Emotions run high at last ever big band club meeting

The remaining members of The Association of Big Band Enthusiasts unite to mark the 40th anniversary on the final meeting of the society
The remaining members of The Association of Big Band Enthusiasts unite to mark the 40th anniversary on the final meeting of the society
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For almost forty years the hall of Cosham’s St Colman’s Church has echoed with the vibrant beat of swing and big band classics.

Every first Friday of the month the quaint hall, tucked behind the church in St Colman’s Avenue transformed into the home to The Association of Big Band Enthusiasts society.

David Blandford, 81, of Wesley Grove, Copnor was an original member and was saddened by the group's closure

David Blandford, 81, of Wesley Grove, Copnor was an original member and was saddened by the group's closure

In its heyday music-lovers from all walks of life and every corner of the city would travel there to listen to their favourite classics from the 40s and 50s.

However, as the years passed, numbers began to dwindle to just a handful of members.

Levels became so low organisers announced this month’s meeting – meant to be marking the 40th anniversary of the group – would be the last one.

‘It was a muted evening,’ admitted Tony White, whose father Jim set up the club in 1975. ‘We wanted to have a celebration to mark all we have achieved.

Tony White, with mum Betty. Tony's dad Jim set up the society

Tony White, with mum Betty. Tony's dad Jim set up the society

‘But people went the other way. It was more of a commemoration. They were very sad.’

More than 20 people turned out to the night, just a fraction of the original number which regularly used to hit 60 or 70.

A vast majority of those have been with the society for decades – with many members now in their late 70s and 80s.

Despite the streamers and celebratory anniversary cake inside the hall, the mood was glum.

The emblem of The Association of Big Band Enthusiasts

The emblem of The Association of Big Band Enthusiasts

‘A lot of people were upset we were closing. Some who knew about it didn’t understand why we were,’ said 63-year-old Tony, of Bevis Road, North End.

He added: ‘When the society was originally set up we didn’t think it would last more than two or three years.’

The group’s roots can be traced back to the former Charles Dickens Junior School, in Turner Road, Buckland, where its first meeting was held.

The night was the idea of Jim White, who had grown tired of music societies in the city devoted purely to one artist.

‘My dad wanted a place for people to express their love of all big band music together,’ added son Tony.

One of those members there on the opening night was David Blandford, of Wesley Grove, Copnor.

Speaking to The News during the group’s last meeting, the 81-year-old recounted how the inaugural evening didn’t go quite to plan.

‘The first time we were there the caretaker had this big Alsatian dog,’ he said.

‘He would not let us in. We were just left outside waiting.’

David said the society had become part of his life and fuelled his love for big band music.

He added the demise of the society was going to have a profound effect on his social life and friends.

‘I feel very sad,’ he said. ‘A lot of us are in our 80s and it will probably mean we won’t be able to see each other again.’

Tony added his father had worked tirelessly to build up the society’s standing before his death in November 1988.

Jim wrote to big stars, appealing for them to become honorary presidents of the group.

One such celebrity included Henry Mancini, who composed the Pink Panther theme tune.

‘My dad used to be a leading writer in the navy,’ said Tony. ‘He was a prolific letter writer.

‘And he wrote to Mancini in California asking him to become an honorary president. It was amazing to have his support.’

Meetings would see members picking their favourite tunes.

Its closure has left several elderly members stunned and saddened.

Pensioner Eve Harper who has been coming to the club with her husband Bert, 87, for the past 40 years.

The 86-year-old, of Northern Parade, Hilsea, said: ‘It’s a bit sad but we all knew that it’s got to come some time.

‘Forty years is a long time to be in the club. We have made so may friends here over the years.’

Pat Howell, 84, of Alverstone Road, Southsea, said the music helped her to relive happier times during her youth, dancing in the Hippodrome in Birmingham where she is from.

‘It’s an awful shame because there’s not many of these societies left now. We’re all getting older and it’s one of the things that makes us happy,’ she said.

Tony – whose mum Betty, 87, joined him for the last meeting – hoped the long history of the club would serve as a lasting tribute to his father.

‘I think dad would have been proud we have continued for so long,’ he said.

‘It was always a pleasure being with my dad and I used to love spending time with him.

‘This club has been his legacy.’