Sutton music club celebrates 40th anniversary – with stark warning about its future

“Use it or lose it” is the message to music-lovers as a popular club warns it could face closure.

Friday, 24th January 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Monday, 27th January 2020, 11:09 am

Sutton-in-Ashfield Jazz Club celebrates its ruby anniversary next week – but promoter Wil Robinson fears there will not be many more celebrations, unless more people come and support it.

The club began on February 1, 1980, and has been bringing leading names in the world of traditional and New Orleans jazz to Sutton’s Unwin Club, Unwin Road, ever since.

However, audience numbers are dropping and Wil fears it may have to close.

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“It is very well respected,” he says. “It’s a really good club, with a proper working men’s club atmosphere.

“There’s not a lot Sutton is known for, but in the jazz world, the Unwin club is respected.

“However, the club, like many other jazz clubs, is under threat from falling figures.

“It’s a loyal audience, but musicians have to be paid.

Jazz legend Humphrey Lyttleton, centre, playing with the Shades of Jazz band at Sutton Jazz Club in 1980.

“We struggling for numbers. If we get 35-40 people, that’s good. We just about break even.”

However, he admitted some months the club ran at a loss, with Wil even sacrificing payment when he guests with other performers as one of the few jazz trumpeters in the area.

The 48-year-old, who has been playing trumpet since the age of ten and playing professionally since he was 17, says: “That’s not sustainable for a small working men’s club.

“Use it or lose is is the most apt phrase you can have. It would be a big loss to the area.”

NatWest Jazz Band's Bob Higham and Steve Davies perform at Sutton Jazz Club in May 1990.

The club ran weekly from its inception four decades ago, but dropped to monthly when John North, who had been running it for nearly 35 years, stepped down a couple of years ago and Wil took over.

John, from Sutton, was part of a team who took over the club in the early 1980s after it was initially set up by Dave Hunter, although, as people left, he eventually “finished up doing pretty much everything”.

The 81-year-old says: “When we took over, we said we’d like to keep it running so it made ten years, but now it’s coming up to 40 years.

“We ran 46 weeks a year, with August and two weeks at Christmas off. In one year, I had more than 20 bands that were coming - people didn’t have a chance to get fed up with the bands.“

Former Sutton Jazz Club promoter John North looks at some photographs of past performances.

He said other jazz clubs had been around longer, but kept changing venues, whereas the Sutton club was proud to still call the Unwin club its home.

And the club has welcomed some big names from the traditional jazz world, such as Martin Bennett’s Old Green River Band, and Annie Hawkins, as well as national band leader and the late Ken Colyer and Humphrey Lyttelton in years past.

“It is a nationally recognised club,” says John. “It got to be that bands were ringing me from as far away as London and the North-East to come and play.

“We put Sutton on the map in the jazz world.”

John himself, got into a jazz as a young boy listening to stations such as American Forces Network on the radio – the first LP he bought after receiving a record player for his 13th birthday in 1952 was a Louis Armstrong recording from 1926.

However, he recognises it is a struggle to attract young people to jazz now.

Musician Wil Robinson runs Sutton-in-Ashfield Jazz Club.

He described the decline in audience numbers as “inevitable” as veteran club-goers pass on.

“It’s music young people don’t take to,” he says.

And Wil, a former military band member attached to the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, admits jazz can be a dirty word with some people.

“There are sections within jazz that are quite niche – free jazz, modern jazz and bebop are not easy listens,” he says.

“However, traditional or New Orleans jazz is. It’s easy on the ear, it’s melodic, its exciting, its accessible.

“When we play weddings, one of the first things people say is they don’t like jazz, but they liked that. It’s simply because they’re not exposed to it.”

Now he is hoping to expose more people to it with the hope the club can thrive towards its golden anniversary in 2030.

Indeed, Wil himself will be on stage for the 40th anniversary night, on Thursday, January 30, performing with his own award-winning band Washington Whirligig.

Doors open at about 7.45pm for an 8.30pm start – entry on the door is £6 for club members and £7 for non-members – and Wil hopes to see a lot of the community there.

He says: “It’s a club that runs for the local community. Jazz is a community music.”

Washington Whirligig are, from left, Liz Hepworth, Wil Robinson, Rob Cotterell, David Hepworth and Andy Bramall.
Wil Robinson performing.