Enter Grandma Lee

Published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Spring 2008, and Just Jazz, July 2009

From the early 1960s the exigencies of the political life pretty well kicked into touch any possibility of advance or regular bookings and, consequently, for a number of years both in London and Leeds it was a question of "sitting in" with those brave local bandleaders prepared to risk their band's reputation for a short period while I attempted to keep up. One such generous friend was the late Al Potts. Al was the landlord first of The Coburg pub in central Leeds and, later, The Dock Green, a few miles further east.

Given that during Al's tenancy, each pub became a centre for classic jazz, I often wondered whether he took on this role purely to ensure he had a regular place to play. To those who were aware of it, Al had a rather unnerving habit of removing his false teeth in order to sing and slipping them back when resuming his clarinet playing. He accomplished this manoeuvre with such consummate skill that very few in the audience were ever aware of it, but to those of us who did know, it became almost an obsession to catch a glimpse of his swift sleight of hand.

One Easter weekend, soon after I became a Leeds MP, I came across Al Potts and another well known Yorkshire jazzman, John Pashley, busking in the central Leeds precinct. I stopped to pass the time of day and Al asked me if I had my clarinet with me. As it happened it was in the boot of my car. "Get it,".instructed Al. I duly obeyed and made the duet into a trio.

One or two passers by looked understandably puzzled that it might conceivably be a local MP busking in the city centre, but then an earnest young man approached Al. "Can I give you this leaflet," he asked. "Certainly," replied Al. The leaflet in question was on animal welfare and it was headed, "Ask your MP these questions." Ever willing to please, Al told the youth that he would ask his MP immediately, and turned towards me. The youth got quite cross and informed Al that animal welfare was a serious matter and was not to be treated as joke. Al protested that it actually was his MP next to him, whereupon the youth threatened to punch him. I had to produce my House of Commons ID card to pacify the young man. I recollect that we received the mammoth sum of 2p during my performance there.

Round about the same time my son, Andrew, called me. Was I free the following Saturday, as he had a gig at Spring Street Theatre in Hull? I was, and the prospect of a sitting in for a few numbers seemed a pleasant thought. I arrived at the theatre in good time and, as I prepared my clarinet and soprano saxophone, Andrew casually informed me that the booking was for a two-piece and that I was 50% of it! It was suddenly a much less attractive idea but there was nothing for it but to get stuck in. As the evening wore on I noticed a rather elderly gentleman looking at me intently. Eventually, between numbers, he came over the bandstand: "Do you know," he said, "there's a bloke in politics in Leeds who is the spitting image of you." I expressed appropriate surprise and carried on!

Bit by bit a demand for a jazz group arose within the Liberal party. Initially I was asked to put a band together to play before the annual revue and during its interval at each party conference performance. Then we were asked to accompany some of the songs, and we finished up with a complete New Orleans style lineup, with broadcaster, Chris Serle, on drums and House of Commons doctor David Snashall on banjo. The latter joined as a result of the health screening programme for MPs.

When this scheme arrived at the letter 'M', I was duly examined by Dr Snashall. In the course of this session David asked what I did to relax. "I play very old-fashioned jazz," I replied. "So did I," David commented. "What instrument," "Banjo," "You've just been auditioned."He's played with the band ever since.

In those days across the road from Big Ben was Grandma Lee's restaurant where the Liberal Whips Office team met for breakfast every morning to discuss tactics for the day. One the first floor was a piano and I asked the manager whether the band could play there occasionally. He was very enthusiastic, even to the extent of having tee shirts printed with its acquired name: "The Granny Lee All Stars." For most of my time in parliament we had a monthly residency there, well patronised by tourists, particularly American visitors, who were very generous in their applause and exigent in their requests for obscure 1920s numbers, quite unaware that this was an amateur group mainly composed of Liberal politicians.

Shortly after my defeat at the 1987 general election I realised that my political career was waning when I arrived at Leeds station one evening and grabbed a taxi. The driver looked at me and said, "I know you." I smiled with contentment awaiting his comment about my being a Liberal politician. "You're that clarinettist," he went on. I retired, discomforted.