For those post war baby boomers who were in their teens and twenties in the 1960s and who lived within striking distance of Newcastle, nights out in the city couldn’t have been much better. With its abundance of clubs and dance venues, Newcastle was a magnet for people out for a good time, in particular dancers and lovers of ‘live music’. Among the city’s popular venues in the mid sixties was the Club A’Gogo on Percy Street, a club that attracted some of the top rock, blues and soul bands of the era. Young men and women would flock to the club to see bands such as The Animals, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, The Spencer Davis Group, Jeff Beck as well as American acts like John Lee Hooker, Wilson Pickett and Captain Beefheart.
Since its demise in 1968, the Gogo has achieved legendary status. You only have to look at the two hundred or so comments on the Club A’Gogo page of this web site to see how highly regarded it was for the people who experienced nights out at the club. But, in more ways than one, the iconic Club A’Gogo owed its existence to an earlier and lesser known Newcastle venue – the Marimba Coffee House on High Bridge, just off Grey Street.
The Gogo evolved from Newcastle’s bustling jazz scene of the mid to late fifties. The club was opened as a jazz venue in 1962 by entrepreneur and ardent jazz fan, Michael Jeffery. In the fifties, Jeffery had been a mature student at Newcastle’s Kings College (now Newcastle University) where, because of his interest in jazz he was on the committee that ran the Student Jazz Club. Popular local trad jazz bands played at the Student Jazz Club including the college’s own house band – the Blue Star Stompers.
The Student Jazz Club was popular with a lot of students but apparently not with college authorities who weren’t impressed with some of the drunken behaviour at the dances, or ‘stomps’ as they were known, which the Jazz Club ran in the Union refectory. The stomps at the college were suspended, which led to Mike Jeffery looking for an alternative venue. From his experience of running dances for the students he realised that there was a lot money to be made by promoting jazz; money that was better in his own pocket than in the coffers of a college committee.
Mike Jefferey turned his attention to the Cordwainers Hall on Nelson Street, Newcastle situated above the Gardners Arms public house. On the nights that it was not being used by a dance school, run by Brian and Evelyn Patterson, Jeffery rented the premises and opened up the University Jazz Club. Although nominally linked to the university, this was a private venture with the profits going straight to Mike Jeffery. Along with another Newcastle jazz club, the New Orleans, his club became one of the mainstays of the city’s thriving jazz scene of the late fifties.
In his biography, ex-Animal Eric Burdon said of the club “It was three floors up on the edge of a big market [Newcastle’s Grainger Market]. It was a hot club. Mighty Joe Young played there regularly, as did the Clyde Valley Stompers. The best of the north-eastern music scene was represented at the club. It attracted a cross section of students and street people.”
It was at the University Jazz Club that Mike Jeffery met Chuck and Kath Ward, two people who would play a big part in his next venture. At the time Mike Jeffery was dating an attractive art student named Cathleen Long. Cathleen, along with Chuck and Kath shared a mutual love of jazz and so became regular attendees at the University Jazz Club. The four jazz lovers became firm friends. Chuck and Kath became involved in the running of the club – Chuck as an occasional doorman and Kath on the cloakroom along with her sister, Mary.
Over time the concept of a special music venue evolved – a place the likes of which Newcastle had never seen before. The idea was for a sophisticated jazz venue aimed at a late night crowd similar to Ronnie Scott’s Club in London’s West End. Like Ronnie Scott’s it would provide first class jazz for a discerning audience with decor and ambience being key factors. In daylight hours the venue would be open as a restaurant cum coffee shop serving up good food and espresso coffee for a perceived clientele of students. Mike Jeffery and Chuck Ward had some great ideas and both were involved in the planning and creation of the new venue. Mike Jeffery was not just a dreamer – he was the type of person to get things done. Mike and Chuck’s vision eventually emerged in the form of the Marimba Coffee House in the premises of an empty shop on the south side of High Bridge near its junction with Grey Street. The project was financed by a Mr Capstaff in the form of a loan, which also made him a shareholder.
After a lengthy period of refurbishment, the Marimba Coffee House opened its doors. The first advertisement for the establishment appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 15th May 1959. By day it served Italian food and snacks at prices students could afford. However, at night it became something different – a late night club with jazz being served up by some of the best musicians around, well into the early hours of the morning.
The Marimba was lavishly decorated. All the crockery and effects were specially bought in, some displaying the Marimba logo. It had bespoke manufactured carpets. Local artist and author Scott Dobson, with the help of his students, created a colourful mosiac of a two headed serpent on the walls using broken crockery.
The Marimba Coffee House was spread over three floors. The coffee shop and restaurant were on the ground floor. This floor looked out onto street level through small glass shapes. The room had a strong aroma of parmesan cheese and pasta. There was a large bird cage with exotic birds near to the entrance. On this floor, which housed around eight tables, there was an Italian Gaggia-type coffee machine. Although Italian styled coffee shops were quite common in London’s Soho area by the late fifties, the Marimba was the first of its kind in Newcastle. Coffee, donuts and cakes as well as full meals and snacks were served on this floor by chefs, Domenica, Mario and Alfredo who were all Italian.
On the next floor down, the second or middle level, there was another room with approximately ten tables plus a jukebox. This floor sometimes attracted the younger generation who enjoyed the juke box and the trendy drink of the time – Coca Cola.
The main attraction of the Marimba Coffee House and its raison d’être was on the next floor down, which was known as ‘The Crypt’. This was the room into which people crowded to hear late night jazz performed by some of the best jazz musicians in Newcastle and beyond. The Crypt had a very low ceiling. Anyone who was taller than six foot would have to crouch. There were a few small stools and a coffee machine under the stairs. By all accounts the Crypt would become very hot and smokey. The aroma of coffee would add to the electric atmosphere created by the musicians and their expectant audience.
Eric Burdon’s description of The Crypt is as follows: –
“In the basement was the jazz room. It was cramped, with gas pipes and drainpipes criss-crossing the ceiling. But on Saturday nights it was packed with bodies that provided the main source of heat. So the more the merrier. Most of the music was provided by the Carr brothers. Many is the night I would spend at Mike Jeffery’s Marimba with a bottle of vodka in my pocket, and a cup of coffee, wearing a duffel court which I never took off.”
Of course, as a coffee house the Marimba was not licensed but many people followed Eric Burdon’s example and discreetly brought in their own illicit alcohol in a hip flask.
Mary Hebron, Chuck Ward’s sister-in-law, who worked at the Marimba as a waitress for a while, had this to say about the Crypt: –
“The very lowest floor was known as ‘The Crypt’. It had originally been a wine storage area and was nothing more than a plaster coated cave. This is where the music took place. It was very small and you had to bow your head to enter. A cappuccino machine hissed and gurgled frothy coffee into glass cups. Hundreds of bottles of Coca Cola were also sold, a drink regarded as sophisticated in those days. It was here that all the action took place. The crypt attracted all the young musicians and, apart from the talented EmCee Five, I also espied Eric Burdon from time to time. It would never have passed today’s health and safety laws.”
Lots of local, national and international jazz musicians would visit the Marimba after their own gigs in the city had finished and offer their services for free. Amongst those well known British musicians who came to jam with the house band were Acker Bilk and Humphrey Littleton. In general the Marimba attracted a great crowd of interesting and intellectual people all there for the mutual love of music.
Probably the most acclaimed north east jazz group to play at the Marimba was the newly formed EmCee Four. In 1958 drummer Ronnie Stevenson moved to Newcastle and put the band together with Malcolm Cecil on bass , Mike Carr on piano and vibes and Scottish saxophonist Gary Cox. The band was described as the best jazz group ever assembled outside London. Such was their reputation that once when the EmCee Four were playing at the Marimba on a Saturday night, the BBC turned up and recorded them.
In March 1960 Mike Carr’s brother, Ian arrived back in Newcastle after completing his National Service. He found Mike leading a world-class quartet and the city buzzing with vitality. Ian Carr had this to say about the Marimba and the EmCee Four: –
“Mike Jeffreys, who would later manage the Animals and (with Chas Chandler) Jimi Hendrix, had dropped out of an economics degree course at Kings in the late 1950s and, inspired by his love of jazz and rock music, was flexing his muscles as an entrepreneur. He first started a Sunday night Dixieland session which became very popular and then was financed by a Mr Capstaff to open the Marimba Coffee House where the EmCee Four were resident every Saturday night from midnight until 3.00 a.m. Gary Cox and Ronnie Stephenson were with the Don Smith band at the Oxford Galleries dance hall until 11.30 each night, which was why the Marimba sessions had to start so late. They were both brilliantly gifted musicians with the true jazz musician’s overwhelming passion to play. Malcolm Cecil was a leading London bass player who was doing his National Service with the RAF at Catterick, but he had left Newcastle and the EmCee Four before I arrived back on the scene and his place was taken by another Don Smith employee, bassist John O’Carroll.”
Trumpeter Ian Carr would later join his brother’s band which was renamed the EmCee Five.
Double bass player, Tommy Henderson was the first musician to perform in The Crypt at the Marimba with his Latin American Quartet. He played there regularly from the opening night in 1959 through to August 1961 when his band moved on to be resident band at Emersons. Tommy has many fond memories of his time at the Marimba: –
“We all played for free and I shared the nights with Mike Carr’s EmCee Four and The Bernie Thorpe Trio with lots of visiting musicians sitting in. We all used the Marimba to relax, have coffee and nice meals, practically every day. It was always busy on the first and second floor and, of course, The Crypt was always packed for the music. It was a complete mix of office girls, students, Theatre Royal actors and performers plus many musicians. Great atmosphere always.
“I remember that a Spanish flamenco group from the Theatre Royal liked the Latin music, and suddenly we were hearing a lot of Geordie Spanish shouts from some of the customers. Quite funny! The Modern Jazz Quartet played at the Downbeat and we all came back to the Marimba and talked all night about the American Jazz scene. Later when I was playing at Greys Club a round of drinks for the band came up, sent by Percy Heath the Modern Jazz Quartet’s bass player who came up and sat in with us.”
Jazz guitarist Maurice Summerfield remembers playing at the Marimba on Tuesday and Thursday evenings as part of the Bernie Thorpe Trio, which also included Bernie on piano and Alan Collins on bass.
In spite of the initial popularity of the Marimba things did eventually take a downward turn. Anyone familiar with the life of Mike Jeffery will know of his reputation for allegedly making money disappear; something that The Animals and the late Jimi Hendrix found out much too late. The suspicion that Jeffery was syphoning money from the business into his own pocket probably led Chuck Ward distancing himself from him and the Marimba. By 1961 Mike Jeffery had picked up another partner; a Newcastle entrepreneur called Ray Grehan. Jeffery and Grehan formed a limited company called Expresso Maze Ltd. By May 1961 the pair had opened up a dancing club above the Marimba called El Toro.
In 1960 and 1961 Mike Jeffery was also running another more popular jazz venue named the Downbeat which was situated at Carliol Square. Unlike the Marimba the Downbeat had an alcohol license. In his biography, Eric Burdon had this to say about the two venues: –
“The Marimba had a better reputation than the Downbeat and didn’t get raided by the police nearly as much. But perhaps because of the Latin connotation it did less business unless there was a guest star like Ronnie Scott.”
Mike Jeffery and Ray Grehan had ambitious plans to open a larger club and had gone ahead and purchased premises in Percy Street, Newcastle. However, at that stage their funds didn’t stretch to fitting out the club to the standard they wanted.
On 13th November 1961 a fire, which originated in the basement, gutted the premises and resulted in the Marimba and El Toro closing on a permanent basis. Although it was attributed to faulty electrical wiring, many people are of the opinion that the fire was no accident and was started deliberately for the insurance money. This view is firmly held by Mike Jeffery’s girlfriend at the time, Jenny Clarke, who worked at the Marimba. She believed the fire at the Marimba was organised or started by Mike Jeffery to finance his next venture. Eric Burden also takes this view. Of Mike Jeffery’s two venues at the time, the Marimba and the Downbeat, the Downbeat was the one he could least afford to lose. So was the Marimba Coffee House and the El Toro destined to go up in flames?
Not too long after the fire Mike Jeffery received a huge payout from his insurance company. The Club A’Gogo was born.
Like the Marimba, Mike Jeffery’s Club A’Gogo was an instant success. The Gogo directly resulted in Mike Jeffery becoming manager of the chart topping Newcastle band – The Animals. Three years later in 1966, due to his connection with The Animals bass player Chas Chandler, Mike Jeffery struck gold a second time by becoming the manager of one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music – Jimi Hendrix. Mike Jeffery died aged 39 in1973 when the aeroplane in which he was travelling collided with another near the French city of Nantes.
But what happened to the other people who had contributed to the success of the Marimba Coffee House?
Co-founder of the Marimba, Chuck Ward, severed his links with Mike Jeffery long before it closed under suspicious circumstances. He went on to manage the renowned Panorama Restaurant in Shephards Of Gateshead, a store once described as “the biggest and best” in the north east. After the Panorama he went on to manage other pubs in the Newcastle area. His lifetime love of jazz continues.
Marimba chef, Mario De Giorgi, as well as holding down a full-time factory job, worked at the Marimba on evenings and weekends. He began selling Italian food to restaurants and shops throughout the country from his delicatessen van after which became the long-time owner of the renowned Don Vitos Italian restaurant in Newcastle.
As for the musicians who regularly appeared at the Marimba: –
Mike Carr of the EmCee Four (and Five) went on to become one of the world’s leading jazz organists as well as a highly respected vibraphonist and pianist. Many top jazz musicians who saw Mike Carr performing at the Marimba and Mike Jeffery’s Downbeat club recognised his talent. These included bandleader Johnny Dankworth. Mike’s reputation spread to London and, after recording two albums with the EmCee Five, he moved to the capital. He began his career in London by accompanying (on piano) the legendary American saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. For a while he worked with American soul-blues band Herbie Goins and the Night-Timers, luring their guitarist, John McLaughlin into his own trio. He toured with Screaming Jay Hawkins before becoming a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club, going on to join the Ronnie Scott band that appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York. During his illustrious career, Mike Carr worked with some of the top names in jazz including trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Art Farmer, saxophonists Illinois Jacquet, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Benny Waters and Johnny Griffin.
Mike’s brother Ian had an equally distinguished career as a trumpeter and author. He is perhaps best known for founding the British jazz-rock band Nucleus in 1969 and performing with the band. He took Nucleus to the Montreux jazz festival (where it won the European Broadcasting Union prize) and then to the Newport jazz festival in the US in 1970, where it became one of the few British jazz rock bands to make a big impact.
Sadly, Mike and Ian are no longer with us. Ian died in 2009 and Mike, more recently, on 22nd September 2017
After leaving the EmCee Four, bassist Malcolm Cecil relocated to London where, amongst others, he worked with Dick Morrissey and Ronnie Scott. He later joined Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner to form the original line-up of Blues Incorporated. With a background knowledge of electronics, which he acquired while serving with RAF, he went on to invent the TONTO synthesiser (“The Original New Timbral Orchestra”); the world’s first and still the largest multi-timbral polyphonic analog synthesiser. He founded the influential synthesiser duo – Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Apart from being a synthesiser programmer and performer, Malcolm Cecil is also a Grammy-winning recording engineer. He has produced for Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, Richie Havens, Minnie Ripperton, Steven Stills, Joan Baez and many other major recording artists.
“I formed the Latin American band to play in the Marimba. The lady who owned the Emerson Restaurant heard the music and asked me to be the resident band at her restaurant. Then Mike Jeffery asked me to play at the Club A’Gogo. From there we moved to open Wetherells club in Sunderland, as well as the first nights at some of the Bailey Organisation’s new clubs in the north east. Then we moved to Newcastle and were resident band at Greys Club with their fabulous cabarets. While there we were on call for a while at Tyne Tees TV studios to back various American singers. From there we opened the Pickwick Club at Whitley Bay.”
Tommy went on to manage Julie’s Club on Newcastle’s Quayside.
Although not as well known as the Club A’Gogo the Marimba Coffee House played an important part in Newcastle’s musical heritage. Like the Gogo, the building that housed the Marimba no longer exists. It has been replaced with a modern building.
For those who were part of the north east jazz scene in the late fifties/early sixties the Marimba will be remembered as an innovative, exciting, unique venue that, for a short time, brought a touch of London’s West End to Newcastle.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Mark Ward, Chuck & Kath Ward and Mary Hebron for providing the inspiration and material for this blog. Also special thanks to Tom Henderson for his input and allowing me to use his wonderful black and white photographs of the Marimba.