Peter ‘Ponjo’ Morris
Bass player, keyboard player, leader of Ponjo's Stompers and jazz festival organiser.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
Interview Text or Transcript
So you’re a bass player Peter?
So you’re a bass player Peter?
Yes, by accident.
Tell me about your beginnings then as a musician. What made you start?
Well, I got this lovely letter from the Queen in 1958 saying “Please come and join one of my Armed Services”, so, I thought, "Not a bad idea", so I went into the RAF and after a few weeks at a camp and living in a long barrack room with God knows how many others and one of the guys got posted and so he had to rush off and get himself go this other part of the country and he got his greatcoat on and all his uniform and backpack but he couldn’t find anywhere to put his guitar so in desperation he held it up and said “Anybody want to buy my guitar?” So I thought “Oh, that might be good fun”, so I said “I’ll give you a tenner for it Ricky”, so he said “Sold”!
That would have been a lot of money in 1958 you know, blimey!
I’ve still got that guitar, it’s in the room here somewhere. Um, but I couldn’t play it but I knew in the next barrack block there was a guy who played banjo in one of the top line Jazz bands of the day, so I thought he can teach me the three chord trick and then I’d be set – which he did, and that led to the formation of a little closet jazz band on the camp. I got my first professional job while I was still in the air force, and ended up a couple of years later in a band called Eddy Lancaster and His Hawaiian Serenaders. Eddy was a complete lunatic, made all his own equipment so he had a table covered in bare wires sparking all over the place, and foul (??) sticking up out of the surface of them and his wife used to turn up dressed in a grass hula hula skirt and gyrate unbelievably in front of us all. It was incredibly embarrassing but it was a baptism. And when I came out of the air force I was fortunate, I’d got married and ummm.
Were you living down here?
Are you Essex born and bred?
Yes, I was born in Woodford Green and I moved to Southend when I was 13, and I’ve lived here ever since, apart from being away on business.
Yes. And was Eddy Lancaster local as well?
No, this appalling charade all happened in Lincolnshire! It was just because I was stationed there and he was looking for a guitar player, so I thought "Oh well, I’ll get some experience here", and to my astonishment he actually paid me! So when I came out of the air force, which was 1961, after National Service, I was married and I had to get some serious money, so I became a tycoon, or as my wife says, 'a typhoon'! I was busy with that – and then one day somebody phoned me up and said “Are you busy on Saturday because I need a bass player?” – I wasn’t really a bass player at all, I was a rhythm guitar player. So I said I hadn’t played for years and they said “Well, we’re desperate.” So I said “Oh well, since you’ve put it so nicely I’ll come.” And this re-introduction to Jazz happened in …. ummm, I can’t remember the place…. It was up the A127 getting on for Woodford. There was a mental hospital there and that’s where it was. That was a good night – turned up at the address and found it was a mental hospital. And that started me off, and that band then wanted me to play with them always, but the trombone player, who was the leader of the band, and the trumpet player were always having arguments. The trombone player would go to the microphone and say “We’re going to play Chattanooga Choo Choo, or whatever it was and the trumpet player would say “Oh, I’m not playing that tonight" and so it didn’t last long, this band – it just broke up. And I picked up the musicians, some of them were reasonable people. I thought “ Well, I‘ll have my own band". So they say all say yes, they wanted to play, so I thought, "Well, I’d better find somewhere to play" and I went around hawking this band and an idea that Jazz, weekly Jazz…”
Was it New Orleans Jazz?
No, it wasn’t New Orleans, it was Dixieland. So the band went in there. I called the band the Lee Valley Stompers at the time. And we got picked up by an agent in London, Who said “You can’t go around with a name like that. You’ve got to find a better name.” So I said “Ok, how about Ponjo Stompers?” and he said “That’s marvellous. How’d you get the name like that?” And I said “That’s my kids who were about 5 or 6 years old, they call me Ponjo.” He said, “Why?” I said “Well, I did ask my little daughter and she said ‘We think it better that you do not know’.” So I’ve still no idea why they call me Ponjo but it’s a name that had a ring to it and it did me well. And then I started to think "Well, I’ll push this a bit further" and I got to the point where we were playing 10 gigs a week in Southend area and district. We were out every night - Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunch time as well.
Can you remember some of the venues Peter?
Yes, there was the Middleton Hotel…
Yeah… down the High Street.
Yes, in the High Street;, the Arms at Leigh. There was the Burrows Hotel – that’s a long time ago now! And a lot of other bands got the same idea. There was another pub in the High Street which is no longer there, practically opposite the Middleton, don’t remember the name of it!
Is it the London Hotel?
And there was of course the Victoria, right up on the Victoria Circus.That was a mystery tour of the drinking houses in Southend, accompanied by a Jazz band!
Yes, yes. So this is still the early 60’s is it?
Yeah, yeah this would be about 65… And a whole lot of other guys who were trying to find a way into music thought that this was a good idea so all of a sudden Jazz bands sprang up all over the place and my musicians, after telling me they wanted more gigs, then said “Aww, I don’t like ten a week, I just want three or four.” So, the wrong mentality. And so I just carried on with that. All this while I was looking at Cliff’s Pavilion and thinking, you know, that’s all going to waste. So Les Cullen was the manager, he was the guy that really got the whole place going after the war and it took me two years constantly nagging at him to get him to let me try and play in what is now the Maritime Room, it was just restaurant in those days. And he had to talk to somebody, councillor or other, and they decided to give me four Tuesday evenings to see how it went. And they were expecting forty people on the first Tuesday – which I thought they were being quite ambitious. Anyway, the place was flooded out and to cut a long story short, we passed that audition and then I was there for eleven years, twelve years, something like that.
Every week. And then I expanded that in doing the Trad Jazz on a Sunday, eventually got it onto a Sunday which was a much better day to be doing these things. And I expanded it to doing Lounge Jazz with a trio on Sunday lunchtimes. They were wonderful players.
What players did you have?
Well my mainstay was a chap who lived in………… Roy…..Roy, Roy – he’s dead now I’m afraid. A pianist who lived in Rochford. He could do anything. And I brought in guest artists, usually a singer, sometimes a drummer, and that ran for a long time was well. And then I expanded that into a Wednesday night when I organised a Country and Western night. In fact it got to the point that anything I wanted to put on there produced gold and crowds and it was quiet alarming! It got so popular that the Maritime Room as you see it now, is actually my invention! I got so big that they had to knock down a wall, a brick wall dividing the two rooms there.
Yes. And then they knocked back into what is the kitchen as well, so it became an enormous room. That was again my idea. Uhhh, I decided then that I would……. I had Hugh Rainey as the trumpet player to start with but Hugh didn’t have a wrist watch like the rest of us had – his wrist watch was always an hour and a half slow…
I just couldn’t tolerate him always turning up late so that’s when I decided against a trumpet player every night. So I brought in these guys who were just names on records really– at the time they’d never been in Southend and didn’t know what it was! I built up a large circuit – Ken Colyer, Monty Sunshine, Cy Laurie of course. Cy was a good friend. And I plucked guys like Mike Cotton out of Ackers band to play there now and again. And I found out a few years ago that the story was I only got these people down there because I used my influence with the Musicians Union. It was totally untrue. The Musicians Union had absolutely nothing to do with it! I was just interested in Southend so all these guys gradually managed to spread out and pull in players from overseas. Um, but you know as well as I do, there’s a thousand and one ways you can lose a gig. And the guy that was running the Maritime at that time, because by this time it had gone out to tender, and it was no longer the Council running it, said to me “I’m a bit worried about you because the Sunday nights”, when the place was absolutely heaving, and the people lining up on the stairs leading down to the Maritime, waiting for someone to come out so they can get in – it got quite an operation. He said, “We’re not taking as much money Sunday night as we do Sunday lunchtime when you’ve only got the trio. Do you know why that is?” I said “Yes I do. Sunday night is dark and Sunday lunchtime is light.” And he looked at me and said “Are you trying to tell me someone’s got their fingers in the till?” I said “Precisely, but it’s your business not mine” and he got really upset because he’d installed a cousin of his behind the bar and this was the guy that was fleecing him. We had a big row and he said “You’re insulting my family and I don’t want you here anymore”. So I said “Ok, you’ve got to give me four weeks’ notice”, and that’s when I moved to the Palace. I talked to Chris Dunham and did the same thing there again.”
Packed it silly again there?
Packed it silly yeah, yeah. It was ridiculous. Every Sunday night!
Because the theatre were dark in those days, wasn’t it?
Yes. What I wanted, when it was opened, was the Dixon Suite but there were staffing problems, and union problems and so the Dixon Suite didn’t come off, but the foyer did, and as you say it was packed. It was a smaller place than the Cliff’s Pavilion but it seemed to have just as many people in it. And even though they couldn’t get in the foyer, they all went into the little square at the back, out in the open. So that was fine, but then I lost that because again, jealousy – a couple of my own musicians in Southend who ran their own bands got onto Dunham, Chris Dunham, and told him it was not a good idea politically to have just one band - they ought to be giving the job to more than one band, and so he approached me and said “Well, I’m going to try this. I’m going to try you once a month.” And I said “I’m afraid you’re not. What I do is weekly or it’s done somewhere else. Monthly is not going to be any good to me, or you or the audience.” So we parted. And then I went down to the Esplanade. And I changed tack a bit in that I started putting on shows that were based on Jazz but they might be integrating theatre with actors and Jazz with the musicians and if it was Cole Porter’s birthday I used to do a little play about Cole Porter and his life with a few actors doing…
Did you? That’s interesting.
And that was where John Petters got his ideas from. He used to come down and watch and that’s when he went away and started doing theme nights. So I did that for quite a while but…. er…
Well, that became an institution, your Esplanade, didn’t it? Not that the other ones before, I mean, everyone talks about those because you had just about everybody there, didn’t you, guesting?
I did indeed, and it was lovely for people. Humphrey Lyttelton was on the stage and he was only ten yards from me. He was a lovely man, anybody that wanted to talk to him after the gig, or during the gig, he always had time for them, always the gentleman, there was never any problem with Humphrey at all. I had trouble with one local trumpet player. He used to argue about things and I’d say “Do as you’re told”. “But I don’t want to do that.” I’d say “It makes no difference what you want to do, you’re here to work, you’re not here to enjoy yourself. Enjoyment is purely subsidiary to the work. Now you do as you’re told!” And he said to me “I bet you don’t talk to Humphrey Lyttelton like that!” I said “I don’t have to, he does exactly what I ask him to do and no arguing.” And he did. They were all great, great guys. Well, I’ve been very fortunate in my life to meet and work with all these people and to have ideas in my head which became reality. But I became very ill in the latter part of the 80's/beginning of the 90’s and I had to stop doing everything. I was very ill. And in that time I started the Jazz Festival, which I kept going.
Where did you start that?
What a good question. Well, when did the bandstand fall down? Because that was the last year that I did and I did it for12 years. And I got across the main stumbling block running a Jazz festival those days which was VAT!! You get Kenny Balls lot down and they put VAT on top. All the big bands put VAT on top and I had no means of recovering it, and this is where the Council came in. I said to them “You book the big bands, you get the VAT back. I’ll take a percentage of the expected profits to run the free admission things". So this is how the High Street became the venue for maybe a dozen different bands.
That was down by the… where the Odeon is now, wasn’t it?
Well, it was the whole length of the High Street actually. It was actually on the Pier as well. I did a whole lot of concerts on the Pier, which were freezing and didn’t have the co-operation of the train drivers at all! They didn’t want these things going on, they wanted to go home. So there was quite a lot of friction. But I got it done, I got it done. And I spread the Jazz around to places like Priory Park, which had no music at all or anything – completely wasted space.
Yup, yup. And it works there doesn’t it. I’ve been to a few things there and it’s great. What a great place to have Jazz.
So I opened up a lot of venues in Southend, not just for Jazz but other music as well. And er, what’s his name - Dave Anton – have you come across Dave at all?
I know Dave from the Folk…
Well, he used to come down and watch me and that’s what provoked him to start his Folk thing at the Spread Eagle.
Wasn’t Dave running a folk night down Southchurch Road in the 70’s – the other end of, towards um, Thorpe Bay, that end of … he used to have a Folk club down there in the 70’s.
Did he? I didn’t know that.
Yeah, yeah. The Spread Eagle, my God, that was again, an institution, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. And of course another place I played was the place on the corner, the Blue Boar.
The Blue Boar, yeah. The Rafa Club.
The Blue Boar itself, not so much the Rafa Club?
Not so much the Rafa Club. The Blue Boar, yeah.
The Rafa Club didn’t have a bar in it, did it? You can’t have that with Trad Jazz, can you?
I was quite ashamed of that place having been in the RAF myself. It was such a dreadful, dreadful hole! Gave the whole service a bad name I thought.
Yes, I know, I know. They should be spick and span shouldn’t they, just like the people serving,
I did forget to ask by the way when did the Esplanade close for you?
Well it closed for everybody.
Oh, oh I see, yeah.
I don’t know if you want to publish this but some neighbours in Thorpeville Avenue…. They’re younger generation, started the…. Uh, uh…. Their parents bought the Esplanade. The younger generation moved in there and they started to do Rock as well.
Yeah, that’s right.
And they had an all-girl rock band in one night and these girls discovered that the mirror, it was a full length mirror, was a two-way mirror and all the blokes from the pub were standing on the other side of it watching them undress and dress. They complained to the police and the police and that was the end of that.
Oh, was it? I never knew that.
No. Well, that’s what happened.
So what kind of a…. because you started a … at the Esplanade in the late 60’s didn’t you?
No, 60’s I was still in Cliff’s Pavilion. 70’s…. running through …….. the Esplanade I would say at the tail end of the 70’s…. maybe the beginning of the 80’s.
Yeah, and then it closed? The mid-90’s I suppose, didn’t it?
Yes, something like that.
So you’ve just gone from one long residency to another, to another, to another.
To another and another …………
And in the meanwhile of course you’ve been playing left, right and centre everywhere else as well as the residencies because I’ve seen you God knows how many times not really at the British Legion… it could be all over the place.
I was very flattered because the Queen’s jubilee, not this latest one but the one before that, Rayleigh Council asked me if I’d like them to build me a bandstand in the middle of Rayleigh, to do a Jazz concert. It was absolutely jam packed with people. Wonderful. Now that was when I was doing concerts in Hadleigh Church, and the poor woman that ran it, Pam Stark, she took a lot of harassment from the congregation who said this is evil music and shouldn’t be played in a church And she countered that by saying “Why should the devil have all the best tunes”!
Ah well, it’s the classic expression, the classic… that’s right.
But it came to an end.
Let's talk about Dennis Field.
Dennis was my main trumpet player after I left the Cliff Pavilion … he’d been a guest trumpeter from time to time at the Cliffs. But I decided I’d have to travel around a bit and Dennis didn’t mind travelling and he had wonderful ideas. There was a kid in Romford too who was a wizard on the clarinet and although there was something like 50 years difference between Dennis’ age and this young clarinet player they just knew what each of them was going to do and they produced some wonderful stuff. But he got too big for his boots the young lad and he started slagging of what he called “old players” who should have gone to pasture long ago.
Do you remember what his name was?
Yes………….it’ll come to me and I said to him “You haven’t paid your dues, you aren’t entitled to criticise old players”. Dennis taught him an awful lot about it, Denis was always teaching him all the way through every gig giving him ideas, saying “This is why you do this, this is why you do that” and the kid was slagging him off behind his back. He was awful.
Isn’t that incredible.
A good friend of mine, who lives now up in Norfolk, runs a Jazz club up there and he had a clarinet player called Pete Neighbour. Well he lives in the States now with Julian Stringle.
I know Julian very well, he’s a friend of mine.
Well I took the two of them and did a night at the Palace Theatre with them doing, not Artie Shaw but the other one.
That’s it a Benny Goodman night and I just had the two of them and a back line and it went like mad and my friend up in Norfolk had Pete Neighbour over from the states on a visit here and he put him on at his Jazz club and Pete asked Nigel was I still working and Nigel said “Oh yes” he said “I owe everything to him because he gave us musicians a chance when nobody else would”. Several youngsters, young teenagers that I though showed promise, some of them only came up to do two or three numbers a night, but some of them I had all night long, most of them are still going. But that doesn’t go on anymore.
No it doesn’t, I mean you know George Tidiman's Trad Jazz session now, monthly Trad Jazz session is on a Monday afternoon isn’t it not an evening because he said that the crowd has got so old now that they’d rather go out in the daytime than the night.
That’s perfectly true.
It’s a shame.
They’re frightened to go out at night so they don’t go out at night. I’ve got to the point now where I’m older than the audience, whereas before then the audience were older than me and now I’m older than the audience.
How old are you?
74, coming up 75.
You’re young in comparison to some of the guys I’ve met who have been in the mid to late 80’s.
Yes, there was a baritone sax player, the instrument got too big and heavy for him to hold, what was his name now………and he went on playing into his 90’s.
Great. Well Lew Stone’s nephew, Horace Stone, who lives up in Hornchurch, he’s 93 and he still has his rehearsal band up there, still drums in there. It’s amazing isn’t it?
Yes, Ronny Fendo’s still going he was Joe Loss's head reed player for years and years and years but he played wonderful Jazz clarinet and the number of wind instruments the man plays is ridiculous, even down to oboes and cor anglais and things. There’s a lot of work in symphony orchestras still, brilliant musician. One of the most brilliant we had was Vic Wood.
Ah well there we are!
He could blow anybody off the stage.
Such a versatile musician, yeah I’ve used him before, amazing.
I used to do a duo with a guy doing old cockney songs, he played the trumpet the same and I played the keyboards the same and one year we got invited to play on Putney Bridge, on a pub on Putney Bridge called The Boat Race and he fell ill at the last minute and I phoned Vic up and I said “Do you fancy doing this Vic as a dep if you’ve got nothing to do” and he said “yeah”.
And, no rehearsal, he was telling jokes to the audience, he played everything right of the cuff, everything I asked him to play, absolutely brilliant. But there’s a funny story about him when I was at Palace. It was one of the nights that he was going to play trumpet and he was late and so was clogging it through Ashingdon and Rochford to get to the Palace and he got gunned down by the police who said “Where are you going sir? You going to maternity hospital perhaps?” and he said “No I’m late for a gig” and the policeman said “Well what do you do?” and he said “I play jazz trumpet”, he said “You’re not going to play with Ponjo are you?” and he said “Yes”, he said “Well you’d better hurry up, you’re very late”.
(Laughs) That’s great isn’t it.
That’s because the Palace was opposite Westcliff nick and they all used to come in from Westcliff nick.
(Laughs) That’s a great story isn’t it. So have you always just specialised in Dixieland Peter?
No it was an accident.
What I mean is, have you ever branched out into other forms of Jazz?
I played lounge Jazz, what was in the fifties and sixties Modern Jazz but isn’t modern anymore.
Old standards, I love old standards, I love the contruction of the music, I love the way people wrote proper lyrics that integrated with the music and made a complete product. Wonderful chord sequences and brilliant ideas for songs. So I did that.
So you never went down the Be Bop route at any point?
Not really no, we used to call that ooblie.
(Laughs) all that ooblie, ooblie music yeah.
I’m very fond of old cockney songs because the wisdom in them is amazing and they make you smile, make your feet move. A lot of people deride them but people like Bill Bailey (the comedian) like them just as much as I do.
They’re folk songs at the end of the day, you know, and one of my passions is Music Hall, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. Songs like 'Ouse's Inbetween', beautiful, beautiful old songs, very well written.
Yes, I think I did four or five years at the end of the pier as a.. doing solo with keyboards with old cockney songs. One of the funny things that happened there was, there was a commando unit somewhere in the area, one day a week they would go out on their dingy and they would end up at the end of the pier for a coffee and they would come and listen to me and sing away to all these silly cockney songs. Great hairy soldiers, back into their rubber dingy and off to shoot somebody. Always amused me.
Yeah (Laughs) They need their entertainment, you know.
So I’ve done a lot of different music. I was in a Skiffle group at one time, right back in the sixties, early sixties, a group called The Siberian Salt Sifters.
Salt Sifters? Right.
From the Siberian salt mines. When I went in the air force I went to the joint services language school and they taught me Russian and the other members of this group were in fact past and present Russian linguists in the air force and we still get together believe it or not. We have twice yearly dinner at the Union Jack Club in London and celebrated a couple of years ago our fiftieth anniversary which we had our luncheon in The Houses of Parliament, instead of the Club.
That’s great isn’t it?
But people like Mervyn King were in there, Paddy Ashdown was a linguist as well, enormous numbers of people, a couple were playwrights, it was a real …I was really fortunate, only five thousand people during the whole of the conflict during 1945 and through to the end of the cold war, only five thousand people all together were selected to do the intelligence work and to be trained and I met some wonderful people, tremendous minds, very lucky.
You didn’t sing any of the skiffle in Russian did you?
Yes, oh yes.
Did you? Oh great.
We used to sing a song called Katushka which is a.. only Russians could do a song like this.. it’s about a rocket launcher. Only the Russians.
Yeah, it’s great isn’t it? (Laughs)
We used to put on concert once a year and local school children, junior school, primary school kids used to come along and sing a few Russian songs. They didn’t know what they were singing, but they liked to be part of it, balalaikas going on behind them and me on the guitar.
How’s your Russian now?
Well, as I say, if you don’t use it you lose it, but now and again I get a chance to use it like when the send off comes onto the end of the pier and exchange a few words, yeah, otherwise I’ve lost it. Some of the guys got de-mobbed, went off and became translators but the money was appalling. I actually met a Russian emigrate jew who was living in Thorpe Bay and he was a concert cello player, a soloist and he also was under contract to Collins to write a Russian-English, English-Russian dictionary and I met him through his grand-daughter who asked me out to a dance which I couldn’t go to but she introduced me to her grand-father and so I came to collaborate with him on this Russian-English dictionary, but we only managed to get four volumes before he died. He was in his 90's and he was as sharp as a needle, but those four volumes ended up in the British Library and I was almost you know “I’ve got books in the British Library” (proud). Not something many people can say.
No, That’s incredible isn’t it? That’s amazing.
I’ve been very lucky in my life, I’ve more or less done exactly what I’ve wanted to do.
You’ve been too busy really, luckily, as a musician, you’ve not needed to take a secondary job at all.
Well, when I came out of the forces, I went into a bank who didn’t keep their promises so I got out of the bank and I ended up in a life insurance brokerage where I stayed for about a year, a year and a half, learning things and then I decided, “Well, this is an easy life. I’ll do this on my own. I don’t need all this”, so I started up on my own in Clifftown Road in Southend and I met a friend of mine that I met previously when he was in training and he had a brokerage in Ilford and he said to me “Do you fancy amalgamating with me, my brokerage and your brokerage and we’ll do the job properly? I said yes, so we did it and we were the biggest brokerage in the whole bloody country. We had 2,500 staff, outside sales staff, 250 admin. We ran a fleet of nearly 700 cars for all of them. Turning over, now this is 1970, we were turning over about £3million pounds a week, which is ludicrous money and I said to him one day, look, I said to him “David, we’re doing, selling stuff for Standard Life, Scottish Widows and all these other insurance companies, I think we’d be better off to make our own product so we would know exactly what our customers really need instead of trying to fit them into somebody else’s product” and he said “That’s a good idea. How do we do it?” I said “Well, best way is to buy an old insurance company that’s slumbering”, so I found such a one, they were based in Whitehall, they were Lord this and Lord that and the Earl of this what have you on the board and all they wanted was their beer and skittles and their monthly lunches, that’s all. They wanted £13million for this outfit so I went out and I raised £13million.
Yes, from venture capitalists, not from one but from a wide spread of them, and we were going to take this place over on the 1st of June. Pauline was getting a bit fed up with me being the high powered business man, never seeing me, the kids never saw me, I was always somewhere else in the country so she said, “We’re going to have a holiday abroad”. So we booked up this holiday and then this thing came up and I was due to go on the 1st June and I said “I can’t go abroad”. I rented a cottage on the Cornish coast for them, took them down there with the intention of coming back and starting at the insurance company, however, we just got down to Cornwall and she fell ill and I phoned a local doctor up, he came in and he said, “Where have you come from? Southend?” and I said “Yes”, “In a car?” I said “Yes” he said “Well she may be dead by the time we get an ambulance” so I just put her in the car and took her to Truro and they said she’d be dead in the morning which, bloody minded female, she never does as she’s told. The thing I’m coming to is during that time while I was away looking after Pauline and she was rehabilitating I left my partner in charge of things and he cleaned out the safe, sold all the securities so when I went back to work, there was no work to go back to.
God almighty, that’s incredible. He took millions and millions then?
Millions! But he would have had more had he waited until the end of June. He would have had a lot more but just cleared out so..
Was he ever caught?
I couldn’t find him. He used to spend weekends, Friday he would say “Well I’m off now” which meant to me that he was off to Cyprus for the weekend and he was going to come back on Monday. He was constantly doing this and I think he was feathering his nest at the time. Anyway, I couldn’t find him, he left a wife and four children, the youngest of which was about 6 months old, the tax man couldn’t find him, the fraud squad couldn’t find him – he just vanished off the face of the earth. Just after that there was a flare up again, in Cyprus where the Ochre and they were bombing each other and blowing each other up and I rather hope that he actually got caught up in that and that’s why we couldn’t find him, because he was no more.
Yes, all being well.
You see, this is what I was saying about there being a thousand and one ways of losing a gig: you think in business that you’ve covered every eventuality, that you’ve got it all sewn up, you know your partner, you know the people you’re working with, but the one thing I ignored was my partners incredibly scrawny, cross-eyed Irish secretary. I took no notice of her at all and she was the nicker in the wood pile.
Yes, he left his wife, took off with her, took the opportunity when I was not around. But I lost most of my money there because I paid all the staff that were married, all the married men, paid them out of my own funds and that’s what made me really ill and that’s why I had a big break from doing anything at all.
This was the late-80's then?
This was probably about 74, 75.
I’m surprised you didn’t have a nervous breakdown.
I did. Later. At the time I managed to escape without it, I’ve no idea how because of things that were going on, but I had a bad time sitting behind a locked door in the dark.
Yeah, how long was you out of the game for?
Well, the music was my salvation. I started again, by accident, somebody phoned me up and I went out to see what it was like and it was my salvation. I could lose myself in the music and not think of all these dreadful things that had gone on. My family suffered and they didn’t deserve to. It was all my fault. She told me “Don’t trust that man” I thought “Oh, it’s all right”.We never listen to our wives do we?
How on earth did you run such a powerful business as that and be gigging ten nights, ten sessions a week, how were you doing that?
Well that’s what she’s always said to me, “How did you not have a nervous breakdown earlier?” because when my money disappeared, I had loads of bills to pay and I had a very understanding Bank Manager who’d let me, or let my wife, run up a £10,000 overdraft without telling her. So all of a sudden he said “It would be nice to see some money in the bank Pete”. I thought “Well if I’m going to start again I want something that pays me cash, no cheques, commission accounts – cash. No partners. Nothing so big that I couldn’t have my finger on the pulse of every single part of it”, so I was running, apart from running the Jazz in Southend I was running Jazz in Bromley in Kent.
In a golf club there, and I started a wholesale leather wear business, which I was still doing a small amount of insurance, brokerage, some of my really old clients which I hadn’t put into the big melting pot, I kept separately, so I was doing four or five jobs anyway and worked it out I was actually working about 120 hours a week. Sometimes I’d go and do a gig and I’d come back 2 o’clock, go to bed, 4 o’clock I’d have to get myself ready and go to Ipswich and then it took its toll of me eventually, you can’t do that forever.
Did the breakdown come later?
It came at that time, when I was doing all these things and also doing MU business as well. But in between all that I was also (laughs) the Secretary of Southend Taxi Drivers Association. (Laughter)
Oh, why was that? You weren’t taxi driving as well were you surely?
I was yes.
Were you? Oh dear oh dear
I had three taxis.
Yes, all working on the OC circuit.
Oh, were you driving them yourself or you just employed?
One of them I shared with a guy who lives in Wakering. We used to do 24 hour shifts. We’d get in the car and drive it solidly for 24 hours – go to bed and the other one would take over, so, I don’t know how, in hindsight I’ve got no idea how I survived.
No, no, that’s a driven man isn’t it?
I changed the Taxi Drivers Association from a little Association into a limited company, did a lot of stuff, Goldie Clark was the taxi man down at the Council. Oh yes and I was also doing a journalism job at the time, I was writing articles for a bloke called Al Fresco, now that was really his name, Al Fresco. He did some motoring publication up in London and I used to give him articles, write about things.
God, that’s incredible, I can’t even........ my minds boggling how you managed to do all this. So you couldn’t say no to anything by the looks of things?
Well you know, if you can only do one thing in life well that’s what you do, but what do you do if you try something and it works and you try something else that works and everything you try works. How do you make a decision? You don’t.
No no, I see what you’re saying yes.
You don’t make a decision you just keep trying things, doing other things, so that’s really… I have a flair for organisation. I was very fortunate in that whatever I went to I could cut away the undergrowth and get back to the truth of the matter and then just work from there. Yeah I’ve been very lucky.
So you were talking about the Jazz festival earlier on that you were running for 11 years. So what happened to it in the end?
Well let’s see: I started my business with the council with Les Cullen, who was the manager at Cliffs Pavilion, then they brought in a chap and made him events manager, created a new post for him and I talked to him about a Jazz festival. “I think this town is a big town. I believe it’s the biggest town that is not a city, the biggest town in the whole country and we do nothing. Let’s get some culture going – Jazz festival” and he talked to a guy on the council. There were two doctors, father and son who were councillors at the time, I don’t remember their names but it was the father and he took up on the idea, said “Yes OK we’ll give you a trial”.
Oh that’s the maritime rooms we’re talking about?
Yes and that it let into talking to this chap who unfortunately committed suicide. He had a strange name but he committed suicide and he listened to me and we just tried the one which was a very scaled down affair. It was nothing like it progressed into being, it was then I wasn’t so interested in international Jazz, I was interested in Southend Jazz and giving the Southend Jazz musicians a platform where more people could see them, and therefore the Jazz itself would grow in the town more and so on. So the festival started off as being a festival for Southend Jazz and then I managed to get the Musicians Union to pump some money in by sweet talking them, but they had one condition which was fair enough, “If we give you any money for this festival you must only employ union members because we see no reason why the money you want, which reasonably has come from the members, should go to non-members and who should benefit from it”. So I could only put Musicians Union members in it and some people got upset about this like Kenny Baxter. He went berserk. But he was the father of the chapel in a print industry for goodness sake why was he so upset about Musicians Union, I never understood that anyway. I told him that “You’ve got to be MU members and then you can go in the festival but you can’t whilst they're giving me some money, while their giving me some funding”. Gradually I didn’t do any of their requirements any longer. I didn’t need them. The railways supported the lot. And then I did something else which I'd forgotten all about until this moment, and that was a national music day. I don’t know if you remember those do you? I think there were only two of them, but again I got the Musicians Union interested in this idea of young musicians getting a chance. It was two days long and it all happened at the Cliffs Pavilion and I put on something like twenty different bands each day. They didn’t all come from Southend, they came from Essex but they came along and of course if the kids came along to play the parents came along and the grandparents came along, but then all of a sudden the MU said “No. No more funding”. They owe me ten grand by the way.
Do they? The Musicians Union?
Yes, the Musicians Union, they didn’t pay me. I had the best recruitment rate in the whole country. A smallish branch but the recruitment rate was enormous. The district manager for this part of the world I said to him “I don’t really have time to recruit and put on events and do the silly returns you want every week. You never do anything with them, they go to head office and go on somebody’s desk and into the shredder and that’s that”. He said “Don’t do those reports. You do what you do best - recruiting and flying the flag”, but he got moved on, he got promotion and then I had trouble because I hadn’t done my return. They said “Ok, you tell us how you do your recruiting” so I said “Are you going to pay me for that?” and they said no. I said “Well that’s me. I recruit people into my companies and I recruit people into the MU. It’s not a difficult job, it just needs you to apply your brains to it, and by the way you owe me ten grand in wages you haven’t paid me”. And they wouldn’t give me the ten grand because I hadn’t done the returns, which was just “How many people have you got this month? How many people did you have last month?” Just figures, meaningless figures. So I lived in hope. I did get a letter once from the assistant secretary, that’s now the secretary. John Smith had said “We’ll pay you five thousand but in return we want you to come back and tell us how you recruited, and then we’ll talk about the other five thousand”. He didn’t pay me the five thousand. I didn’t expect it.
So why did you stop the Jazz festival?
The guy that was running it, Mike Pressling, was doing the council, but he had been almost from the beginning and so we had this working partnership which was fine. They signed up the VAT bands and recovered the VAT and I did the rest. Then Mike was retired and Chas Mumford took over. Do you know Chas?
He wasn’t too keen on me because I knew him when he was a 2nd assistant trainee bog cleaner there, when he left school. He said to me “Trad Jazz has had it”, so I said “It hasn’t, its alive and well”. He said “You're playing at the end of the pier aren’t you?” I said “Yes” and he said “The best place for you is ten miles further south from the end of the pier and take all you Traddy-fans, pals with you. That’s the place for Jazz” So he had no courage, then I found out, purely by chance from Kenny Baxter that Chas was going to run it that year. He didn’t tell me that he wanted to run it, it wasn’t his to run, it wasn’t the councils and Kenny was going to be his assistant. I knew immediately where the Jazz was going, going into a cul de sac because Chas already tried doing Jazz nights at the Cliffs, at the Maritime and it didn’t work, so I said “Oh yes, why do you think you got the say so to suddenly pinch this Jazz festival?” He said “Well its run too long. It needs a freshen up and I’ve taken over from Mike Presling and that’s the end of that”. So I though “Ok”, unbeknown to anyone else I made alternative plans with John Gaynor down at the bandstand to run an independent Jazz festival doing Trad, because the bandstand was always packed out, in fact we go a bigger crowd there one night, than the er, we were only the warm up band but the next band on was Kenny Ball and we got a bigger crowd (laughs)
How long did you run that alternative Jazz festival?
It didn’t, because the bloody bandstand fell down. I’d already tried to run something at the Westcliff Hotel. They were not interested because they couldn’t guarantee a regular day of the week because they wanted to put on their exhibition fairs there, antique fair, weddings and all the other things that they were doing and they didn’t want to run it on a Sunday night because they had guests who came in on a Sunday, wanting a good nights sleep and then went off into Southend to work on the Monday and didn’t want a noisy Jazz band. They were not at all cooperative. They didn’t want to know, so I just ran out really of ideas of where to put it on. Where do you put it on, if you put on the Cliffs Pavilion and the Palace Theatre whats left? The compromise. Better to cut and run while you're ahead I always thought. I met a couple the other day in the High Street and they stopped me and they said “Its Ponjo” and I said “Only if you’re not inland revenue”. (laughter) They shook my hand, “We met at one of your Sunday concerts. That’s why we met and why we got married”. So I said “Don’t blame me. I’m sure it was one of your ideas really”.
So you stopped promoting all together after the band stand fell?
I didn’t really count myself as a promoter. I encouraged, tried to help people up the ladder, helped Southend be what it should be. Really it’s a cultural desert now no matter what they say about 'a city of culture'. It makes me laugh that does. I did do a couple of festivals. Havering council wanted to have a go at it and they had a bloke there called Brian Ford and I cooperated with him and we put on a couple of festivals. It had a nice idea to make it a family picnic day, so the festival was held in the public park and people were encouraged to bring their food and deckchairs and make a family day. It had a mobile stage which was towed around by a tractor which I tried to buy from them when they stopped doing these things but they wanted too much money for it. So I did that for them, other than that I think I gave it a miss because I needed a rest really.
So your not playing any more then?
Yes I play. Oh yes. One of the things we used to do, Ponjo’s Stompers specialised in funerals and I got a job in North Fambridge at the Ferryboat Inn. When the owner died and he wanted a New Orleans funeral. Well not only was he the publican down at the Ferryboat Inn, North Fambridge he was also the ex-mayor of Barking, so it was a big big funeral and we had to go down there and play, then precede the cortege as it wound its way. I don’t know if you know North Fambridge, make its way through the village up to the T junction where they were going to go off to Chelmsford Cemetery. We had parked our cars up there so that we could just leap into our cars beat them to the cemetery and play at the gate. That was on a Fathers Day. I’m still doing the Fathers Days, did one this year. I've done fifteen on the trot, that’s the only Jazz they have there and the whole village turns out, people in surrounding neighbourhoods will turn out, people sit on the riverbank. Last year there was no Father’s Day because when the publican died his daughter took over and his son in law. The son in law died and the daughter continued to run it. She died and her brother took over but couldn’t find any reason why he should be a publican, didn’t like it so they sold it. The new people that came in just brushed over Father’s Day but towards the end of the year they contacted me and said that they were fed up with the locals saying “Why is there no Jazz band on Father’s Day”, so he decided to try it again, which was this year, and it was mobbed again. So yes still do things like that, exhibitions like the ideal home exhibition, did that at Earls Court and then in Glasgow, very few public performances though because you can’t get a sensible amount of money.
So you do more kind of corporate events and things?
Weddings sometimes, although I hate weddings. I try not to do them because invariably nine out of ten weddings get cancelled before the day. But private parties and things like that.
You must be the only Jazz group doing that I would have thought, had the idea to get into the corporate world. Very good idea?
I was fortunate I managed to blag my way into a couple of agencies.
Fantastic. Well you’re a great businessman obviously, great thinking. It’s better than scrapping around for bloody fifty quid isn’t it?
I feel that it’s an insult to offer a musician fifty quid. I know some of them go up for twenty five and it doesn’t even cover the petrol.
It’s an absolute insult isn’t it and it will never get better until they stop doing it.
I remember one gig I was quoting for and the guy said to me “Ooh no, I can’t pay that. I can get Eggy Ley for less than that”, I said of course you can. That was the end of that conversation. (prolonged laughter) . Eggy was a bastard you know, he used to follow me around and pinch gigs from under me, offer them less money to do the gig. Him and Lara. Even one of my own band, I’d been negotiating with these people for a regular thing and then they said no, and I said “Oh I thought we were close to an agreement?” and they said “Yes but we’ve got someone nowhere near as expensive as you”. I said, “As a matter of interest who is it?” and it was one of the members of my band. One of the original Ponjo’s Stompers, and I thought, “Well to hell with you. I’m not breaking my neck again”.
That’s incredible isn’t it What’s wrong with people, I’ve never understood that mentality have you, just for the sake of a gig?
No. I’ve quoted for gigs that I know other people have quoted for but I’ve quoted what I wanted, I've never quoted less than what I thought he was asking.
Yeah that’s a good point. Because you should just say “This is what I want”, you’ve got to get what you want haven’t you.
I know the guys I want and it’s rather like managing a football club, which is something I've also done in my life.
Here we go....... (laughs)
It’s not necessarily the good players that are going to give you a good result. You’ve got to have players that will work with each other and quite often the best players. I’ve had two or three instances where a really good player I can’t use because of their... um..... they upset everybody.
I understand exactly what you mean. You said you’d done some television?
Yeah, yeah I started off in radio when we were down the Cliffs Pavilion, Radio 2's 'Friday Night Is music Night' and they were coming down to Southend and they wanted to put my band on in the interval between two halves of the symphony concert, and it so happened that it coincided with the female aviators death, the one that went down in the estuary here, Amy Johnson, so I’d already worked out a programme about Amy Johnson. So we ran that through and they played it and we also did a thing for Essex Radio and Eddie Blackwell. That was such a disaster. It was George Gershwin’s anniversary and I happened to meet Eddie and he said “What are you doing?” and I said “I’m going to put this programme on for George Gershwin’s birthday”. He said “Can we come and record it?” I said “Yes, it’s only a question of money”. He came down and he wanted to be the compere and do the script about George Gershwin between numbers. At the time I was being badgered by the publican of the Captain Mannering pub in Shoebury. He wanted me to put something on there. I said to Eddie “How would it be if we put this thing on at Captain Mannerings? Would you have enough room for recording?” and he said it was no problem. So we get down there, there’s all these big outside broadcast vans wires all over the place and I said “Well Eddie I’m sorry you haven’t had a chance to read the script, here it is”, and he said to me “I’m not going to do this”, so I asked him why and he said “You're using language that I would never use”. I said “Busk it. You’ve got the bare bones, busk it”. “No you’ll have to do it” he said. So I thought “Well this is all I need. I’m band leader, I’ve written all the arrangements, written the bloody script, I’ve got to be the narrator as well. How many more jobs have I got to do?” We were just about to play the first number when the police and the council walk through the door and said “STOP, no licence”. You assume people have got a certain amount of brain, but to have this concert constantly flagged up on Essex Radio at every opportunity and to expect to put it on without a music licence, you’ve got to be out of your mind. Also they insisted on using their grand piano. They had a grand piano and I found out it wouldn’t stay in tune, so I had to employ a piano tuner to tune it at the end of every number. In the end they let us put it on, the place was mobbed, people all along the road and outside. Where was I? I got side tracked again...... yes television. I can’t remember what the first time was but I think it was the television ITV station from Kent, TV Southern, no Meridian. They came over here and they wanted to film the band and do all sorts of things which they did and they went away and that provoked Anglia to contact me and they wanted to do, wanted the band to ship up to Stansted airport. They wouldn’t pay any money, not a penny so I said “No you’ve got no chance. Why would I do that?” They said “For the kudos”, and I said “Excuse me, I thought I heard you say you were Anglian TV. Kudos? What kudos?” (laughter) Then I used to do a cabaret act in the west end at a theatre restaurant and that became 1920’s music. That became very popular with American tourists and that resulted in the American television company coming down and filming a whole programme taking it back and televising it in America. I had a singer and she wanted some new publicity photographs which she was scared to go up on her own to London on her own so I I ran her up to London and she had this photographer somewhere near Broad Street. The photographer reminded me of Tony Hancock, one of his sketches when he was talking about a hairdresser and he said he was all corduroys and blow waves, that was like this photographer, and he was all corduroys and I was rather wary of him. He decided to photograph me because he had a problem fulfilling a contract for seed that he was supposed to promote during a farming programme in Germany, so he photographed just my hands and arms and that resulted in German television coming over and filming me, nothing to do with Jazz, so I became the star of the seed advert in Germany! The BBC have filmed me quite often and I am told that I am in the film Essex Boys although I never got any money and I’ve never even seen the film but they said there was a scene which took part at the end of Southend Pier and they could hear me playing in the background. (laughter) And I did a Channel 4 breakfast programme because somehow or other, Chris Evans got hold of me and he had a pub in Hampstead and he took me down there to play at his pub, which was OK except he was doing a show called 'Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush' and the day I was playing at his blasted place at Hampstead he was recording that, which meant that when he’d finished that he used to come back to the pub and everything in the pub had to stop, including me, and we all had to sit docile in front of a huge television watching the programme which he had just recorded. That led me to a thing with Channel 4 which he was doing a breakfast show, so I did that. I can’t really remember what else I’ve done. Oh yes, Meridian wanted to do a big programme about me and the band stand, so we got it all arranged and John Gaynor down at the band stand got it arranged and the day before I was due to do this Anglia phoned me up and wanted to photograph me, film me with my double bass on the beach, so said “No I can’t do it because I’m contracted to Channel 4” “Never mind about them” they said, “dump them and come on the beach with us”. I said “No I’m not going to dump anybody”. The crafty buggers, I’d just started this programme at the band stand and I looked over at the gates and there’s a Anglian television crew at the gates filming me being filmed by Meridian. Cheeky bastards. So I announced it over the tannoy and John Gaynor went out and chased them off with many a sharp word. I don’t like Anglia, they want something for nothing all the damn time. So I did something else for Channel 4, oh a tragedy this one. They decided, that they were going to do the Queen’s birthday - a special programme, not Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother’s birthday, and they turned up at my front door at 10pm, “Can you come and do this television programme tomorrow, Queens birthday, the alternative Queen’s birthday?” So I said “Where are you going to do this?”, they said “Oh were going to do it somewhere in Shoebury. We’ll let you know”. So I said “Ok what have I got to do?”, “Just play the keyboard. We want you to do a song – Grandma We Love You”. Aah it should happen to me, so I said “Have you got a copy of this song as I haven’t?” so they gave me a copy of this song, one copy I had, so I ran through it at home. Next morning at 5am they phoned again and they were in some close on the Paynters Estate in Shoebury, and when I got there the place was full of outside broadcast stands and cables and they were knocking at the doors, it was 5am in this close and saying “Would you like us to do a television programme from your garden?”, and one girl said yes, so they run all these cables through the house into the back garden, then they introduced me to the choir, I said “Choir? What choir?”, “Oh the choir you’re going to accompany” (laughs) so they had an all-women’s choir, and I said “Do they know what they’re going to do?”, so they said “What do you mean?” “Well have they got music”, “No, no”, so I said “Have you asked them if they need music?” No,no, so I phoned poor Pauline up and said to her, “Come and collect this sheet of music will you and go and photocopy it?” I had a big photocopier at home so she ran off umpteen copies of this sheet. It was such a shambles, but there you go what else do you expect from Chris Evans. Just a shambles.