ROBBO’S TUNE – with jazz drummer & author Mark Robertson

pic by Pete Zulu

‘Off Key’ is the latest novel by Mark Robertson…

I was playing a residency in a jazz club that allowed me the chance to play with a lot of UK and Europe’s best mainstream jazz players.

These nights usually overran but no one minded, not even the bar staff as musicians from an earlier era would spend almost as much time talking about their previous escapades as playing music.

I put together a patchy screenplay in 2007 before I re-wrote it as a more fully realised novel between 2010 and 2014. But I think the idea came as early as 1986 during a walk in Turnpike Lane, London.

I was inspired by a tune from jazz musician, Iain Ballamy, plus many live music sessions over the years and helped by the melting pot that was Jazz Café in Pink Lane, Newcastle.

I came across the Jazz Café one day in Newcastle when rehearsing with The Hangarounds a band Ray Laidlaw was managing.

I walked past the Café and at the time the door had a slot in it when anyone wanting to gain entrance would be given the ‘once over’ by the legendary Keith Crombie – if you were lucky you got in. I’ll be honest I was a bit wary of going in at first.

Folklore had it that Keith had been one of a number of locals who had ‘politely’ requested The Kray Twins to return home when they had ventured North looking for somewhere to expand their empire.

The Hangarounds rehearsals went on for a week and eventually I passed when the door was open. I went in and offered my services. Within a fortnight I had a regular gig there and spent the best part of twenty years playing there, up to six gigs a week.

What were your early experiences of the Jazz Café ? 

In the early days punters were thin on the ground with the majority coming on Friday and Saturday nights, with seldom more than forty people in a place that could hold up to 160.

This left Keith with the conundrum of paying the bands enough to keep them sweet while remaining in business.

This he resolved in two ways, firstly scouring second-hand shops and picking up the best bargains, usually top drawer clothes, which he passed on to the resident musicians.

During these early days, pay for your night’s work often included leather jackets or barely worn brogue shoes.

His second life-saver was a number of cash generating parties, the most memorable being themed on Berlin in 1932 and a rather left field Dadaist party.

On one occasion I went to the upstairs toilet only to encounter a seven-foot (in heels) transvestite, unencumbered by any sort of clothing – Keith didn’t buy women’s clothes.

The absence of anywhere open after 11p.m, other than nightclubs, led to an increasing stream of the city’s most interesting residents and visitors taking in the Jazz Caff as its popularity grew.

Scottish Opera, Opera North, The Royal Ballet, The RSC and numerous visiting musicians plying their trade in musicals at the cities theatres would sit in with whatever band was earning their threads for the week.

Keith was never happier than when engaged in conversation with these groups, keen to show all, but especially those from London, that we had culture of our own in the North-East.

Who else was playing the Café ?

The artistic freedom of the Caff made it a training ground for musicians as diverse as Seb Roachford, drummer from the Mercury-nominated Polar Bear to Matt Jones, currently playing keyboards for Liam Gallagher.

It also saw its fair share of jazz legends come through the door to sit in and play, people like Wynton Marsalis, Russell Malone and Harry Connick Jnr. The change in licensing laws hit the Caff badly and, in all honesty, it never really recovered.

Although the pinnacle of his happiness, in my opinion, was the night Keith had to turn away thirty punters because, even had they queued all night, there still wouldn’t have been room for them.

This made Keith laugh quite a lot and, after the struggle he’d had to keep the place open, who could blame him. These were the Jazz Caff’s heydays and I thought there was no finer place in the world to be making music.

The film director Abi Lewis made an award winning, feature length documentary on Keith Crombie – The Geordie Jazz Man which is well worth catching if you can. It really is a potted history of music in the North East from the ‘50s to almost the present day.

pic. Dave Taylor Photography

Are you from a musical family and what got you first interested in music ? 

On the 29th of January 1969 the six-year-old me, in bed, could hear the euphoric music on Top of the Pops wind its way up the stairs.Fleetwood Mac had hit No.1 with Albatross.

It wasn’t anything like nursery rhymes or the music on children’s television, but I knew it made me feel blissful.

Whilst my parents liked music we didn’t own a record player and there wasn’t any older brothers or sisters to ‘educate’ me. The very idea of ‘owning’ music was beyond me.

This was an era when you could still pay to listen to the number one by calling Dial a Disc on your telephone.

After my father’s early death in ‘72, a record player appeared in the house. The first thing I was compelled to buy was The Theme to Colditz and then The Best of Val Doonican.

Suffering that lack of older sibling guidance again. I bought the odd single, but little stood out. The next light bulb moment was in ‘74, seeing Cozy Powell play Dance with the Devil.

That wise sage Dolly Parton once said ‘Find out what you like to do and get someone to pay you to do it’ which I really should get tattooed somewhere.

Next I bought an £8 drum kit, and I was off. I started in a few bands with friends before hitting the North-East club circuit.

Have you any memories from club land ?

Sometime ago I was doing a dep gig in a club outside the North East, for Kevin Scott who was in Small Town Heroes. When we went in the whole venue had an air of the ‘wild west’ about it, not least the number of small children roaming around inside.

During our second set a ‘lady’ of a certain age clambered on stage and began propositioning the band, sexually . . . mid song. It transpired that it was her birthday and her daughter’s attempt to remove her from the stage came to naught.

Eventually a bouncer appeared and tried to reason with her. In a move that wouldn’t have shamed Lionel Messi she managed to nut the bouncer and then knee him in the balls as he went down. As this went on the whole club began to get a bit lively the phrase ‘The next dance is a fight’ may have got a mention.

It was at this point I became aware of our crew dismantling the equipment and removing it from the stage at a speed which could only be described as Olympian. I’d done enough gigs that this sort of altercation wasn’t unique.

What was a first was the ‘lady’ concerned was still in the club as we left, arguing the toss with the bouncer.  

Next on the cards for Robbo was a journey doon south….

I left University in ’85, ended up in London and three months later doing the show Godspell. At the end of the show’s run I got a gig in what was, to all intents and purposes, a brothel in the West End.

The band played six sets a night, 45 mins on 15 off, from 9pm till 3am, six times a week.

I didn’t drive at the time and after trying to catch twenty winks during the last set I would walk into Trafalgar Square where I would get a night bus home that would have me comfortably in bed by 6am.

I stayed in London for five years, did a little teaching and formed a jazz trio with session guitarist, James Woodrow and bass player Phil Scragg who was playing with Robert Plant at the time.

I was still looking for a more commercial band whilst I did this. I played in many weird and wonderful outfits but never found anyone to progress with.

On a visit home in 1989 I went to Impulse Studio, Wallsend to meet up with an old friend who was working with Sunderland band the Faithful Colours. The band I was looking for in London had been under my nose all along. I told them if they ever needed a drummer to give me a ring.

Next summer they did and I still play with them to this day. They’ve had some near misses notably recording an album with Elvis Costello’s label in ‘97 before it was taken over by the people who owned Woolies’.

Are you still playing now ?

After Keith Crombie’s death in 2013 a lot of my jazz work dried up and I found myself playing in a Housemartins/Beautiful South tribute band working the O2 Academy circuit. Nobody ever tries to pay us with second hand garments.

For more info contact the official website: offkeythenovel

‘Off Key’ -The Greatest Story Ever Told About Love and Jazz (in Sunderland) by Mark Robertson is available now and on kindle through Amazon.

Interview by Alikivi  December 2020.