Ye Old John
by Gordon Hughes (RIP)
Reproduced by kind permission of Gordon
Hughes and Just
4th October 2004
It's been compared with Fritzel's Bar on Bourbon Street... but that maybe
stretching it a bit. The quaint Old John
O'Gaunt pub, sandwiched matchbox-tight in the heart of Lancaster's busy Market Street shopping area, has been described in The Guardian newspaper as one of the best town pubs in England. Which isn't stretching it at all.
But what isn't open to debate is the sheer magnetism of Steve and Ula Thorn's pub to musicians and jazz fans from both sides of the M6.
Six days a week, the university town's narrow-fronted pub, dubbed a 'creaky hip joint' becomes a mini mecca for lovers of music from Swing, rhythm and blues, Latin American, Modern jazz, even folk music.
But it's the rogues gallery of photographs of Traditional jazz musicians and colourful posters emblazed across almost every inch of the walls which point to the kind of music which is in most demand. It's a veritable 'Who's Who' of 'Trad' musicians and their bands.
John Barnes has played there, in the corridor-shaped bar. So have reedmen Frank Brooker and Harold Salisbury.
Dennis Armstrong is a regular visitor. Diz Disley and John Hallam have played there. The West Jesmond Rhythm
Kings' Derek Fleck and the Zenith Stompers' Tony Davies have guested with Judy Eames. The Savannah's Gabe
Essien, the Bill Bailey Band, Crazy Rhythm, and even Jim Bowen from TV's 'Bulls Eye' have sat-in at the popular
Sunday lunch-time sessions.
It wasn't always like that at the Old John OGaunt. For when 43-year-old Morecambe-born Steve, and Ula, took it over as their first pub 16 years ago, it had been closed for two years, its customers, like its reputation, long gone.
"It was in a pretty awful, wretched state," says Steve. "The only entertainment it had enjoyed in the past was Saturday night brawling and fighting." Jazz-loving Steve knuckled down to changing all that with a load of hard graft - and a vision.
At first he built his dream on jazz records, CDs and tapes played over the piped music system. It had the desired effect of attracting traditional lovers and, at the same time, the curious result of driving out the rougher element.
"Ruffians don't like jazz, and they moved elsewhere," says Steve, simply. "You could say we used jazz as a weapon. It was very effective in what we were trying to achieve." To him, jazz was as good as any bouncer on the door.
Six months later the first of the Traditional jazz bands came to play. Pianist Bob Moffat, who conveniently lived only 100 yards away, brought his Jazzmen one Monday night and have been coming every since. Word went round jazz lovers, not like a bush fire exactly, but the pub's reputation for 'real ale, live jazz and strange staff' was being created.
Clarinettist Barrie Marshall, whose home in nearby Sun Street was reached via Music Room Passage opposite, formed a band of like-minded musicians, aptly called the Sun Street Stompers, to play at Sunday lunch-times. There's a hard-core of experience; Barrie, who has been playing clarinet for more than 20 years and who also plays with the local Quayside Hot Stompers; the New Riverside band's cornetist leader, Alan Duckles and wife Gerry on banjo; talented young bass player James Swinnerton, and the impressive Michael Howard on guitar.
But it's the hand's open invitation to any musician who maybe passing through, just to pop in for a blow, which has earned the pub a reputation it thoroughly deserves.
"But make no mistake, they are not jam sessions," says Barrie, who, when he's not playing, helps out in the pub. "We don't have a mass of musicians making a cacophony of noise."
There's no fat pay packet for the boys eager to entertain, just a generous collection among the packed and appreciative audience, and a free sausage from the kitchen to anybody getting there before
"We set out, basically, to be a fun rather than a working band," says Barrie. "But word quickly spread that any musician, no matter how inexperienced, would be welcome to sit-in. It works well."
Landlord Steve, a modest tenor player, usually sits-in for the last few numbers. Eddie Simpson, who runs Madfortrad syndicate at Fleetwood, regularly sings a couple of tunes. John Barnes appeared, to fulfil a promise he made as part of a deal when Steve sold him a baritone sax 18 months ago.
But what delights Steve most is the interest being shown by younger musicians, including students from the influential Leeds College of Music, and even converts from brass bands. He knows it's important to encourage them; they are the next generation of jazz lovers. "Otherwise we soon won't have anybody with an average age of under three figures!"
Talented young cornet player, Danny Riley, a former brass band champion, put together a jazz band to make its recent debut at the Old John O'Gaunt. Steve is excited by the prospects. "Danny is a terrific player. His version of West End Blues is quite stunning."
Mid-week bands with names which may not be well-known yet, drag in the customers. The Band From Uncle (Swing, blues and jazz), the Sue ParishBand (Classic jazz, ballads), Gary Boyles' Triple Echo (Modern jazz trio), Harold Salisbury and friends (jazz rock fusion), Steve lists them all in his monthly 'Gauntlet' what's on guide.
Generally, there's a comfortable lived-in appeal about the pub. Steve has been careful not to spoil its decor by disturbing its wall-to-wall pictures
of jazzmen. When he beat 500 other landlords to scoop the title 'Pub Operation of the Year he toyed with the idea of redecorating, to celebrate his success. He quickly dropped the idea and boasts that, by and large, it hasn't been touched for 10 years.
The pub's musical fame has been hard-earned (with a few pounds of pork sausages as the carrot), and Steve Thorn is anxious not to spoil it with a bit of wallpaper and paint
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