Ned Kelly's 35-year stand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am

Tomorrow marks a significant anniversary for jazz in Hong Kong: Ned Kelly's Last Stand in Ashley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, turns 35.

Ned's is by far the longest-serving jazz venue in town and as a pub rather than a club, it has never charged for admission. There will be no payment on the door for tomorrow night's celebratory gig at the venue, which will raise funds over the bar, and through a charity auction of pub memorabilia, for Operation Santa Claus.

It will include a live broadcast by RTHK Radio 3 of what promises to be a highly entertaining set by the resident band, the China Coast Jazzmen led by Colin Aitchison.

With its nostalgic Australian bush pub decor and pie and peas menu, Ned's has remained resolutely old-fashioned from the day it opened. That may be why it has outlasted almost every other themed bar from the 1970s, and is still going strong.

The same reliance on the tried and trusted has long applied to the musical fare, which is why, although it has consistently packed in punters and offered live music seven nights a week, Ned's gets less publicity than venues on the other side of the harbour with a more modern focus.

Quite a few of the musicians playing those venues, though, started out at Ned's. Anthony Fernandes, one of the city's best and most versatile drummers, anchored the house band for years before his talents were more widely recognised.

A huge cast of interesting characters and gifted musicians have at one time or another graced the pub's tiny but serviceable stage, ranging from members of Sergio Mendes' band to Kenny Ball's Jazzmen, a well-known British Trad ensemble who must have felt particularly at home there.

Rosemary Clooney, Kay Starr, and Matt Monroe all got up to sing. Charlie Barnet brought his sax down. Winifred Atwell sat down at the piano.

There have been some interesting bandleaders there too. When I drank my first cold beer in the bar in 1982 the band was led by tenor saxophonist the late Red Price, who made his name with the Ted Heath Band - a British ensemble which Count Basie said actually made him sweat.

The band of the early Ned's era played the good-time Trad, Dixieland, New Orleans - call it what you will - music with which the pub has long been associated, but also packed a bluesy punch and used to perform a show-stopping version of St James Infirmary Blues.

The house's trademark combination of jazz and ribald comedy was honed during the lengthy residency of Australian Ken Bennett and his Kowloon Honkers, from whom Aitchison and his band took over almost 10 years ago when Bennett decided to go home.

Aitchison had been standing in for Bennett on nights off for a while. A Geordie by birth, his father was a well-known jazz trumpeter in Britain who many established and up-and-coming musicians knew well.

Growing up, Aitchison remembers a young Alan Price calling round at the house, and later collaborating in the Newcastle Big Band with a youthful bassist called Gordon Sumner.

'That was Sting. He's now a multimillionaire. I'm not sure where I went wrong,' Aitchison says, ruefully.

He has probably had just as much fun playing music as the Police frontman has had leading the China Coasters, who formed in 1993, at jazz festival gigs representing Hong Kong in Denmark, Sacramento and Macau, as well as packing them in at Ned's.

The band - Aitchison, clarinetist and alto saxophonist Bayanie Baldevarona, multi-instrumentalist Aquilino Espiritu, drummer Robert Flores, saxophonist Ricardo Ronauillo, bassist Joe Nadres, and 80-year-old trumpeter, flugel horn player and vocalist Silverio 'Berry' Yaneza - usually play every night except for Sundays and Mondays when a relief group - usually including a couple of the China Coasters - stands in.

Tonight, however, they'll form the core of a big band session, which should also be worth catching, and tomorrow will be taking the stage at 9pm, with the broadcast starting at 10pm and going on to 11pm. If you can't be there, pour yourself a cold one, tune in to Radio 3 and get into the spirit of the event.

Ned's opened on December 18, 1972, because Tom Parker had established that the date was auspicious. So it seems to have turned out. He was asked at the time of opening by a panel of

local 'elders', who had to be consulted on licensing applications, how many 'girls' he intended

to employ.

He recalls replying, 'None, it is a pub and not a girlie bar, a straight drinking pub with no cover charge, no service charge, and no girls.

'Suddenly, all the elders laughed. 'No girls ... well, we all wish you well Mr Parker, but you'll never make it'. After 35 years, I think they got it wrong.'