power of rhythm and blues, when it’s done right.”

But as time went by, the condition of the building deteriorated. Pianist and bass player Ron Rubin recalls the point of his double bass disappearing through the floor. In 1967 the Hotel was forced to close as the owner was unable to meet the cost of repairs demanded by the police.  In 1969, it briefly opened as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden with bands such as Black Sabbath, The Eel Pie Island tean towelEdgar Broughton Band, Stray, Atomic Rooster, Genesis and Hawkwind. It eventually became a squat and then in 1971, it burnt down ‘under suspicious circumstances’.

 

 

2017 saw the launch of a new documentary about the Island, Clinging To A Mudflat. The documentary film is an oral history that looks at all aspects of the island's story from interviews with residents and others and with archive pictures and footage. It has been produced by digital:works with sponsorship from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Richmond Civic Pride. digital:works is a charitable organisation run by Matthew Rosenberg and Sav Kyriacou. They say: 'digital:works is an arts and educational charity that works with communities, providing training and creative assistance to produce arts and media projects. We are committed to a participatory approach ensuring that those we work with have a major say in the direction of any given project. Creative arts are an exciting way for people of all ages and backgrounds to engage with and learn about a subject or issue.'

In this instance they have also worked closely with curator Michele Whitby at Eel Pie Island Museum. The Museum sells a number of commemorative products to help raise funds - their commemorative tea towel is a good idea and a way of supporting their work.

 

 

 

Watch the film Clinging To A Mudflat. This fascinating documentary film of just under an hour is also available on DVD from the Museum. The middle section of the film deals with the music. The DVD only includes fragments of the interviews that took place, but you can listen to any of them in full if you click here.

 


We should like to add to this page any other stories or memories people might have of Jazz on Eel Pie Island. Whether you played there or went there to hear the music - please contact us.

 

 

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Other pages you might find of interest :

Kingston Jazz
Wood Green Jazz Club
Tracks Unwrapped
Photographic Memories
Name That Tune

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