Mart Rodger: The Maestro of the Clarinet
His lifelong interest in jazz was sparked, during the War, at the age of ten, by his eldest brother, Donald, a bomber pilot, who brought back a stack of Benny Goodman and Arty Shaw records from Canada.
The early 1950s were heady days, indeed, for the young asipring musician. Jazz was booming, Manchester was a hotbed of it and Mart was avid to hear it live as well as play it. Like so many local teenagers, at that time, he spent his Saturday nights squeezed in at the Grosvenor, on Deansgate, listening to The Saints, that enormously popular band from Ashton-under-Lyne, which remained a great force in British Jazz for many years.
On Sunday nights, he used to sneak out to the Clarendon, on Oxford Street, to hear Alan Hare and his Bluenote Jazzmen. ‘My parents thought I was going to church,’ he says roguishly, ‘but actually I was smuggling my clarinet under my coat and was off to sit in.’
He also attended concerts at the Holdworth Hall, where he saw some of the great names of the Trad Boom - among others, Humphrey Lyttelton and Mick Mulligan and his Magnolia Jazz Band with George Melly
Mart’s first real band was The Dark Town Jazzband, based in Stockport and Cheadle Hulme. It had a formidable line-up, with Peter Eccles on trumpet and Alan Pendlebury on trombone. David Browning, later one of the top session men, and someone who was to feature on the Coronation Street theme tune, was on piano. The biggest name of all, however, was John Mayall, later of Blues Breakers’ fame. He played banjo and guitar.
By the early Fifties, Mart was working full time in his father’s textile business, but always keeping one eye on his music ‘Many lunchtimes I’d nip out, down to the Arts’ School to hear the band with Cephus Howard on trumpet.’ He pauses to look back down the years and then laughs at the thought of it. ‘Many lunchtimes I was back very late and got into trouble … but it didn’t stop me doing it again!’
The first of his own bands was Mart Rodger’s Jazz Aces, who played on Fridays at the Victoria, in Urmston and on Saturdays at the Clarendon. They rehearsed mid-week at a dance hall on Plymouth Grove, everybody coming armed with a few 78s which they listened to and then merely tried to play before even thinking of getting on to arrangements.
Mart left to do his National Service, the larger part of which was spent in Egypt, where he formed the Canal Zone Stompers. The fact that this ever got off the ground was in no small measure down to Mart’s drive and determination. Later, he became Record Librarian for the Forces’ Broadcasting Service, which gave him access to thousands of jazz records and the opportunity to add a little bias to the programmes. ‘The troops used to wake up to hot jazz,’ he chortles. ‘In my spare time I used to play the great jazz clarinetists over and over again and try to play like them.’
After putting his two years to very good use, then, Mart returned to Manchester to resume work, to marry his childhood sweetheart, Janet, and to form briefly another band with John Mayall.
Then in 1957, Mart joined the Zenith Six, the top Manchester band which had played at the National Jazz Federation Concert at Festival Hall - and he felt he had at last arrived. He stayed with them, for 13 years, playing on Fridays, again at the Clarendon. ‘It was one of the great times of my life,’ he recalls, ‘but it wasn’t half hard work. We were all holding down day jobs but I remember once we played 14 consecutive nights on a southern tour, then came back to do the university Rag Ball.’
By now Mart was Managing Director of the family business and had to resist the temptation to go professional when several members of the Zenith Six wished to go that way. He moved on to join well-known trombonist, Mike Pembroke, in the Mike Martin band, which had a composite name based on their two Christian names. It had a residence at the Cavalcade in Didsbury but when playing elsewhere sometimes passed itself off as ‘Big Pete’s Lecherous Seven’ or, even, on occasions, ‘The Alley Orchestra’. ‘It was a terrific band,’ he remembers proudly. ‘We did a Jazz Club broadcast from the Playhouse Theatre in Hulme – and Humphrey Lyttelton, the announcer, was practically lost for words after we’d played one piece.’ Apparently all he could say was, ‘Bloody hell! How about that!’
In October 1984, he founded Mart Rodger’s Manchester Jazz, putting together the magnificent band now so much part of the Manchester music scene. Its front line is the same more than twenty years later, with Alan Dent on trumpet and Eric Brierley on trombone. Currently the line-up’s rhythm section has Roger Browne on piano, Charlie Bentley on banjo, Colin Smith, double bass and Nigel Cretney on drums.
Manchester Jazz continues to go from strength to strength, to be greatly in demand and to be fully booked for festivals, jazz breaks, fetes, weddings, funerals etc. But the highlight, for Mart, remains his strong association with the great jazz singer Marion Montgomery.
After hearing one of Mart’s tapes she was excited by the prospect of singing with the band. ‘She came up to Manchester and we rehearsed at Didsbury Cricket Club and then we did the concerts,’ he says with obvious pride. ‘To start with she didn’t sing,’ he says, looking perplexed, ‘and we all wondered why until later she said: “I was just enjoying listening to your fabulous band. You’re terrific!”’ Praise indeed! ‘This was the start of a lovely friendship,’ he adds,’ and “Making Whoopee”, which we recorded with her, is still our best -selling CD.’
In his seventieth year, Mart is a happy and fulfilled man, living in Disley, near Stockport - a grandfather of 3, soon to celebrate his fortieth wedding anniversary. He has almost as many cracking good stories about the big names (and small) of British jazz, as there are tunes in his repertoire. Clearly he has had a wonderful life in jazz. All his many followers will want to wish him a speedy recovery from his recent hip operation – and hope that it will not be long before he is on the stand again!
15/08/17 - Hi Fred,
Just a very small point, when Mart joined the Zenith Six in early 1957 Malcolm Gracie was the trombonist. When Malcolm completed his legal training he left and that was when Alan Pendlebury joined. Alan wasn’t the leader in those days, Derek Gracie was in charge but the band never had a leader as such. The band split up completely after about eight years with Mart, Denis Gilmore, Derek Newton and Nicky Holcroft leaving. Alan took over, inviting his brother, Keith, to play and Keith’s wife, Marcia, to sing. Up to that point the Zenith Six never had a pianist. Alan became the leader then.