The Manchester Sports Guild (M.S.G.)
Jack Swinnerton died peacefully on 30th June 2008
Part 1: Beginnings...
by Jack B. Swinnerton
A point which occasionally crops up in conversation in my rapidly advancing years is the probably obvious dichotomy. It emerged in Cornwall last summer at the Bude Festival to people not of the Manchester area or even the North West of England. Being introduced by Manchester friends of the period (I hadn’t been around until then for some years) the likely question of what could possibly be the jazz connection with an organisation devoted to the promotion of amateur sport naturally arose. Well, difficult to expand on quickly, it will eventually become clearer. Known locally to have absolutely no interest whatsoever in any kind of sport, whether it be amateur or professional, and yet I became the enthusiastic jazz organiser of this institution. I don’t think my jazz enthusiasm was ever doubted, and that was what brought me in.
That this kind of organisation would eventually present the first jazz club tours of Henry ‘Red’ Allen and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, introduce such as Pee Wee Russell and Ruby Braff for their first (and in one case, only) tours of the country, when such events were previously Musicians’ Union-banned is remarkable today. Involved in presenting George Lewis, Kid Thomas, Emanuel Paul, John Handy and others of the contemporary New Orleans scene whilst keenly backing, and often being the principle venue, for such as Buck Clayton, Joe Turner, Wild Bill Davison, Edmond Hall, Pops Foster, Vic Dickenson . . . well, the list seems today endless. Would we could go back... only one alive now. We’ll just have to reflect.
It was in June 1953, that L.C. Jenkins (known hereafter as ‘Jenks’), soon to be General Secretary of the Manchester Sports Guild (known hereafter as MSG), and one Norman Hurley began discussions in a Manchester Inn about the lack of local support for amateur sport. Apparently this was because of what they perceived as the rising influence of television and consequent lack of interest in promoting outside interests. That was exactly Coronation time, if one checks the date, and it did result in a considerable rush to buy seats.
March 1954 was to be their first venture into jazz promotions and, prior to my days, was at Frascatti’s on Oxford Road. The recently deceased NI. ‘Gaz’ Buckley is warmly credited by Jenks as being the man to suggest the introduction of jazz (a devoted enthusiast, only a short time before his death we were together in a Blackburn pub sorting out the takes on Annette Hanshaw’s late 1920s recordings).
Apparently, this venue did not succeed and a sudden switch to the Clarendon Hotel in the same area was attempted (not in my immediate bus trip area, that was the now legendary venue which gave us the well-remembered Zenith Six including the young John Barnes). Demolished many years ago to make way for the Mancunian Way, many remember it with great affection. Soon, the MSG moved to the Sportsman in Market Street which was the point at which I joined in about 1955 or 1956.
I believe that my own interest in jazz and the road to the MSG, and all the other convenient venues in Manchester, began with my late father’s gift of his self-made wind-up gramophone in about 1942. The eager collecting of mainly unwanted 78s from willing wartime streets was a wonderful bonus. We really were in the city bombing area between two targeted railway lines and, as the sirens went, it was true joy to an innocent child to emerge from the house in the blackout. In the Anderson shelter, gaslight on and playing those 78s was an unforgettable experience. I don’t really believe that there was too much jazz on these, probably abundant Layton and Johnstone, Debroy Somers and the like, but I hope that the odd glimpse of such as Sylvester Aholo or Danny Polo was there. (Yes, I do still collect Ambrose.)
In the years of early teens, I was fortunate enough to be at a school where many of us were attracted to the sounds of jazz and swing and were eagerly discovering. There were comparatively few records around then, but in the HMV and Columbia catalogues you could find a very small section called ‘Swing Music’ to help show us the way. Down to the individual listening booths at Sheargolds in Stockport, we discovered such as Muggsy Spaniers Ragtime Band (on HMV OLP 1031, it became my first-ever LP. Only a 10 inch, but it still rests in my collection.)
Membership of the MSG began in about 1955 or 6 (their own eventual celebrated premises were not acquired until 1961, and belong to the next chapter). Manchester seemed a very fine jazz scene at that time, but most of my generation could not compare it with other cities or large towns. Most of us drive cars today, but not then. It was quite rare for city people to be mobile - a bus every five minutes or so and only a few miles outside the centre, we were on the scene in a matter of minutes.
Back to Monday evenings at the Sportsman on Market Street. Just around the corner on Cross Street, Paddy McKiernan’s famous Bodega joined in with ambitious and rival Monday events. Much the major venue of 1950s Manchester, the Bodega did not seem right for a Monday evening - it belonged to Saturdays (being then a patron of both, there is no axe to grind). Jazz clubs were, for what appeared to my admittedly biased mind, the haunts of the livelier young people.
They had very much begun to take over the ballroom scene by then - venues such as the Chorlton or Levenshulme Palais were the province of an earlier generation, and somewhat moribund in youthful eyes. The Bodega was the first to offer dancing to a celebrated big name jazz band in a reasonable atmosphere where boys and girls would meet on the all important Saturday night. On Monday evening, it was very different story - back at work, half a crown left over for the admission price and four bob for a few pints was the natural order. And this, I imagine, is how Monday night started to build up at the Sportsman.
In later years at the bar stool, Jenks was prone to reminisce and tell of the enterprise that went into earlier ventures. Eric Batty had become associated with the MSG. Eric was a man of considerable knowledge and influence. Many will remember climbing up those stairs at the Thatched House (also long gone) to sessions of Eric Batty’s (later Dizzy Burton’s) Jazz Aces, not least for the fine trombone of a young Roy Williams. Quite remarkable that he and the previously remembered John Barnes were eventually to become so prominent with Alex Welsh in the MSG heyday.
You approached the Sportsman down what I recall as extremely tight and steep stairs and turned right at the bottom into a semi-private jazz room, the left hand side being the open public area. To proceed up and down these stairs could be hazardous for the unwary. The jazz room became private to the music at about 7.30pm.
By this time I was in the RAF on National Service and trying to offset the frustration of it all by presenting a jazz record programme on closed circuit radio over the Gloucester camp. After these sessions and back at the billet, it was no comfort to my companions to blast the trombone alongside Kid Ory and Jack Teagarden records by the central stove. Getting up to Manchester for most Friday night jazz sessions was usually possible, as motorists in those pre-motorway days (largely) were kind to uniformed hitchhikers. The Blue Note Jazzmen, led by Alan Hare (much more of later on) had recently vacated the Friday spot and the MSG took over the additional night. My membership card for the Friday session depicts Alan’s confidence in printing the personnel on the reverse (although Tony Charlesworth took over from Jimmy Yarrow before long).
John Orr, who was to die in tragic circumstances whilst only in his 20s, was in charge of all MSG bookings by then. In a 1964 tribute to John, Jenks wrote...." Johnny Orr first came into the orbit when we opened a small club at the Downs Hotel in Altrincham. He stayed on, ultimately to become our first jazz organiser… and became a most popular and trustworthy figure.”
From many a brief conversation, and I never knew him really well, John did not appear to be a record collector or jazz enthusiast in that way, but he was extremely fond of the local scene. He and Pauline Humphries were the main door staff, greeting regulars and collecting at the door.
All our jazz haunts had their own individual feel about them in some way, and the thing that singled out the Sportsman - incidentally, this was the name of the establishment and had no connection with sport as in the MSG name - was that the permitted hours of drinking were based on current Scottish regulations, presumably the William Younger brewery connection. Whilst jazz would finish at the usual, but today modest hour, of 1030pm, drinking was supposed to terminate at 9.30pm to comply, we were repeatedly told, with Scottish laws. This tended to coincide with the band’s second interval, and you can well imagine that this would result in either a table groaning under a formidable number of pints stacked up at 9.25, or a mad dash across Market Street, interval pass in hand, to an atmosphere long gone.
The notorious ‘Fatted Calf’ (if you’ve ever seen the Stanley Baker film, ‘Hell is a City', that was definitely the pub interior) or the debaucheries of Liston’s Music Hall (it might be called a gay atmosphere today - we had another name) now lost between the Arndale Centre (much of it bombed out by the IRA) will jog many a memory of us ancients, I’m sure.
I only saw my future companion Jenks at the Sportsman on rare occasions, usually collecting for a raffle or something like. Despite my plea of a serviceman’s poverty, he successfully detached me of a shilling of my remaining two on one of his collections, I well remember. At that time, we did not know each other by name, although immediately by sight, and the centre to become famous was a couple of years away.
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