TRIBUTE: Chris de Saram of Wakefield Jazz remembered by Reuben Fowler, Ben Mallinder and Matt Robinson

Chris de Saram

“Little did we know at the time, but those opportunities Chris afforded us would stick as some of the sweetest moments of our musical careers,” write trumpeter/composer Reuben Fowler, saxophonist Ben Mallinder and pianist Matt Robinson in this joint tribute to CHRIS DE SARAM. 

All three have  successfully made music their profession. Here they reflect on spending their formative years falling in love with jazz at their local jazz club in Wakefield, and express their personal appreciation and thanks to a uniquely effective catalyst in UK jazz. In sadness:  

We knew Chris De Saram principally through his work as the promoter at Wakefield Jazz Club, a role he took on in 2004. Earlier in his life he had worked as a school science teacher near Leeds but a large part of his more recent life was devoted to the music scene in West Yorkshire and across the North, working as chair of the Northern Voluntary Jazz Promoters Network.

Our story, that follows, will be echoed in many more musicians and music fans that Chris supported and encouraged over the years. A testament to the legacy that he left behind.

On a Friday night in the mid-2000s, no matter what other teenage pursuits were available, we had an unmissable date at Wakefield Jazz Club. We were three of many teenagers who also added ‘Wakey Jazz’ as a constant in their weekly calendar. It’s no coincidence that many of these once-teenagers have gone on to make music part of their lives, whether it be as a career or through a deep and profound appreciation of jazz.

Ben Mallinder and Ruben Fowler as teenagers at Wakefield Jazz 

First impressions attending Wakefield Jazz were always that of an extremely close-knit and welcoming community. Whether it be Pat on the door; a few of the locals drinking at the bar (jazz aficionados in their own right) school-teachers you tried to avoid while you drank excessive amounts of Guinness, ‘Bootleg’ Eric on sound or Brian: you felt like you were amongst old friends rather than strangers. And then there was Chris.

Chris continued the legacy of Alec and Faith Sykes, who were responsible for founding the club in 1987, and he played an enormous role in creating a family atmosphere completely unique to Wakefield. Whether it was giving attendees a warm welcome on entrance, greeting the musicians, compering the evening (from introducing the acts to announcing the raffle) and of course booking the performers: Chris was not only completely professional, but he was personable and generous hearted. Indeed, if walls could talk they would likely bellow ‘here here!!’ in Chris’ signature almost unintelligible roar as he encouraged musician after musician on their solos.

In fact, Chris was incredibly encouraging no matter who you were. As a promoter, he was not only infamous for scouring the country for new acts but also the local schools and colleges for bands to perform at Wakefield Jazz. Artists such as Nikki Iles, Guy Barker, and the New Jazz Couriers would be paired with bands of young local musicians (such as ourselves) as warm-up acts. This was not only invaluable performance experience, but also encouraged the young musicians glean wisdom from the more-seasoned professionals. I (Matt Robinson) have a personal recollection (or lack thereof) picking Nikki Iles’ brains for music tips after a few-too-many pints of Wakefield’s finest at the end of a set with Norma Winstone and Dick Pearce. Little did we know at the time, but those opportunities Chris afforded us would stick as some of the sweetest moments of our musical careers. It is testament to those that helped mould the legendary yet unassuming venue at College Grove Sports Club that such a quiet, modest- yet warm city as Wakefield nurtured so much young talent.

His input did not stop there, asking us back as headlining performers only a few years later. Sharing a programme with artists such as Seamus Blake, Jim Hart, Guy Barker, Mark Nightingale, Norma Winstone and Alan Barnes induced nerves reminiscent of those performances as a supporting act in years gone by, but these were soon eased by the typical enthusiastic reception.

What Chris helped create was a truly unique venue showcasing internationally acclaimed jazz artists, along with all of the warmth of a pub full of northern soul and hospitality.

Matt Robinson

In more recent years, I have crossed paths with Chris many times when playing at venues not only across the North but up and down the country. Chris’ dedication and passion was evident not only through his own promoting work but in his support of other promoters and live music venues, enriching the cultural lives of many along the way.

The last time we all saw Chris, at ‘Bootleg’ Eric’s funeral, it was evident he had not been well, but he still exuded his characteristic charm, wit and good nature. In Eric, he was obviously deeply saddened to lose a member of the Wakefield Jazz family.

Reflecting on how Chris has impacted our lives, it is a great source of regret that we never got to know him and his life outside music better.

Not likely will we ever forget all that he gave to the UK scene, and everything he put into a small sports club music venue in Wakefield. Chris, you will be dearly missed. “Here, here.”

Reuben Fowler, Ben Mallinder and Matt Robinson

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