|Derek Nash and Branford Marsalis at Boaters in Kingston|
It’s a Wednesday evening, October 1990 (writes Peter Jones). Saddam Hussain has just invaded Kuwait, Dances With Wolves is about to receive its American premiere, and two teenage students arrive to play a little jazz duo gig at a riverside pub in Kingston…Roll forward a quarter of a century, and the Boaters has become the longest-running weekly jazz venue in London. Co-founder, pianist Simon Carter spoke to Peter about the highs and lows of those 25 years:
LondonJazz News: What’s been the biggest challenge in running the gig?
Simon Carter: The most difficult times have been when the pub’s changed hands, whether the ownership or the management. The last major change was when it shut for a re-furb. It’s currently owned by a subsidiary of Greene King. Over the time I’ve been running jazz, there’s been anything up to 20 different managers. Some come in and are really enthusiastic and supportive straight away. Others are non- committal, and aren’t aware of live music, and you just hope they’ll see a few gigs and enjoy it and understand what it’s all about. So I try to keep things varied, for instance by having some more soul-oriented performers, which helps to keep the management on board.
LJN: How did it start?
SC: It was just me and my good friend and flatmate Richard Cardwell. We were both doing the music degree at Kingston University, and both into our jazz and funky stuff. We were also both keyboard players, but I was also dabbling on the saxophone. Richard was seeing one of the barmaids at the Boaters, and she put in a good word with the manager at the time, and we got a gig there. It just seemed like a good opportunity to learn some tunes out of the Real Book, and play to an audience. There was a small, appreciative little crowd there, and it became a regular thing. Eventually it went from a duo to a trio, then to a quartet. After about three years I switched to playing bass, and the gig switched to Sunday.
Nothing was ever planned. I just started getting people down to play that I’d known from the National Youth Jazz Orchestra , and local people I’d met, like Matt Wates. Dave O’Higgins was the first musician we advertised by name, and it was absolutely packed that night. Then we did one with Jim Mullen shortly afterwards, and Lawrence Cottle came down to watch, and that scared the living daylights out of me. Soon afterwards I switched to piano!
One thing I’m really aware of is that when I started the gig I was 19. And when it became a proper featured gig I was still in my early twenties, and I didn’t want to go down the same road as some existing jazz venues, where it was very much an older audience. I wanted to play with people closer my own age. And I still try to introduce new people every so often… [thoughtful pause]… I do wonder whether I should try to do that more. There’s a responsibility to reach a younger audience. But it’s always a balance.
At times over the years flocks of young musicians have turned up on Sunday nights. One was the bassist Janek Gwizdala, who now lives in the US, where he plays with everyone from Randy Brecker to Chuck Loeb. But learned his chops at The Boaters.
In my opinion he’s now one of the greatest bass players in the world. He’s incredibly motivated, he worked his ass off. I met him when I was in the NYJO. We did a rhythm section workshop – he was maybe 13 or 14 at the time – and he decided there and then he wanted to play bass, and he started to come down to the Boaters to see Lawrence Cottle play. Eventually he started to play there, and now I’m lucky if I can even get him.
LJN: What highlights do you remember?
SC: There have been some special occasions, like the night Branford Marsalis turned up. Derek Nash was playing, and one of our regulars, who was the local chief of police, came up to me after the first set and said: ‘Branford Marsalis is a personal friend of mine. He’s in a taxi on his way here and he’s got his sax with him. Do you mind if he sits in?’ And I thought he was winding me up. But Branford arrived during the first tune of the second set. Derek beckoned him on and he didn’t even wait until we’d finished the tune. We were playing a Crusaders number, and Branford loved it. Very humble and unassuming, and happy to play whatever we were going to play. The word must have spread very quickly, because within 20 minutes of Branford arriving, the audience had doubled in size.
LJN: The drummer Chris Dagley became a regular at The Boaters. After he died in a scooter accident in 2010 on his way home from Ronnie Scott’s, you decided to hold a benefit night for his widow.
SC: It was an amazing night. I came away from that absolutely exhausted, because it was such an effort to organize it. I got Rick Astley to come, Carleen Anderson, Natalie Williams, and I wanted to get some drummers up that were important to Chris – Neal Wilkinson, Pete Cater, Ian Thomas – and we started early and finished late and didn’t have a break because there were so many people that were going to play. The manager at the time was incredibly supportive. They took out rows of seats and we even had some lighting put in, which we don’t normally have.
One night last year, half of the Average White Band turned up. Freddy V, the saxophone player, is a friend of mine, and he mentioned that the drummer, Rocky Bryant, might want to come down as well. And he said I think Brent Carter, the lead singer, might come down. And the keyboard player Rob Aries came as well.
But The Boaters for me is a constant highlight. Gigs come and go, there are people I’ve worked with for a long time, but it’s been sporadic. Boaters is the most consistent thing in my musical life. Nothing else even comes close.
During October, The Boaters plays host to quartets featuring Derek Nash (11th), Jacqui Hicks (18th) and Nigel Price (25th), with Simon Carter on keyboards in each case.