Jazz Academy

Meeting the band

A chance meeting with a nurse in 1989 introduced me to a group of medics at the Royal Free Hospital who had formed a Jazz Band, and needed a drummer. At the time, I was working for a software house in Bradford, but often travelled to London, so I met them for a practice at the hospital the next time I was down there. They rehearsed every Wednesday night in one of physiotherapy rooms, and played mostly instrumental jazz standards, arranged for four saxophones and rhythm section.

I hadn’t really played jazz since my college days, so it was a welcome return. Unlike many of my college bands, they were welcoming and easy going, but I never really expected to play much with them as I was based in the North of England. However, at the end of 1989, I decided to leave the software house, and become a freelance contractor, going to Germany initially, for about 6 months. When I returned from Germany, my next contract was in London, so I got in touch with the band, and discovered that they were still without a permanent drummer. I offered to rehearse with them on a temporary basis while I was down in London, and ended up playing with them for over 10 years.

All bands have someone that is the driving force, and in the case of Jazz Academy this was Len, the bass player. I didn’t really bother too much about what jobs the players did in the hospital, as we were just meeting to play music. I learned that Alvin, the keyboard player was a Junior Doctor, and that Diana, one of the saxophonists, was a pharmacist. Stan, another sax player, was a professor, and I thought that Len was probably a hospital porter. One week, I had arrived before the others, transporting my kit into the hospital on a wheel chair, which seemed to be the accepted method of moving instruments at the Royal Free. I was setting up when someone came in looking for “Professor Poulter“. I told them that they must be in the right place, but they insisted that he was in the band, and played ‘the guitar‘. They must have meant Len, so when he arrived, I asked him if he really was a professor? It turned out that he was, but as he pointed out to me, “why would I need to tell you that?” That was typical of Len, a very generous and self effacing man, and we would become great friends while I played with the band.

Doctors’ Balls

Being based in the hospital, and as it turned out, having some fairly senior connections within the organisation, we were invited to play at quite a few prestigious events, including the annual Junior Doctors’ Christmas Ball. This was quite an eye opener for me the first time we played at it. The doctors were picked up by a coach at the Royal Free and then taken to whichever venue was hosting it that year. By the time they arrived, a considerable amount of alcohol had been consumed, which was an indication of how the evening would progress. We were always booked to play during the meal, supposedly as background music while the food was served. Events always descended into chaos, with the doctors trying to dance to our music while the food was being served, with the staff frantically trying to get them to sit back down again (hot food and drunken dancing does not mix). We frequently had to stop so that order could be restored, but it never lasted long. More than once, I had to stop playing, and get from behind the kit to ‘disuade’ a guest from joining in with us. What is it about an open microphone that makes people think they can just join in? I would be trying to reason with the student doctor (sometimes quite forcefully) while behind me the band carried on, in time honoured ‘Titanic’ tradition. Probably the best way of summing up these balls was the fact that they were never allowed back to the same place twice!

Jazz Academy post sound check, pre gig. We usually went to find something to eat, but it had to be quick! From L-R, Stan (sax), Diana (vocals and sax), Jean (Len’s wife), dave (sax), myself, Sarah (Alvin’s girlfriend), Alvin (keys) and Len (bass and comedy).

The Dublin Connection

As well as discovering that Len was a professor rather than a porter, it also transpired that he had an attachment at the main hospital in Dublin, travelling there at least once a month. He made friends with one of the porters over there who was a folk singer, and suggested to Len that we should go and play in Dublin, where he would help us find some gigs. When Len discovered that there was going to be a party at the hospital, and they would like the band to play, he suggested we went over for the weekend. We could play at the hospital on Saturday night, and then his friend could find us something for Sunday. At the time, I had an involvement with a van hire business in Leeds, so was able to get hold of a minibus, so one Friday afternoon, we assembled at the Royal Free, loaded ourselves in, and drove to Holyhead to get the late night ferry.

We arrived in Dublin in the early hours of Saturday morning. Len had told us that because it was the summer holidays, there would be some accommodation available in the nurses home, in rooms vacated by the students. We turned up there, somewhat worse for wear after a long drive and an equally long ferry crossing to be met by an imposing woman. This was Matron, straight out of the Hattie Jaques charm school (remember ‘Carry on Nurse’?). She stood in front of us, arms folded, and made it quite clear that there were two floors in the nurses home, “Men Downstairs, Women upstairs.” There were no exceptions to this. The fact that some of the party were married and had brought their spouses made no difference, we were segregated to our respective floors.

In the afternoon we decided to have a practice so set ourselves up in a room downstairs. The hospital backed onto fields, and I wondered why the other members of the band were failing to keep a straight face as we played. Eventually we had to stop, as they collapsed into hysterics, pointing behind me. I turned round to see a herd of cows looking in. They had probably never heard music in the Nurses’ Home, and perhaps it was the Bass or the Drums that had drawn them, like Pavlov’s Dogs, to gaze bemusedly at us, through the open window.

After recovering from the journey, we played the evening party which was straight forward, and not like the raucous Junior Doctors’ events that we had experienced in London. On Sunday we went to the gig that Len’s friend had arranged, which was in a large pub outside Dublin, where we were to play for the afternoon. It was a typical Sunday afternoon pub setting, a lot of families enjoying Sunday lunch, with children running around everywhere. The licensing laws seemed to be more relaxed than in the UK, although I noticed a flurry of activity just before 3 p.m., with armfuls of pints being collected and taken back to the tables. It trurned out that the pub had to ‘close‘ from 3 until 5, but this was interpreted as merely the bar stopping the sale of drinks. The pub was quite happy for the room to stay open and people to carry on drinking, and the 3 o’clock customers were merely stocking up for the next two hours.

We played several times in Dublin, and we always found our audience to be easy going, appreciative, but quite often not very quiet! On that pub gig, we got used to the children running through the band as they played in the dining room, while their parent sat and listened. No harm was being done, after all, and concerns nowadays about tripping hazards didn’t seem to occur then. We were given lunch, and drinks kept being sent to us. I think Len had drawn the short straw for driving the bus, and much of the afternoon is quite hazy for me.

In the evening, Len’s friend was playing a folk set in a different pub, so a few of us went to see him. He met us at the door, and seated us at a table, and we were made very welcome. It turned out that this was because we with him, and he had vouched for us. Again, we never seemed to buy any drinks, they just kept arriving. Much of the singing was in Gaelic, and I got an idea of a rather different reception that we might have received at the end of the evening, when everyone stood to sing a republican anthem, fists clenched against their chests. This was probably a time to down play our UK connection.

We returned again the following year. This time there was no republican bar visit to finish of the weekend, but we still stayed in the nurses’ home, relegated to our respective floors, segregated by gender. Len, and possibly his folky friend, also arranged a gig for us in the band stand on Stephen’s Green, in the centre of the city.

We had a couple more trips to Dublin. The first was to another Saturday night party, but this time at one of the top hotels in the centre. This time the band flew, rather than make the long mini bus trip. I rented a van in Leeds, and drove over with the drums, pas, and the larger instruments. The hotel had valet parking, and the doorman managed to keep a straight face when I handed him the keys, and told him “Its the blue transit“.

The Ambassador’s Party

Our final trip to Dublin was probably the most unusual, and memorable. Len seemed to go to a lot of high level social events through the hospital and at one of them was introduced to the British Ambasador. She gave regular garden parties, and when Len suggested that we could play at one, leapt at the suggestion. I don’t think he thought she would take him seriously, but suddenly we were booked to play. Again, the band flew from London, and I drove over with a van. We had had to supply our details before hand so that we could be vetted, and for a brief moment I wondered about my busking arrest when I had finished college, but evidently, it really had been expunged from the system. When I arrived at the embassy, I was told that I should park in a field, and directed towards a taped off area. While iIwas parking, a man approached – he wasn’t in uniform, but did have a rifle slung across his shoulder.

“You must be with the band, then ?”

I think it was my first encounter with anyone armed, and the fact that he wasn’t in uniform made it seem even more scary.

The party and the evening were great success. We played while the guests were arriving, and then sat and ate at our own table in the marquee . It could have been a wedding reception or birthday party, apart from the armed presence, and the discrete black cars behind the tend, who sat with their engines idling throughout the evening. The ambassador herself was friendly and relaxed, putting us at ease. She confided to me that she had always wanted to have a jazz band at one of these parties but had never been able to arrange it, and I got the impression that some of the establishment thought it wasn’t appropriate. She also told me that she had always wanted to have a go at the drums, so when we did a second set after the meal finished, I invited her up, and she gamely joined in, which of course went down fantastically with the guests.

After the gig, when we were packing up, she came over to thank us. The guests had all departed, and she kicked off her shoes to sit down at the table with us.

I bet you’d like a beer?”

We all nodded enthusiastically and she headed off towards the kitchen, returning a few moments later empty handed.

I’m sorry,” she apologised, “they wouldn’t let me do it myself. I expect it will come out on a silver salver.

And indeed, a few moments later, a butler appeared, five bottles of beer on a silver tray, with five empty glasses that he filled, before handing them to us. Probably the best after gig service ever !

Crazy Little Thing

Our set list was nothing if not eclectic, and we included a version of the Queen classic, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love“. One Saturday, Diana managed to arrange a gig for us playing in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, on the Southbank in London. As you can see from the photo below, we had some big-band pretentions at the time, with our artfully crafted music stands. It turned out that the patron of the event was Brian May, the Queen guitarist, and at one point we saw him standing at the back, wtachiong us play. So what did we play next for him? There could only be one answer to that – we launched into “Crazy Little Thing”. He never came over to us, but I’m sure a wry smile crept across his face while we played!

From left to right – Len (bass), Diana (sax and vocals), Stan (sax), Dave (sax) and someone else whose name I have forgotten (sax). Behind them, Alvin (keys), and myself (drums).

Leaner and meaner

The logistics of a 10 piece band are quite involved. As time moved on, so did our lives. A couple of the saxes left us, and sadly Diana decided to move on as well, replaced on vocals for a while by Sarah, Alvin’s girl friend (also a medic).

Several of the band got married while we were together, and we played at each others’ receptions. When Stan got married, we decided that we would mark the occasion by swapping instruments. Stan had decided that he didn’t want to play at his own wedding, so we had a deputising sax player. Len announced that he was going to sing a number, so I took over the bass. Sarah revealed a hidden percussive talent as she got behind the kit to play drums. I’m not sure that Stan was completely happy with Len’s choice of ‘The King of the Swingers’ as a song, but we enjoyed playing it.

We decided to make another cd, and Len even arranged for a promo shoot at the hospital (no doubt calling in some favour) which produced probably our most professional looking image. (For some reason I didn’t get the memo about the dress code).

Sarah wasn’t able to make it to the photo shoot, so Sally, one of the Junior Doctors stood in. This proved to be prophetic because, when Sarah was no longer able to sing with us, Sally stepped in to fill the band, and continued to perform with us until we ended,


I’ve already mentioned Len’s connections, and the quality gigs that he managed to get us, but when he said he had got a booking for us on a cruise ship, we thought that her was surely joking. Len had been at a hospital reception and met someone who claimed his friend had a cruise line. Assuming that he was making this up, Len countered with the fact that he had a jazz band, and perhaps ‘his friend’ would like us to play on a ship? Nothing more was heard for a few weeks, until Len got a call from Royal Caribbean Cruises. It turned out that the man did indeed have a friend who owned a cruise line, one of the biggest in the world.

Royal Caribbean operate out of Miami, and you can’t just go over and play. There are all sorts of considerations like work permits, and more importantly, the US Musician’s Union, which has a lot of clout. Anyone who plays on a ship has to be a member and we obviously weren’t, so a compromise was offered. The cruise line couldn’t pay us to play, but they could give us and our partners a free cruise, so the deal was that we could have an all-expenses paid week on a cruse round the Caribbean, and play in the evening in the piano bar, where the resident pianist would just do a single set, but still get paid as normal. they wiould also cover our air fares from the UK.

It seemed too good to be true, but in February ’95, we found ourselves flying with our instruments to Miami. We were told that the ship would provide a drum kit and a piano, so all we had to take was ourselves. Now a five piece, we flew over with our partners. Stan was able to take his sax on as hand luggage, and Len hired a flight-case for his bass, which was checked in with the other hold baggage. It’s the only time I have done anything approaching a tour, and we all felt like ‘proper’ musicians!

We were amazed to find out that we had good quality berths on the ship. I had envisaged us stowed away in the hold, but in reality, we we on one of the top levels, just below the suites, with views out over the ship. The trip itself worked out perfectly, with enough anecdotes to fill a book, so i will limit myself to just one.

We were allocated a table in the dining room where we could have our evening meals, and as there were 10 of us, we got a specially arranged meal. Our waiter introduced himself to us, and I have to say that we didn’t take to him. He was smug and patronising, but it didn’t really matter. Our wine waiter however was personable and charming, and when he introduced himself, handed us a letter, which was from the captain. It welcomed us to the ship, and contained details of who to contact should we have any questions about our performances, ending with te offer of a complimentary bottle of wine, if we gave the letter back to the wine waiter.

Len did this, realising that our officious main waiter had noticed that we had been sent a letter from the captain, and was obviously wondering who we were. Eventually he couldn’t contain himself any longer and asked Len.

“I realise that must be VIP guests as you have had a letter from the captain. is there anything I should know?

Len kept a straight face as he told him.

We are from a production company, and looking to make a film on a cruise ship. We are also looking for crew members to cast in the film. This is all in confidence so you must not tell anyone!

Our waiter fell for this, and thought the week, was more and more ingratiating, obviously hopping that he would get a part on our ‘film’. On our final night, Len handed out the customary tip envelopes, gently letting the waiter know that we weren’t really a film crew, we were just a bun h of doctors. I almost felt sorry for him.

It had to end, eventually

I played with Jazz Academy for over 10 years. Diana sadly left us, to be replaced on vocals by Sally. We slimmed down from 5 saxes (at times) to just one. Alvin and Sally both completed their training and got jobs as GPs. I returned to Yorkshire, Len moved out of London, and Sally relocated to Derby. This was conveniently equidistant between London and Yorkshire, and even more conveniently, her partner Marco’s family had a restaurant, so we continued to meet regularly for day rehearsals there. Eventually however, it became apparent that we were losing our connection as a band. It was great meeting up every so often, but we couldn’t be as good as when we were rehearsing weekly. We had all had changes on our lives, both in jobs and location, and we decided to end it while we were still ahead.

I had an unbelievably brilliant time playing with the band, and it kick started my kit playing again. Apart from the fun we had playing, we managed to get into some great venues, so I’ll finish with a list of the ones I can remember (there were many more)

  • Royal Festival Hall
  • HMS Belfast
  • Cafe de Paris, London
  • Countless wedding venues
  • Stephen’s Green, Dublin
  • British Embassy, Dublin
  • Sprit of the Caribbean (Royal Carribbean Cruises)
  • Royal Free Hospital Doctors’ Mess
  • The Grand Hotel, Brighton