The Stafford Jazz Society – An Unfinished History

Stained glass plaque created by and presented to The Stafford Jazz Society by Barbara Hallam of Stained Glass Experience

The Stafford Jazz Society
(est. 1981)

The Gatehouse Years (1981-2005)

  • October 1981 – SBC Entertainments Officer Phil Brewin article in Express & Star invites jazz enthusiasts to a meeting at Gatehouse Theatre to consider forming a Stafford Jazz Club
  • October 1981 – Committee of Volunteers formed – Phil Brewin Chairs
  • November 1981 – Open Meeting – Steve Deakin appointed SJS Chairman
  • November 1981 – 1st SJS Committee Meeting
  • November 1981 – SJS joins Stafford District Arts Council
  • November 1981 – SJS first Draft Rules formulated
  • December 1981 – First jazz concert in the Gatehouse Cabin Studio Theatre
  • February 1982 – Maurice Simpson elected SJS Chairman
  • February 1982 – SJS Rules agreed
  • September 1982 – John Moore elected Chairman
  • September 1991 – SJS logo created by Frank Nichols – to be used on merchandise including lapel badges
  • September 1991 – SJS creates The Globetrotters Jazz Band
  • November 1991 – SJS 10th Anniversary
  • September 1992 – Ken Rattenbury composes an Under Milk Wood Jazz Suite. Performed at SJS with Nick Balmforth the Narrator
  • April 1993 – Ken Rattenbury composes Jazz Suite to Nick Balmforth’s book of 10 “Seascape” poems – performed at SJS with Nick
  • September 1993 – Nat Gonella awarded Life-Membership of SJS
  • November 1995 – Nick Balmforth elected SJS Chairman
  • November 1995 – Ken Rattenbury elected SJS President
  • November 1996 – SJS Constitution agreed
  • November 1996 – SJS 15th Anniversary – Commemorative Mug
  • January 1997 – SJS Brolly Parades introduced by Gwen Kenyon
  • September 1998 – SJS wins Staffordshire Building Society Community Award
  • November 1998 – SJS Constitution amended
  • May 1999 – Ken Rattenbury Memorial Trophy for Band of the Year & John Moore Memorial Trophy for Musician of the Year introduced – first recipients: Chicago Teddy Bears Society Jazz Band & clarinettist Dunston Coulber
  • February 2001 – Memorial Concert to Ken Rattenbury raises £400 for Hospices in Stafford & Lichfield
  • March 2001 – SJS stages the 1st Staffordshire Youth Jazz Festival
  • March 2001 – SJS participates in 1st Stafford Music Festival
  • November 2001 – Mel Hill elected SJS President
  • November 2001 – Eric “Busker” Newton nominated “SJS Mascot”
  • November 2001 – SJS 20th Anniversary
  • January 2002 – SJS awarded £5,000 from the Awards for All Lottery Programme
  • January 2003 – Frank Nichols creates SJS Calendar with twelve hand-drawn portraits of musicians
  • May 2004 – SJS welcomes guests from Stafford Virginia USA

Stafford Rangers Social Club Years (2005-2014)

  • September 2005 – Concert venue changes to Stafford Rangers FC Social Club
  • November 2005 – Charity Concert for the New Orleans Musicians Appeal Fund raises £1,300+
  • November 2006 – SJS 25th Anniversary
  • December 2006 – Clive Weatherer MBE Memorial Trophy introduced for SJS Member of the Year – first recipient: Shirley Ollier
  • October 2009 – SJS Memorial Concert to reeds player Mike Turner, and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy sends message of tribute
  • November 2011 – SJS 30th Anniversary
  • December 2011 – Zenith Hot Stompers select SJS for final concert after 48 years
  • July 2012 – SJS new website launched
  • December 2013 – SJS joins Stafford Tourism Bureau
  • January 2014 – Ken Probert awarded Life Membership of SJS

The White Eagle Club Years (2014-Present)

  • December 2014 – Concert venue changes to the White Eagle (Polish) Club

1981 was an important year both for Stafford and for the Stafford Jazz Society.  Stafford’s Borough Hall, for so long the main administrative offices of the Stafford Borough Council became transformed into Stafford Gatehouse Theatre and Phil Brewin, the Council’s Entertainments Manager at that time, being a keen jazz fan, published a letter in the Express & Star newspaper inviting anyone interested in forming a local jazz club in Stafford to attend an Open Meeting called for the 14th October 1981. The very first Minute read as follows:

“Committee newly formed from volunteers at original open meeting 14.10.81 following local press invitation (e.g. Express & Star) to form a Jazz Society. Meeting chaired by Phil Brewin (Entertainments Manager for Stafford Borough Council who sparked off the idea of a local jazz club.”

Further planning meetings followed and some important decisions were taken:  the new organisation would be named The Stafford Jazz Society; the opening jazz night would be on 9th December 1981 and would feature Roy Williams supported by local jazz musicians; the Society would join the Stafford Arts Council and in the first “Rules” drafted for the Society its aim would be: “to promote and sustain an interest in jazz”.

That mission statement was later, in the Society’s first Constitution in 1996, to become:

“To promote and sustain an appreciation of jazz in all its forms in such ways as the Society through its Committee shall decide.”

Having succeeded in his objective to form a jazz club for Stafford, Phil Brewin stepped aside, was made an Honorary Member in recognition of his achievement, and Steve Deakin became the Society’s first Chairman.

Naturally enough, given these origins, the concert venue in those early years was, and for almost 25 years remained, the Gatehouse Theatre. At first its Cabin Studio Theatre was used, and then later the Globe Tavern.

I first joined the Society as its Publicity Officer in 1989 having been invited to take on this role by its then Chairman John Moore. The Society at that point was visibly struggling and I can well recall concerts at which the musicians outnumbered the audience. Around six Midlands-based bands played for the Society at that time but as more bands were invited, some of them well-known on the national jazz circuit, audiences quickly began to increase. To accommodate this growing support the Society moved into the larger Mountbatten Suite with its adjacent overspill Churchill Room. And for the Society’s occasional Jazz Festivals, even the main theatre stage was used.

The relationship between Stafford Jazz Society and the Gatehouse was and always will be special for it was in that building where the Society was founded and where for almost a quarter of a century, live jazz concerts brought a multitude of happy, lasting memories! So why you might ask, does the Society not use the Gatehouse Theatre now?

As with most things it came down to money and politics! During those years the Society had enjoyed many tangible benefits at the Gatehouse: free use of the theatre venue; free use of one of the theatre technicians to provide both sound-desk and technical support and free use of a theatre piano whenever it was needed. In 2005 this was all to change!

The prevailing Council as part of its budget strategy needed to generate income. As part of that process, Gatehouse Theatre hire costs were proposed for each of the Jazz Society’s previously free benefits. The two rooms would, under the incoming charges cost us £88/76 per week, the technician and sound-desk £78/20 per week and the use of the piano £28/85 per week!

By that token, the weekly charge to Stafford Jazz Society would escalate from zero to just a little short of £200 per week, and, spread over a typical concert season would amount to over £6,000!  My subsequent negotiations with Council Officers – I had been elected Chairman in 1995 – yielded what would have been but a very temporary respite.

The charges to be levied were viewed by the Committee as not only unaffordable they threatened the very future of the Society. The decision to relocate to another venue was sadly but inevitably taken. The Society moved to Stafford Rangers FC Social Club.

Why are the Society’s regular concerts held on Sunday lunchtimes? This has not always been the case. The 1981 Committee decided that concerts would be held on Wednesday nights and at some point after that, jazz night was changed to Thursdays. Records for that period suggest evening concerts struggled to attract sufficient audiences and at some point in the mid-80s the concerts moved to Sunday lunchtimes.

Although many people have helped to steer and support Stafford Jazz Society over the years special mention must be made of two gentlemen of distinction: John Moore who was the Society’s Chairman from 1982 to 1995 and well-known bandleader Ken Rattenbury MA who was its President from 1990 to 2001. Our Band of the Year and Musician of the Year annual awards commemorate the outstanding service and achievements of these two Stafford Jazz Society stalwarts.

John Moore & Ken Rattenbury

JSomeone else who deserves an accolade is Frank Nichols. Known to most as a highly talented reeds player, Frank is also a supremely gifted artist and graphic designer and when the Society was in need of a new logo to re-brand itself in the 1990s, it was Frank Nichols who created our unique saxophone shaped logo that has been so greatly admired by the wider jazz community.

He also painted our beloved portrait of Louis Armstrong so proudly displayed at our concerts.

Frank Nichols

Frank Nichols

In 1991 at my request Frank created an invitation traditional jazz band especially for the Society since at that time “trad jazz” was very under-represented

in our repertoire. As our venue was then the Gatehouse Theatre’s Globe Tavern I christened the band The Globetrotters Jazz Band and Frank quickly came up with a logo.

In 2003 he even created a Calendar for the Society with 12 hand-drawn portraits of some of our regular concert performers.

And no history of The Stafford Jazz Society would be complete without mentioning a British jazz legend, the late, great Nat Gonella who became a distinguished Life Member. Whenever I brought him to Stafford from his retirement home in Gosport he delighted both bands and audiences when he sang.

The Society is very proud and feels very privileged that he associated himself with us so closely during his retirement years.

Nat Gonella in full flow watched by an admiring Mel Hill (who became SJS President in 2001) & in 1996 receiving a Stafford Jazz Society 15th Anniversary Mug at his Gosport home from Nick Balmforth.

Mel Hill (shown above) who has done so much for jazz in this region and beyond, both as musician, band leader and as a jazz presenter for the BBC, was elected SJS President in 2001 following the death of Ken Rattenbury and he continues to be our figurehead to this day. When Mel retired from leading the front line of the Old Fashioned Love Band at a Stafford Concert in February 2014 he was presented with a Celebration Cake bearing his own portrait to mark the occasion.

Mel Hill

Moving fast forward to 2014 – our next change of concert venue, to the White Eagle Club, was not anticipated. The Society was not looking to relocate at that time although there had been some expressed concerns about our venue. The move came as the result of an invitation by the Stafford & District Polish Association following a Presentation I gave about Stafford Jazz Society to the Stafford Tourism Bureau earlier that year.

The invitation certainly resonated with our Committee and subsequently bore fruit for this reason: Stafford Rangers Football Club had suffered successive relegations in non-league football; there had been recurring  front-page stories in the local press about the Club’s financial difficulties and its uncertain future and against that background the Society’s long term future at that venue had seemed to the Committee to be shrouded in doubt.

By contrast, the White Eagle Club was deemed to offer more modern, inviting and spacious facilities, to be more accessible by public transport and, importantly, to have a more sustainable future. Negotiations successfully completed, the decision to relocate was unanimous. 

Over the years Stafford Jazz Society has received generous financial support from: Stafford District Arts CouncilStafford Borough Council Arts Development;  Staffordshire County Council Arts & Museums Service; Staffordshire Building Society; the Awards for All Lottery Programme; the Staffordshire County Council Local Members Initiative Scheme and from a number of local industries and private benefactors.

Among these was Clive Weatherer MBE, a blind Stafford businessman who loved jazz and who had been both a Member and a Committee Member for most of the Society’s existence.

 We commemorate his memory with the Member of the Year Award Trophy presented each year at our Christmas Concert.

Clive Weatherer MBE with his Guide Dog “Falstaff”

CHistorically, and to this present day the Society has been pleased to enter into partnership with the Council and with other organisations to provide: Jazz in Stafford’s Victoria Park, Jazz at Stafford Castle, Jazz in Stafford Town Centre, Jazz Gospel Services at Stafford’s St. Mary’s Church, Jazz & Poetry Concerts and Jazz in Stafford’s Annual Music Festival.

In an email to the Society, the Chairman of Stafford District Arts Council applauded the Society in the following terms:

“I am very impressed …… The Jazz Society is one of the most successful local arts groups and an asset to Stafford.” Andrew Baker (February 2014)

Certainly over the years Stafford Jazz Society can be proud of some notable achievements. Here are just four:

·      In 1998 the Society was a Winner of the Staffordshire Building Society’s Community Award and was presented with a Commemorative Shield to mark that achievement. 

·      From 2001 to 2009 the Society, thanks very largely to John Ollier, organised an annual Staffordshire Youth Jazz Festival for students at the county’s schools, colleges and music centres giving valuable performance experience to rising musical talents.

·      In 2005, following the devastation caused in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina the Society’s Charity Concert in aid of the New Orleans Musicians Appeal Fund  raised, with the generosity of some of our regular jazz bands, a little over £1,300!

·      In 2003 the Society received an “Audience of the Decade” Award from that popular jazz band The Antique Six. The Society has always had appreciative, listening audiences and musicians enjoy the respect shown to them.

In its concert programming since 1981 Stafford Jazz Society has been pleased to feature foreign bands & musicians from the USA, Holland, Russia, Sweden and Australia.

Jazz is truly a genre of music that knows no national boundaries and it has been good to “go international” when the opportunity has arisen to include in our programme visiting bands and musicians from abroad.

To conclude: Stafford Jazz Society is probably one of the oldest jazz clubs in the country, having been presenting live jazz concerts continuously now for over 30 years.

During that time many other jazz clubs have fallen but not only are we surviving we are deemed by both our audiences and musicians alike to be thriving!  I often say we are a “preservation society keeping alive an endangered species of music” – long may we continue to do so!

I hope this short, unfinished history gives both an appreciation and an understanding of our roots, and does some justice to our milestones and our achievements. And I hope you continue to support Stafford Jazz Society so that yet more chapters can be added to its proud history and, most importantly, may we all continue to keep live jazz alive in Stafford!

March 2015                     


To me the best tonic
For ills great and small
Is to spend a few hours
At a hot Jazz Band Ball
For those moments in life
When I’ve had some regrets
I’ve been quickly cheered up
By jazz clarinets
There’ve been days in the past
When I’ve had quite a moan
But that’s soon disappeared
With a tailgate trombone
When life seems a chore
And brimming with woe
It can vanish apace
With a Dixie banjo
And when down in the dumps
And long in the face
A smile soon appears
At the sound of a bass
There’ve also been times
When I’ve felt quite forlorn
But my spirits leapt up
To the trill of a horn
When come those sad moments
And life feels quite glum
The old feet start tapping
To the beat of a drum
And on those occasions
When tempers wear thin
Bad moods are transformed
By a jazz violin
Add saxes and keyboard
A sousa or two
And the whole joint starts jumping
It’s a hullabaloo
Yes jazz is my tonic
More than fortune or wealth
It should be prescribed
On the National Health

Nick Balmforth