Ken Ford 1938 - 2016
Picture courtesy of the Hull Daily Mail c. 2002
Matt Stephenson on the man behind Hulljazz. Courtesy of 'What's On' Hull Daily Mail 22.02.2002
Wednesday evening...what do you do on a Wednesday evening in Hull if you want to get out of the house?
It's a quiet night, not a night you want to get completely off your face; Wednesday's are more civilised than that. But you want something a little more challenging, more interesting than a covers band or footy match or quiz down the pub.
So what do you do? Those who appreciate world-class live music know the only answer is Hulljazz.
For the past 25 years, under the banner of Hulljazz, enthusiast and promoter Ken Ford has been bringing the cream of British and international jazz musicians to the city, which also provided a platform for regional talent.
Other jazz nights come and go with varying degrees of success, but none has achieved the consistent week-in week-out quality Ken has brought.
Maybe your thing is swing, perhaps your bag is bebop, you could be a dyed-in-the-wool New Orleans tradder, or even a funkier fusion fan - whatever style of jazz you enjoy, you can be sure Ken's programme will satisfy.
Ken was born in Hull in 1938. His dad started out as a butcher but ended up as a labourer on the docks, and mum - like most mums then - struggled to bring up the four Ford kids on what little money was available.
Ken always felt he was different from his brothers and sisters: "I think I was probably a bit of a snob when I was a kid," he remembers. "I thought I was meant for something special."
Not that he particularly excelled at school: "I was never a high flyer," he says. He left at 15 with five O-levels and took an apprenticeship at Fenner's, where he worked in virtually every department, met some regular people and knocked off a few of his snooty ways.
Which is when his musical interests started to develop. "When I left school I thought the only worthwhile music was classical - that was me being a snob. Rock'n'Roll hadn't even arrived, the hit parade was dull and full of people like Guy Mitchell. and I thought jazz and dance music were inferior."
"Of course, that kind of attitude wasn't going to get me a social life. All my pals were into jazz, not modern jazz but the New Orleans style - Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk - and they all wanted to play instruments and start a band."
Ken's mate Brian was a drummer and Bill was on bass. They wanted Ken to play trombone but he couldn't afford it on his two pounds and 10 shillings a week, so he took up the banjo instead.
In bedrooms and front rooms across the country, groups of friends like Ken and co played their treasured 78s on the gramophone and busked their way through the tunes and arrangements until they had a workable version.
Before long the Rent Raisers Skiffle Group was born (the name inspired by the poor American black ghetto groups who played to raise their rent money) and Ken was playing his banjo in church halls all over the city.
Throughout the 1950s trad jazz (with it's close cousins blues and folk music) became firmly established in youth culture. Nowadays trad is often sniffily regarded as the stodgier end of the jazz spectrum, back then it was the hip scene, man!
Though Ken was a "dirt under the fingernails engineering apprentice" he started knocking around with a cooler crowd centred around the art college on Anlaby Road.
In 1957 he joined the 2-19 Jazz Band and for nearly two years they played a weekly session at the Bluebell, Lowgate and latterly the now demolished Abercrombie Hotel - "a grim pub" remembers Ken.
He finds it hard to pinpoint when his influences started to broaden. "In my teens and 20s trad was definitely the mainstay, though sometimes something more imaginative would break through -'Take Five' by Dave Brubeck is the memorable example. I started o be exposed to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but we didn't really hear a lot of modern jazz, none of the hard bop or cool stuff (the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker and Charlie Parker, which many people regarded as the essence of modern jazz).
"The divide between modern and trad was fierce, you either liked one or the other. Even the record shops were divided - trad on one side, modern on the other. We'd be there in our sandals and duffle coats and if we saw someone in a beret and dark glasses we just thought they were weird."
Ken pinpoints 1960 as the year when the promoting bug first bit. A drummer called Tony 'Guts' Grunnill (he was always complaining about his stomach ache), ran a club at Windsor Hall off Argyle Street (another demolished building, is a pattern forming here?). Ken had a motor bike so he was roped in as Tony's assistant/errand boy. "It was typical 50s/60s jazz club," remembers Ken. "Pretty much a church hall with a bar and it would be packed out with people dancing. The music was still more adventurous than the mainstream hit parade stuff."
After Guts Grunnill's club closed in 1964, the history of jazz in Hull starts to become a little convoluted, perhaps because the scene changed so much as modern influences undermined the hardcore trad scene, but also because the original jazz fans were getting older and settling into family life.
Ken left Fenners in 1966 and joined British Gas as a distribution engineer, where he stayed until his retirement at the age of 52 in 1991.
In the intervening years the words "Hull", "jazz" and "club" cropped up in many incarnations. "It was always a club in the typical British church hall tradition," remembers Ken. "Members had to pay their subs and you couldn't turn the lights on without the full agreement of the committee."
Ken remained involved in the various Hull jazz clubs, though venues and committees changed regularly.
In the early 70s one Wilf Nesfield, owner of the Penguin Club in Anlaby (later the Springfield Club) appeared on the scene. He was to play a significant role in the future development of Hull jazz.
Wilf was hoping to create something more akin to the 'chicken in a basket' clubs and cabaret bars of the 70s than the typical dowdy brown linoleum working men's clubs, so he put his money where his mouth was: "For the first time it meant we could book well-known acts like Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes as well as the local musicians," Ken says.
But the period was short-lived. The crowds weren't exactly flocking in and before long Hull Jazz Club found itself back in the upstairs room of the Haworth pub on Beverley Road.
"That was when I packed in it," says Ken. "I'd had enough of getting messed around."
But though Hull's jazz flame burned dimmer than ever, it was not extinguished. Along with the other keen musicians, Ken carried on playing when ever the opportunity arose. He'd taken up the bass "in the hope of getting work in the clubs" and, though he would never describe himself as a talented musician, it was something he loved.
In 1980 a group of musicians began meeting on Wednesday nights at the Goodfellowship on Cottingham Road for an informal jam under the name Jazz Workshop. It was more for the benefit of the musicians, but a few fans would turn up..
In the meantime Ken had been running an unprofitable jazz night on Wednesdays at the Waterfront. When that folded he had an evening to spare. "I suppose I inveigled my way in and started promoting Jazz Workshop, putting bands on occasionally."
But once again fate seemed to conspire against jazz in Hull: the workshop folded when the landlord decided he wanted the room for something else.
Then in 1983, things finally started looking up. Club supremo Wilf Nesfield (of the Penguin in Anlaby) had got hold of the Piper Club on Newland Avenue and Ken got a call from a friend (club drummer Paul Shepherdson) saying Wilf was looking for a regular jazz night. Ken sorted himself a cut of the bar take, ditched the committee approach and decided to wade in as the promoter of the newly renamed Hulljazz.
The first gig was the Eddie Thompson Trio. over the coming weeks and years some of the finest names in jazz graced the Hulljazz stage and played to bigger audiences than ever: Spike Robinson, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Martin Taylor, Gerard Presencer, Dick Morrissey, Don Weller, Stacey Kent, Annie Whitehead, Alan Barnes, Snake Davis - to name but a few.
But that's not to say that they've always graced the same stage. Oh no - that would be too straightforward.
In 1996 Wilf retired and The Piper Club was sold to Bass. Ken and Hulljazz found a new home at Dee Street Club, off Hessle Road. But getting the audience to come along to a less salubrious area of town was difficult. "The whole thing of promoting in working men's clubs worked against us," says Ken.
So, last September (2001), he moved back to the smartly refurbished Goodfellowship.
And it has proved to be the best move of his promoting career. Finally, after 45 years promoting jazz in the city, Ken feels confident that Hulljazz is on a real high.
It's not that he's booking better artists - they're of the same high calibre they've always been - but he's got an excellent venue which musicians and audiences love.
"I think our days of promoting in dingy back rooms are over," says Ken. "It feels like we belong here. The staff are great, the room is comfortable and intimate. It's everything you'd want."
Audiences are rising every week, now at a very healthy average of 100, and the friendly, laid back atmosphere is winning Hulljazz a growing reputation as one of the best gigs on the circuit.
Ken, now 63, is buzzing with excitement: "It feels like Hull has finally got the jazz club it deserves."
POSTSCRIPT: The Hulljazz saga has continued for the last 20 years with a temporary move to the YPI Sports Club on Chanterlands Avenue between March 2004 and September 2005 due to a change of ownership at the Goodfellowship (it had been taken over by the Marston's chain) and more extensive refurbishment, but Hulljazz had returned there by 2006.
Ken Ford died in September 2016, aged 78, after a lengthy illness, by which time audience numbers had dropped off once more. However, Hulljazz soldiered on under a new team of long-time volunteer supporters, with audiences slowly building again until the Corona virus pandemic struck, closing venues and put live music on indefinite hold from March 2020.
The move to Step 4 of Covid restrictions in July 2021 permitted a gradual re-awakening of cultural and entertainment events in Hull and across the U.K., but yet another change of management at the Goodfellowship has left Hulljazz once more seeking a new home. We are currently using the William Gemmell on Anlaby Road while continuing to look for that perfect location which suits musicians, audiences and promoters, and gives hope for a continuation of quality live jazz performance in Hull for the forseeable future. - Dave Ellis September 2021
See also Promoters & Venues: Hulljazz