The Sunset Cafe Stompers started out in the 1980s and have had a great time playing New Orleans jazz ever since.
The band was founded by cornettist Alan Potton and pianist Mike Denham. The two musicians had played for the respected Midlands band “The Eric Dolby Jazzmen” in the 1970s, and by coincidence found themselves in Dorset in the early ‘80s. It was then only a matter of time before the Sunset Cafe Stompers were formed.
Some initial gigs were played in Dorchester at the Marabout Castle pub (now a health club) in 1985. But the first sessions with a regular line-up were at the Greyhound Hotel in Bridport in the late ‘80s. The personnel were Alan (Cnt), Mike (Pno), Bob Boorman (Tbn), Mike Pass (Bjo), Matt Tucker (Clt), Mike Chorley (Bs), Nigel Stockwell (Dms).
After a year or so, Peter Farley replaced Mike Pass on banjo and Rick Coyne took over from Matt Tucker on clarinet. This band had limited collective experience of New Orleans style jazz, but under Alan's guidance an exciting style emerged. By 1990 the band was well into a weekly residency at the New Inn, Charminster with a very loyal clientele, a session that lasted 7 years until the landlord moved abroad.
A highlight of those days was the first appearance of the SCS at the Bude Jazz Festival in 1991. People still recall that evening in the Hawarden Club! This session nearly did not happen, with some of the instruments locked in Mike Denham’s car ... with the car keys. Returning to the scene after phoning the AA, Denham found that Chorley had managed to break in ... to a similar car nearby! The band’s first issued recording, Stomping at Bude, was recorded at the Hawarden Club session.
Another early highlight was the first visit of the band, with a coach-load of supporters, to London’s 100 Club in April 1992.
Bob Kefford joined on trombone later in 1992 and went on to play a very influential role in the band.
Mike Chorley, a tremendous character and a leading figure in the Weymouth community, died suddenly in 1993, an event which shocked everyone. We marked it with a splendid parade along the Weymouth quayside. Julian Davies then joined on double bass. Julian, a well-known figure on the UK scene, had been a member of the renowned Crane River Jazz Band – a leading band in the British New Orleans revival of the 40s & 50s – and he certainly added jazz pedigree!
Around this time the band began to spread its wings and over the next few years we visited jazz clubs and festivals from Bude to Hull, from Farnham to Keswick, to (generally!) great acclaim. Several more recordings were issued, including Festival (1994), Hot Stomps (1995), Beautiful Sunset (1996) and Come on and Stomp, Stomp, Stomp (1999).
After a long period of stability, the late ‘90s saw a flurry of personnel changes. Nigel Stockwell and Rick Coyne, who had each developed a fine New Orleans style with the Stompers, retired through ill health. Nigel was replaced by Don Kassell (like Nigel, a former dance band drummer) and John Levett (a clarinettist with a fine track record with Dixieland bands) took over Rick’s seat. John, an ebullient personality, and Don, who never seemed less than extremely cheerful himself, fitted in well and contributed greatly to the life and music of the band. Sadly, John was to die in the Asian tsunami just a few years later.
In 1999 the SCS played the Keswick jazz festival. Travelling up to the Lake District, Julian’s beloved double bass detached itself from the roof of his car and became finely distributed over the northbound carriageway of the M5. This dramatic event catalysed Julian’s decision to stop playing jazz. We welcomed Pete Ward on bass, a man with wide experience in several of the best West Country bands.
To cap all these changes, Alan Potton announced his retirement from the band at the end of that year. Alan, a top-class cornet player, had fronted the band on stage since its inception and was undoubtedly instrumental in the success the band enjoyed. His departure was a turning point.
Mike Denham took over the reins, managing the band and continuing to steer its musical direction. At the same time, Jim Holmes, who had recently moved to Dorset, settled into the trumpet chair. With a well-deserved reputation based on his playing in the London area and in Europe, Jim immediately made his mark.
As a Bridport resident, Jim could indulge his other passion – Guinness – at our monthly Monday dates at the Bull Hotel in East Street. Indeed audiences for these back room sessions responded well to the new line-up, growing substantially despite the freezing cold in Winter and the sweaty heat in Summer! A highlight of 2002 was the celebration in March of our “ten years of Bull” under the stewardship of landlord Ray Buzza. A huge audience tested the structure of the old building.
Clarinettist Terry Emptage joined the band in 2002 for a two year spell. Terry, a veteran of the Eel Pie Island jazz scene in the 1950s, brought an unprecedented level of instrument mastery with him! Pete Winterhart came in at about the same time on drums. Pete is the most intuitive of drummers whose rich textures contribute enormously to our New Orleans sound.
During the early noughties we made another very enjoyable appearance at Bude Jazz Festival (2002) and made short tours to the North (of Bristol), the “Far East” and the London area, visiting Nottingham, Warrington, Bingley, Halesowen, Albrighton, Norwich, Yarmouth, Colchester, Birmingham, Tamworth, Chaddesley Corbett, Enfield, Eton..... We took a coach load of supporters with us to perform for the second time at 100 Oxford Street. Our appearances in the West Country for parties, jazz clubs, weddings, concerts and the like, continued unabated. Our next recordings were issued on CD, with Down South (2001) followed by Monday Date (2002) and Dreamy Sunset (2004). In 2004, Mike Betts replaced Terry on clarinet, bringing with him a delightful playing style, a tenor sax, and a dry sense of humour!
Things were going well when, in 2006, the Bull Hotel was sold and the band was unceremoniously “released” by the new owners; a sorry end to what was an institution, both for us and our regulars. Fortunately we were able to keep up our regular monthly sessions, first at the Coach and Horses, South Perrott and latterly at the nearby Winyards Gap Inn. In this period we played several gigs with young vocalist Caroline Rovina, including another visit to Bude jazz fest. Caroline joins us on several tracks of our CD Don’t Advertise Your Man (2007).
By this time, church and village hall concerts had become a notable part of the band’s very varied programme. They’re a great way of playing to an attentive and appreciative audience, while making good sums of money for local causes. And there’s often a pub nearby. To date, we have played in more than fifty churches in the West Country, returning to many of them by popular demand.
In 2008, we were shocked to lose Pete Farley, who died suddenly. At a gig a day or two beforehand, Pete leaned back in his chair and declared “Life doesn’t get much better than this!” - an appropriate epitaph for a very fine banjo player and great bloke. After a long search, we were delighted when Eddie Edwards joined the band in 2010.
Also in 2010, another very fine player—Pete Middleton—joined the band when long-serving trombonist Bob Kefford decided to take things a bit more easy.
Bob still plays occasional gigs with the band and was instrumental in producing our CD Best Of Times (2010) which is a compilation of tracks chosen mostly from our tapes and CDs of the preceding 20 years.
Meanwhile Jim Holmes found us a new residency, at the excellent Ropemakers in Bridport. The “Ropeys” has the benefit of great landlords and local Palmers ales in perfect condition, and we’re still enjoying monthly sessions there with a very friendly and loyal audience.. Unfortunately, after a year or so of gigs within walking distance of home, Jim became ill in early 2012 and was obliged to stop playing, at least for the time-being, a very sad event for everyone who appreciated Jim’s innate jazz-ness.
Fortunately for the SCS, at this time we were able to recruit Steve Graham, one of the finest and most popular New Orleans style trumpeters in the UK. As one might expect, Steve is making his personal mark on the band which, excitingly, continues to evolve “before your very eyes”!
Meanwhile our diary remains healthy. We’ve played private parties and concerts in a huge variety of venues, from pubs to theatres, from beach cafes to stately homes. Dozens of churches and village halls in Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Wiltshire have now been packed with happy people enjoying our mixture of ragtime, spirituals and hot New Orleans jazz. And quite a few jazz clubs and jazz festivals invite us to play—which we’re always delighted about.
The jazz scene is constantly changing, even in the wilds of Wessex. What does the future hold? Who knows... but then, that’s jazz!