20th November 2011
 By Joe Silmon-Monerri

Last updated Thursday November 21, 2019 at 12:40:00

The news of Bob Ascough's sudden passing has left many of us, who were either his relatives or close friends, in shock; mostly by the manner and location of his departure. He died in his room at the Bellhouse Hotel, Parrs Wood, Manchester, some time last Sunday evening, 20th of November 2011. He was there for a week or two while the roof at his home in Didsbury was being refurbished. His body was discovered by Hotel staff around mid-day the following day. More accurate details will be known after the post-mortem, of course. Meanwhile, it is thought that he suffered a massive heart-attack. When he was found, he was fully clothed, lying on his bed, as though about to go out after a brief rest, possibly for a meal downstairs. His son Tim told me that Bob was really enjoying his stay at the Bellhouse and relieved that he didn't have to spend time and effort at the stove at home and he also enjoyed conversing with people in the restaurant.

On Monday, strewn all around him on the bed were numerous books. Bob was an avid reader; he seems to have been addicted to books. He had taught himself to be an intellectual. A brilliant brain like his might have earned him a professorship in any academic setting. I doubt that he would have liked that though. I am sure that I will be joined by hundreds of you out there who knew and worked with Bob in Jazz bands throughout the Northwest, in particular, the Manchester area, in sending our deepest condolences to Bob's only son Tim, and other relatives, many of them in Belper, Derby, from his Mother's side. News about funeral arrangements will follow as soon as known.

Bob, who was one of the best banjoists in the area, would have celebrated his 75th birthday at the end of this month; but he might have been alone for that, as he hadn't even told his son that he was ill. Bob was born on the 30th of November, 1936, at home at 65 Gatley Road, Cheadle, where he lived with his parents well into the 1960s. After his divorce, in the 1970s, he continued to occupy his house in Didsbury. His wonderful Mother, Emily, whom I used to call "Cuddles", widowed during the 60s, lived not far away, somewhere near Cheadle Green, once Gatley Road underwent drastic changes in the 70s and many residents had to move. When she died, Bob was the last survivor of the Ascough family in the area, as young Tim was in New Orleans, drumming in a Pop band. Later, when Tim, who is a Psychotherapist now, returned to Britain to settle, the two were good company for each other, as both shared an offbeat, witty and zany sense of humour. But lately, Bob, who could be quite reserved and secretive, hadn't even told Tim, let alone his closest friends, such as Bob Leaver, Moe Green and myself, that he was going into hospital, or that the hospital staff was very concerned about his heart. He had had a complicated bypass in the mid-1990s. Tim only found out when he telephoned his Dad one day, and he told him that he'd been in hospital for about a fortnight by then. But let us now look at the early years.

A pupil of Cheadle Hulme School, where soon after passing his 11+ he was awarded a scholarship, Bob didn't follow up his studies with higher education. Yet, despite not taking up an academic career, he became one of the most intellectual people I have ever known. Some people don't need a university to prove how clever or well informed they are. Bob Ascough was one such person. Although he hated the piano, apparently he was quite proficient at the instrument, which explains how, much later, his command of chords and harmony were second to none. He then took up clarinet, still in his early teens, but soon gave it up, because by then he'd heard the sound of a banjo. It was to dominate the rest of his life. His parents bought him one and, by his fourteenth birthday, he was quite proficient, and very keen on learning everything there was to know about his new toy. After normal school lessons, he practised with his school pals, who had also taken up instruments. This is a typical pattern among most of the budding Jazz musicians of the area. They seem to have become deeply interested in Jazz at the age of fourteen, generally when still at grammar school. The first Jazz band Bob heard in the flesh, was one of the best in the Northwest, and one that he would be playing in, himself, not many years later - the Zenith Six. And he heard them at the Clarendon, Oxford Road, All Saints, possibly when not yet of drinking age. That was the venue of the Manchester Jazz Club, and Club 43 (for the Modernists) on a different night; that is, until Oxford Road was widened in 1964 when a compulsory purchase scheme forced many businesses to move. Live band sessions - following one or two years of record recitals only - started at the Clarendon between 1946 and 47, thanks to enthusiastic Jazz pioneers Jack Gregory and Eric Scriven, both of whom would, not many years later, become leading Jazz booking agents, Jack being more deeply involved in the Pop and Rock side of the industry, although always retaining a soft spot for Jazz, and Eric concentrating on the Modern and Progressive Jazz side, with the famous Club 43 sessions, reaching into the 1980s. Along with the MSG, Eric promoted American stars for appearances in the local area or national tours. These aspects are fully covered in Bill Birch's "KEEPER OF THE FLAME", recently published (this being an exceptionally good and well illustrated read, about Modern Jazz in Manchester for only part of the duration of the overall Jazz scene).

Bob couldn't have chosen better role-models for his Jazz career, nor a better venue in which to be weaned on Jazz. The Zenith, the follow-up of bassist Ray Leclerq's Jazz Band, which disbanded in 1952, was certainly a top-flight band, that retained a very high standard throughout its long existence, and some truly remarkable and inventive musicians. But let us return to Bob's youth and late teens.

What to some might have been a curse, rather than an edifying experience, the time for call-up came in 1954 for Bob. He was eighteen. At first, he might have thought that he was kissing goodbye to banjo practice and playing to Jazz records, and learning new chords, inversions and progressions - which were his staple diet in the formative years. The Army would take him away from his by now beloved form of music; but not for long, for Jazz had no international barriers, and where he ended up on his permanent posting, the place had something special and unexpected to offer. He spent almost the entire period of National Service in Luneberg Heath, Germany, an enormous training area full of military garrisons. There, his military duties involved being a Gunner and learning to drive heavy Army vehicles (which according to his son Tim, he hated). He was attached to a Tank Regiment, at one time being billeted near Dortmund. This was, perhaps the actual beginning of his Jazz career. Together with other fellow budding Jazz pals in the same unit, the boys formed a band, whose name I don't recall, and no one I know of can tell me what it was, or what its line-up might have been. But these non-German musicians were the first foreigners to be granted honorary membership of the "Hot Club of Dortmund". His official apprenticeship and indoctrination had begun. The band in off-duty hours was to spend a great deal of enjoyable hours playing at clubs and dances in the surrounding area. So much so, that Bob might not have felt like coming back to Britain, after such a brilliant experience. Yet, he did return and it would not be long before he would become quite busy on the local Jazz scene.

Soon after 'demob' from the Army, Bob's career began to form a steady pattern. He joined the Davenport Jazz Band, c. mid-1956. By now he was no longer the inexperienced "rooky" banjoist. His command of chords was already being noted. He joined the Louisiana Jazz Band in around 1960, gigged in between sessions with other bands to gain a fuller and all-round experience, as we all did. He joined Tony Smith's Jazzmen (1961-62), Joe Silmon's Dixielanders (1962-63), and possibly his favourite band, the Zenith Six, of which he had always spoken with bare-faced pride, in mid-1963.

I will make a slight hiatus here, to recall anecdotes from our time together in Joe Silmon's Dixielanders, before leading up to Bob's time in his favourite Manchester band. With both Tony Smith's band and what later, reluctantly became mine, we did many gigs in far- away places, well beyond the local area. With both bands, we were frequent visitors to the Cavern, in Liverpool - still quite a thriving Jazz club then in 1961-62 - which had been its original remit in 1957, and officially opened by our colleagues the Merseysippi boys. On our way back to Manchester, after the gig, we would always call in at a very friendly Chinese chip-shop, still in the Liverpool area, before getting onto the East Lancs. Road for the long journey back. There, we would buy our supper for the way back. This was a variety of the conventional fish-and-chips, or the unconventional "deep fried steak-and-kidney pie", or "deep-fried curried hamburger" (delicious when one was slightly drunk - from spending time at the "Grapes", since the Cavern was a "dry" venue). The "deep-frying" of the pies and curried hamburgers would be done in the fat-frier in which fish was also fried. Under even the most minimal influence of alcohol, we never noticed the difference, but did if we saved one of these items for breakfast the following day. The result could be something like 'dry fishy sawdust'. We still went back there, again and again, resolving to always eat it hot. Nearer to Manchester, not far from Stretford, we would arrive at the end of the Motorway - I forget which one - and Bob Ascough and I would always suddenly glance at each other, as if on the point of a great discovery or reaching the time for a poignant special event. At that point, we would tell whoever was driving, to stop the vehicle; Bob and I would get out at a convenient lay-by, and in typical Goon-fashion, we would dance together in our pork-pie hats for about 5 minutes. Poker-faced, we would return to the car, and get on our way home. Drivers were always mystified by this strange silent ritual; some would even doubt our sexuality.

By mid-1963 and building up to the time of the change of venue, as the Clarendon would soon be no more, this was also the occasion of en-masse personnel changes in the Zenith Six. Derek Gracie (banjo) was replaced by Bob Ascough, Derek's cousin, Malcolm Gracie (tbn) had been replaced by ex-Unity Jazz Band's Alan Pendlebury, whose own band appeared at the Manchester Sports Guild in Market Street, as Keith's own band - which became Johnny Tippett's Jazzmen when Keith left for Canada to be a professional footballer - did at one time. Derek ("Ulysses") Newton (d/bs), Denis Gilmore (tpt), Mart Rodger (clt/saxes), were leaving too for various reasons; Mart to form his own band - which we have all heard of by now, named after the famous club started at the Carendon! Nevertheless, the Zenith was a band whose high standard, no matter who its personnel might be, would always be maintained to the nth degree, and especially under the leadership of that hard task-master Alan Pendlebury. By July, 1964 - at the height of the work on the new Mancunian Way, under which our beloved Clarendon and many familiar businesses would eventually be buried, only Alan Pendlebury and Bob Ascough remained out of the more recent personnel. Was the band destined to be called "The Zenith Two"?

Thankfully, that was not the case. Keith Pendlebury, back in Britain, and who had been playing fantastic Ragtime piano in the Zenith's interval sessions at the Clarendon on Fridays, but who was extremely versatile in many styles - something that was largely frowned on by the 'purists' but greatly admired by mortals such as myself - joined his brother in the new band. Now there were three. Very soon afterwards, they were joined by the late Eric Pizey (drs), Geoff Ford (d/bss), Tony Foulkes (ex-Dallas Jazz Band - (clt/alto sax.)), Pete Brown (tpt), late of the Ceramic City Stompers, and vocalist Marcia McConnell, who had already made quite an impact on the scene a few years before in the Phoenix Jazz Band, which she led for some time. The new Zenith had an entirely different sound, but it was still steeped in tradition to a large extent, and as I said earlier, the old high standard was instantly perceivable. When Tony Foulkes left at end of 1965, I left the Back O'Town Syncopators in London, joining the Zenith Six at the request of Alan Pendlebury. So Bob and I were once again in the same band. It was my very first time with the Zenith, and I very much enjoyed the new experience. This band was nowhere near as restrictive as some bands I had played with; I was playing soprano and tenor saxophone, as well as flute and clarinet, and the band allowed me to use whichever instrument I wanted to use in both ensemble and solo work.

I think that my joining the band provided Bob with some degree of moral support, as we had been such good friends for so long, as he was with Alan Pendlebury. Soon after I arrived in the band, Alan became quite ill, and asked me to take over as Manager, especially as the band was shortly to appear at the Free Trade Hall, along with Kenneth Washington, a black Gospel singer, and the Chris Barber Band, and later another show, a double-bill, with a folk group - The Four Folk. Bob always helped to sort out the chords, but the musical lead was forever the domain of Pete Brown, a very confident trumpet player, with plenty of experience. The late Cyril Preston replaced Alan, after many sessions with Terry Brunt - one of my favourite musicians and friends. We could not engage Terry permanently, as the position had already been offered to Cyril, who commuted from Whitchurch, Shropshire, for gigs. When Cyril sadly died, the then scarfless Terry was taken on permanently.

After most sessions, our old friends Bob Leaver, one of Bob Ascough's closest friends (and my ex-bassist in the Dixielanders, and originally with the Sunset Seven, drummer Bob Jones, also of fond memory, and myself, would be invited back to the Ascough residence in Cheadle. There, Bob had his "wine-cellar". This consisted of a cavernous area below a kitchen table. If we were very lucky, his Mum, "Cuddles", would have prepared something for her son (and overnight guests), that we came to know as "cheese dip", and, as we were always famished after a gig, we would devour this wonderful delicacy and beg for "MORE". "Cuddles" (Emily) was a lovely lady, and a 'mother' to all of Bob's friends. While we ate and drank to our heart's content - to say nothing of our stomachs - Bob could frequently be seen gazing at his banjo case, as if admiring a beautiful baby. He would then open the case, as if to see if it was still there, and would stroke the strings up and down. Occasionally, even at about three or four a.m., before we went on our separate ways home, Bob would get the banjo out of its case and would go into the intricate construction of the most subtle and therapeutic chord changes I had ever heard. He was absolutely brilliant at chords. At that time of the morning, and with the fact that he often spoke in a monotone, the plethora of chord details he would impart, which were simple to him, but well beyond my grasp, as I played entirely by ear, would invariably take me to the land of nod. He was never offended at that, and would just chuckle, as he realised that he had, yet again, put me into a hypnotic trance. Somehow, though, his instruction seeped into my subconscious mind, and I feel sure helped me to become a better musician, chordwise.

Bob continued playing in the Zenith Six until approximately 1970, then joining his old Zenith colleague, Mart Rodger, in his fairly recently formed Manchester Jazz - which is still going strong today - but Bob's time with the band ended abruptly in approximately 1993-94. Mart would know his exact start and finish dates; perhaps he would kindly fill in those details. Bob recorded with both the old Zenith Six and Manchester Jazz. After finishing with Manchester Jazz, Bob gigged or depped with several bands, but became ill during the last six or so years, during which he never got to play his beloved banjo again.

Thank you all to those who made contributions below. I will make sure that Tim and Bob's other family members are made aware of your thoughts and sentiments.

Goodbye Bob, we shall dance again one day on some celestial lay-by. Rest peacefully.

Joe A A Silmon-Monerri

Bob joined MRMJ from day one October 1st 1984 and he departed from MRMJ May 20th 1996. - Janet Rodger            

    22/11/11 - "Fred, So very sad to hear Bob Ascough has passed away. I had known him for almost the 50 years. We reminisced over a pint very recently when I was on a visit to Manchester. Yes, a lovely banjo player, storyteller and, and as we say, great crack. May he rest in peace". - Des Hopkins
    22/11/11 - "Hi Fred, I was so sorry to hear the sad news about Bob Ascough. I first got to know Bob when I joined the "Tony Smith Jazzmen" in the 60's and remember the good times and humour that Bob projected. A great steady banjo musician, who will be missed by many fellow musicians. My deepest sympathy goes to all his family & closest friends". - Mike Carnie.
    22/11/11 - "Hi Fred, How very sad about Bob Ascough. Bob was an accurate swinging banjo player, contributing to the rhythm section without ever dominating it. He was also one of the best story tellers I had ever met. A very funny man. What a shame". - Roger Browne

    27/11/11 - "Now, this is the end of a friendship that lasted for more than fifty years. From now on there'll be no more visits, no more six-page letters, chord sequences, tele-texts, and no more new « English jokes from Bob » for the regulars at the local pub, no chuckles, no laughs. Dear Bob, we miss you badly. On behalf of their family (incl. In-laws and out-laws), the friends and buddies, the band and the crowd at the bar" -  Herbert « Bonny » and Hanne Schüten Vellinghausen, Germany

    27/11/11 - "Here in Caux, France, Sheila and I have just read Joe Silmon's obituary for Bob on your site. We send our condolences, it brought back a lot of good memories for us". -  Tony West and Sheila Collier XXXX

    10/12/11 - Dear Fred,

    Without your recent and priceless help, in such unusual circumstances, while you were enjoying a break with your family in London, there might not have been anybody present at Bob Ascough's funeral.

    Members of Bob's family had seen the obituary and other comments on your site and alerted other family members, and Tim also managed to track some of them down. And, of course, you sent individual messages to your viewers, from your hotel room in London, via wireless connections from a mobile 'phone to your site, using your laptop, and with everything linked up to your computer at home, to put the crucial message on. It worked, and I'd like people to know what you did behind the scenes to get that information out to everybody, given the short time-line left for people to attend.

    Our band, in order to play for people going into and coming out of the Crematorium Chapel, eventually banjoless and basseless, consisted of: John Tucker, (cornet), Terry Brunt and Derek Galloway (trombones), Moe Green (snare-drum), Howard Murray (baritone sax) and me (soprano sax). Other members of the Manchester Jazz scene included: Trisha Galloway, John and Kathy Gordon, Roger Browne, my old ex-Savannah J/B trumpet-playing mate, Geoff Wilde, and maybe someone else I can't recall, so apologies might be due. All in all, a pretty decent turnout to see Bob off. Tunes played: "Just a closer walk with Thee", when entering the Chapel; and "Back home again in Indiana", and "Doctor Jazz", when exiting the Chapel.

    The ceremony was a Humanistic one, very tastefully performed, during which Tim read a very moving Eulogy to his Dad, from part of a book that he had written, and the lady in charge of the ceremonial aspects, read out parts of my recent Obituary to Bob, interspersed with her own comments taken from some of Tim's earlier comments. Before the band left the Chapel, to play outside, we heard one of Bob's favourite pieces played: Chet Baker's version of "My Funny Valentine".

    Many, many thanks, Fred, on behalf of Tim Ascough and members of his family who got here from Belper, Derbyshire, to attend their relative's funeral. It would have been impossible without your help. Thanks also to everybody who turned out in such appalling weather for this sad occasion.

    Joe Silmon-Monerri

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