10 years of Dereham Jazz Society

DAVID WAKEFIELD It all began at a pub in the heart of Norfolk, and has survived two closures and three venues. David Wakefield reports on the 10 years of Dereham Jazz Society.


Running a jazz club in Norfolk could fairly be described as a high-risk strategy. Few have succeeded for any length of time - so, when I spotted, in the late 90s, some clues in the EDP listings that something good, jazz-wise, was going on in the heart of this fine county my eyes lit up.

The place in question was Toftwood and the name was Gerry Salisbury. How come as one of the best jazz musicians bred in these isles was playing in a Norfolk village pub?

I made further inquiries. The pub was the Millwrights Arms, and the club was the Millwrights Jazz Society. And, in its present guise as the Dereham Jazz Society, it celebrates its 10th anniversary next Wednesday (Oct 3) when Gerry makes a nostalgic return to play alongside guest saxophonist Alan Barnes.

His name may not mean much to today's readers, for Gerry Salisbury started plying his trade over 50 years ago in the boom days of traditional jazz. But I felt I knew him well, courtesy of George Melly's autobiographical episode Owning Up in which George wrote, almost lovingly, of Gerry's dry sense of humour and his superb trumpet playing. This was good enough, apparently, during Sunday morning jam sessions at the legendary Tally Ho pub in Kentish Town, to stop visiting Americans, even the great Coleman Hawkins, in their tracks to wonder “who the hell is this little guy?”

But here he was, living in Yaxham where the seeds of a jazz club were first sown. Along with Gerry, the other guiding lights were his Yaxham neighbour Donald Clarke, a tall, equally dry-humoured American writer, local mechanic Mick Biffen and drummer Don Brewer.

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How it all happened was slightly bizarre: But let Donald Clarke (whose works include the Penguin Guide To Popular Music, and biographies of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday) take up the story.

From his home in Des Moines, Iowa, he told me how he and Gerry lived across the road from each other, but had never met. Another neighbour was an insomniac who frequently asked Gerry, returning home late after a gig, to have a drink with him. During the course of one late night “conversation” he told Gerry about Donald - and the two became firm friends.

“Gerry and I spent happy hours together listening to records, swapping stories and looking things up in my reference books,” said Donald.

“Then Gerry and Mick got the idea to start a jazz club at the Millwrights. The beer there was pretty good. The landlord wasn't much of a music fan, but found the whole thing rather amusing.”

Despite Clarke's claims to have played little part in the running of the club, it was my conversation with him that prompted my first visit, and I was hooked. The guest that night was Johnny Barnes, a fine saxophonist who was one of a seemingly unlimited list of Gerry's old mates who came to Norfolk to play (the opening night guest on October 2, 1997, was Acker Bilk, no less, and others included Kenny Baker, Kenny Ball, Digby Fairweather, Diz Disley, Peter King and Ron Rendell).

Best of all, guests were treated to Gerry Salisbury's playing. He does not read music, but has an uncanny knack, as a jazzman, to construct the most glorious phrasing that supposedly more accomplished musicians can simply not manage. And, should any further proof of his ability be needed, then his impressive recording portfolio includes guest spots with Eric Clapton, Hawkwind and Van Der Graaf Generator - although this most modest of men seldom name-drops.

Gerry told me that many of those early guests were “very kind” to the club, financially speaking, and so money went steadily into the bank. Thus it was that more adventurous bookings could be made - one of whom was the veteran American pianist John Bunch (who has a holiday home in Norfolk).

Donald Clarke also speaks wistfully of visits by other Americans, some of whom were guests at his home: George Masso (trombone), guitarist/singer/humourist Marty Grosz (the Millwrights was packed that night), Warren Vaché, the stylish trumpeter, and tenor saxist Spike Robinson. The latter's visit was particularly poignant for Clarke, for both men were born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

At the other end of the scale, the club has always been willing to offer young players a platform. Trumpeters Simon Nelson (son of the club's present publicity man Richard Nelson) and Freddie Gavita (now a NYJO regular), teenage vibes wizard Lewis Wright, saxist Nik Carter, and my own tenor sax-playing son Matthew, a Leeds College of Music graduate, have been among those to strut their stuff on the club stage, and were treated with great kindness by the club organisers.

Times change, though. Clarke returned to America; and Gerry Salisbury played his final Millwrights gig in December 2000, prior to moving to Spain. But the club carried on under the control now of Mick Biffen, Neville Reason and Richard Nelson, with help from Fred and Jean Webbing and John Howes.

Then a huge blow: The Millwrights changed hands, jazz was no longer on the menu, and the final gig there was in September 2001.

The committee, though, decided that the club would not fold, and so a move was made to the Dereham FC Social Club at Aldiss Park in November 2001, and continued until last August when a licensing mix-up brought an abrupt end to proceedings.

This put the club in an alarming situation, with bands already booked for the rest of the year. But Norfolk singer Stella Goodey - whose gig with the John Benson Band would have been the next DJS event - discovered that the Lakeside Country Club, at nearby Lyng, was available, and so this “rescued” concert took place there on August 23, with well over 100 attending.

Everyone was delighted, not least the country club management, who promptly offered a Wednesday night spot, and DJS has been doing quite nicely, thank you.

That it continues to do so is due in no small way to people like Richard Nelson and the Webbings, who work extremely hard to book the right musicians and to keep the bank manager happy - often against a background of varying attendances.

October 3 not only marks the DJS 10th anniversary; it is also a big day for Donald Clarke, one of the men whose enthusiasm for the cause set things in motion. It happens to be his 67th birthday - and I would wager that the anniversary will make it a rather special one.

t The 10th anniversary concert on Wednesday is at Lakeside Country Club, Lyng, near Dereham, with Gerry Salisbury, Alan Barnes, and rhythm trio. Admission is £8. For further information, call Richard Nelson (01362 696741) or Fred Webbing (01328 863511).