Coming to blows
From Buddy Bolden to Louis Armstrong, they live on in the music.' So jazz and blues great Dr John said in gravelly tones on a recording from the 1970s. And at Ned Kelly's Last Stand in Tsim Sha Tsui, that legacy has continued for the past 35 years, with jazz played every night since June 1972 - well, apart from Christmas Day, when Ned's is selfishly shut for a staff party.
There are quite a few outlets for bebop and modern jazz, but Dixieland these days is a rare find in Hong Kong. But on June 22, resident Ned Kelly's band Colin Aitchison and the China Coast Jazzmen will celebrate a legacy begun in June 1972 by the bar's first band leader, Denis James. Ned Kelly's claims to be the oldest jazz bar in Asia and the longest-standing pub in one location in Hong Kong.
James, father of RTHK Radio 3 presenter Steve James, played piano with his band the Jamestown Five Plus Two. It started off as five, and two players joined later, but 'the Jamestown seven didn't sound right', James says from his present home in London, where he still plays gigs at the age of 70.
'We played Dixieland, mostly. In the first set we did a few swingers - modern stuff and that, you know ... Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and quite a lot of bebop. We had one of the best tenor saxes alive. He really was the business. Red Price was in a band during the second world war called the Squadronnaires and they were very big on the radio. He also was a member of the Ted Heath Orchestra, which played Carnegie Hall.'
James isn't the only one to praise Price - Aitchison still treasures an RTHK recording of James and Price together. Price was widely perceived as a musical genius, although he succumbed to alcoholism. He passed away at 58 and his ashes were spread over Victoria Harbour by a police helicopter, in keeping with his request to be buried at sea.
'He blew it really hard, really straight,' says James. 'And he could swing like the clappers. He also played piano ... everything. He was a genius, but drink took him away.'
As well as a varying band lineup, James recalls the famous faces that used to pop in when they were on tour in Hong Kong or came off cruise liners. Those who turned up in the early years for so called sit- ins with the band - a tradition that continues today - included Matt Munro, Rosemary Clooney and the Kenny Ball Band.
The bar's clientele up to 1997 consisted mostly of expatriates, British soldiers from the garrison and visiting US marines. There were a few incidents requiring the navy's attention, but Ned Kelly's doesn't really attract brawlers.
These days, there are tourists, businesspeople and - to the delight of director Mike Brown - many young local Chinese and other Asians lapping up the trad jazz.
Brown took over the pub 10 years ago on an understanding with owner Tom Parker that he keep it as a live jazz venue, a tradition he's maintained - along with the decor. The wooden wall panels of sporting heroes have yellowed with nicotine over the years, as have the panels showing Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and other ne'er-do-wells facing the gallows.
Brown also points out cartoons around the bar of banjo player Nigel Porteous, who played with James.
After James came the gruff but humorous band leader Ken Bennett, who would apologise to the audience if he hadn't insulted them by the end of the evening. Australian Bennett left in 1997. Although no one doubts his abilities as a musician and entertainer, his relationship with the band wasn't always a good one, despite his unquestionable love of jazz.
In a newspaper interview in 1992, he said: 'Jazz music is the grandfather of modern day rock'n'roll and R&B - without it there would be no modern music, no Elvis Presley or any of those
other famous rock'n'roll artists.'
These days, Aitchison has a six- to seven-member lineup playing Tuesdays to Saturdays. Two permanent band members then play with other musicians at Ned's on Sundays and Mondays. There's a mixture of jazz - Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Dixieland standards, including Sweet Georgia Brown, When the Saints Go Marching in and Royal Garden Blues.
Among the band's players are Portuguese-Filipino drummer Robert Flores, whose speciality is Benny Goodman's Sing Sing, Sing - for which he receives nightly standing ovations. But he only plays it in the second set, once he and his sticks have warmed up. Aitchison says he's the fastest drummer in Asia and the one who goes back with the band the longest, having been associated with it on and off for the past 26 years. Flores comes from a family of drummers and began his musical career at the age of eight with an upturned biscuit tin and a pair of chopsticks. 'Who are my favourite drummers? Ah, Buddy Rich, definitely,' he says.
One of the original members of the present band is Filipino Joe Nadras on bass and banjo. Over the years the band have had a variety of names, including the Jamestown Five and the Kowloon Honkers. Like Flores, Nadras seems to use good skin care cream - it's only later that you realise he's a bit older than he looks. Both he and versatile musician Aquilino Espiritu were in Vietnam entertaining US troops between 1968 and 1971 and Flores recalls playing during attacks.
The band's laid-back air defies the reality that Dixieland is tricky to play. Espiritu moves between guitar, banjo, sousaphone, tuba and sax and can also play the piano and drums - just in case.
Although trumpeter Berry Yaneza is a youngster in terms of the band, having joined only in 1998, this month he turns 80, making him, arguably, the oldest horn player in Hong Kong and possibly the oldest professional musician in Asia.
Yaneza came to Hong Kong in 1949 after entertaining US troops in Japan. He flew over Hiroshima shortly after it was bombed. In Hong Kong, he was central to the big band era, but he has always enjoyed improvising and learning new techniques.
Yaneza does a mean Harry James and still practises two hours a day in addition to his performances. He's also quite the comedian, wearing a wig and a dress on stage when required. 'I like making people laugh,' he says.
Aitchison says: 'As well as playing Dixieland, we're also a
bit of a show band. You've got to have fun.'
And, Yaneza says: 'You should never stop learning'. That's a tip
he received back in 1958 from a fellow trumpeter who was visiting Hong Kong. His name? Louis Armstrong.
Ned Kelly's Last Stand, 11A Ashley Rd, TST, nightly, 9.30pm-1am; special 35th anniversary performance, Jun 22, free. Inquiries: 2376 0562