IN EARLY November 1992, Simon Attwood of the Banbury Guardian wrote an article with the eye-catching caption ‘25 years of joyful jazz hits the right note’.
These words must have brought a glow of satisfaction to the face of Pete Lay who had founded the Banbury Jazz Club in 1967. The venue was the cellar bar of the Mount Hotel (now Banbury House Hotel) where members and guests were attracted by a succession of local and midland musicians rendering numbers in a style loosely described as from mainstream to Bebop.
Banbury Jazz Club never failed to inspire superlatives. In September 1987 there was a most fortunate coincidence, club night and the silver wedding anniversary of Pete and Dee Lay. Columnist Ted Hanson wrote, ‘Pete’s jazz night is silver edged’. Ted went on to remark that ‘Mr Versatility himself, John Patrick, was in town to ensure everyone had a really marvellous night out’. Music director for Central Television and a key figure in the Musicians’ Union, fans lapped up his piano playing.
Ted concluded his column with a short flier for the 20th anniversary occasion. In his characteristic style he anticipated ‘a real humdinger of a session’. When the day came it fell to the lot of Beowulf Mayfield to report on the gig. A highlight was an outstanding performance from the Terry Mortimer Trio with the addition of exciting numbers from surprise guest John Morrisson (trombone). Members tucked into a special cake and Gerry Dibsdale and Albert Dixon presented Pete Lay with a personalised T-shirt.
Nine years later Pete Lay was in a reflective mood during an interview with Richard Hollingum. It must have been with considerable pride that he commented ‘the great and good played at BJC’. They certainly did including Sir John Dankworth, Peter King and Joe Harriott (alto sax), Dick Morrissey, Ronnie Scott and Tommy Whittle (tenor sax). Morrissey had topped the bill in 1992 and made the occasion for Pete Lay when he drew him into a rendering of the Wardell Gray blues number Stoned.
Anniversaries were always great occasions. The 32nd in 1999 was no exception and attracted a visit by Banbury Guardian reporter Kerry Rogan who really set the scene when she wrote, ‘Ronnie Scott’s in London is famed for its promotion of British and international jazz musicians but Ronnie had better watch out because there’s a club hot on his tail’. Even more exciting was a reaction to this by Pete Lay who said ‘I don’t think we’ve changed that much over the years but we are most unusual. There’s not many jazz clubs that have lasted that long’.
By 2004 in a Banbury Cake feature, Julian Dancer was able to discern that club founder Pete had ‘a passion for that jazz’. Although an admission of 2/6 (12½p) in 1967 turned into £6 by 2004 fans appreciated what they were getting cost less than London prices. Members had had a brief change of venue to the Whately to allow the Mount to refurbish.
Julian’s article was probably the first occasion anyone realised Pete Lay had developed an interest in jazz way back in Banbury Grammar School days. As a lad of 12 he used to journey to London to visit jazz clubs and listen to the likes of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.
Sadly a bout of ill-health led to Pete closing down the Jazz Club in January 2007. Five years on and the good news is that he has now recovered and plans to revive BJC at a new haunt, Fabio’s Ristorante Italiano in North Bar. The opening night is Sunday, April 1, when the Pete Lay Quartet will be centre stage from 7.30pm to 10pm.