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A Colston Willmott Story

Pubs, which Bristol had in abundance, were the meeting places of my social order, and on King Street in the heart of one of the remaining old sections of Bristol, a street that is an amazing example of architectural design from the past 300 years, there are three of them. The Old Duke, whose unusual sign is a portrait of the great jazz musician Duke Ellington — although it was likely the Duke of Wellington originally — was a regular Sunday lunchtime hang-out where trad jazz, an art form not taken too seriously by us modern jazz fans, was, and still is, played. The raucous music attracted a rather bohemian clientele whose noisy camaraderie went down well with a good pint of bitter served at room temperature. When the Duke was too crowded there was always the “Landogger Trow” directly opposite which in the book “Treasure Island” was the “The Admiral Benbow”. It is rumoured that Daniel DeFoe met Alexander Selkirk on whom he based his book “Robinson Crusoe” in this very establishment. Our favourite was the “Naval Volunteer”, a long bar with pumps that drew the finest “Worthington E” on the planet. The beer , stored in barrels in the river that flowed below, were winched up through a trap door to stand to settle behind the bar. There was a strange mix of customers, with the regular gang of “off duty” taxi drivers rubbing shoulders with Shakespearean actors from the Old Vic Theatre across the street, still dressed in full costume and make-up, enjoying a quick intermission pint. This once great pub has now been toffed up for tourists, expanding it into the next building and renamed “The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer”. Close by on Frogmore Street is the 15th century “Hatchet Inn”, one of the city’s oldest pubs, a warren of tiny rooms with low wooden beams that were barely above head height. Now its interior is torn out and redesigned in a boring nondescript contemporary manner. The booming jukebox and the lacklustre food ruined any old memory that may have still existed in my mind.

Among the pub back-rooms in which the jazz music I loved so much was performed, the upstairs room of the Ship Inn on Redcliffe Hill takes on a special significance. Must have been a Wednesday night very early in the sixties, when with my mate Woody we set out for a night of merriment, nothing too serious, just a few pints of courage stimulating our desires, sweatily dancing the night away with young women to the traditional jazz provided regularly by the Blue Note Jazz Band. It could be described as a revival band, emulating their heroes with the joyous bawdy old warhorses of trad jazz, a catalogue of suggestive titles titillating our imagination: “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”, “Careless Love”, “Tight Like This”, “Squeeze Me”, “Come Back To Sweet Papa”, “Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None Of This Jelly Roll”; tunes associated with such New Orleans giants as Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five’s and Seven’s which featured the raucous tailgate trombone playing of Kid Ory; Jelly Roll Morton who claimed to have been the inventor of jazz, the great trumpeter Bunk Johnson, master soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and the popular clarinetist George Lewis always good for a reed squeak or two.

Although the names of the musicians in the band are long forgotten their exhilarating music is not, the memories of the forceful trumpet lead blaring a familiar melody underpinned by the crude gut-bucket trombone, the clarinet weaving this front line together, motivated by the unsophisticated but effective rhythm of a banjo, bass and drums, still resonate, inspiring me to select from my small collection of New Orleans music five CDs of those original giants. Shuffle repeated to encourage my memories.

Up the narrow staircase, past the public bar, from which we were eyed suspiciously by the regular old-fogies, into the packed noisy room. The stand-up bar was to the right of the entrance at the top of the stairs and at the far end the bandstand. No chairs or tables, just a wooden floored open space suitable for schmoozing and dancing. The band of amateur jazzers were an unlikely lot considering the history of the music they were replicating – although the more talented among them would eventually forge a distinctive British style. A collection of mostly upper crust public school boys, professional chaps: a school teacher, perhaps an architect, something to do with a bank – still wearing the bohemian gear of corduroy trousers; check-shirted and chukka-booted, a style that us hipsters had long ago abandoned. Although the drummer had dirty finger nails, suggesting a tradesman.

End Notes:

When I arrived on Hornby thirty-three years ago one regular pleasure was hanging out with friends at the Thatch Pub, the once a week jazz sessions an added treat. Now all gone, obliterated by commerce in the form of short-term tourist rentals. This elimination of our community gathering place is advertised in the speculators blurb as: Hornby Island Beach Homes located on picturesque Hornby Island, BC. The development will be built on the existing property of Hornby Island Resort and the Thatch Pub. Part of the development plan is to rebuild the Thatch Pub and Restaurant. A dock for moorage of your boat will also be available. Not a message to us that “live” here.

Photograph of the author by unknown photographer.

Bill Smith [aka Colston Willmott] can be contacted at classicimprov@yahoo.ca

My weekly radio show, presented at noon every Wednesday on Hornby Island Radio [CHFR – 96.5 FM] can be found at: https://hornbyradio.com/dj/jazz-gems-with-bill-smith/

The First Edition is the Hornby Island monthly magazine, where residents are kept up-to-date with local news and events, plus a number of columns on various subjects. If your interest is piqued, a subscription is available for $36.00 per year North America, $40.00 per year Elsewhere. Cheques or money order to: The First Edition, Hornby Island, British Columbia, Canada V0R1Z0.