by Annemarie Evans
Cast your eye around the crowded tables on a weekend evening, and there will be a mix of Hong Kong punters singing and clapping along to jazz and swing numbers played by the band Colin Aitchison and the Chinacoast Jazzmen. There are Hong Kong Chinese, South Koreans, visiting Germans, and a number of resident expatriates.
Some of the drinkers crowding in front of the stage in this intimate setting might know a bit about Dixieland and Duke Ellington. But for many, Ned Kelly’s Last Stand has been their experience of Dixie, swing and ragtime. This Saturday, the pub on Ashley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, will mark its 45th anniversary.
Manager Mike Brown, himself an accomplished trumpeter, says the pub has survived despite the outgoings of paying musicians because its founder Tom Parker has always had a love for the project.
“You’re not going to be a millionaire, but we weren’t looking for that. It was a labour of love and still continues to be,” says Parker, 79, who opened Ned Kelly’s Last Stand with two friends in December 1972. The name referenced the story of a doomed Australian outlaw or bushranger, who was caught with his Gang in Ann Jones’ Glenrowan Inn, 200 km northeast of Melbourne.
“He was shot 28 times, then they took the bullets out and hanged him,” says Parker, who relishes his “fun” pub concept. These days, the establishment’s yellowing pages of bygone periodicals, meat pies, swing doors and wooden benches give the impression that Ned could be walking in at any time.
Parker is an entertainer as well as a businessman, and when he opened Ned’s, he had completed a nine-year stint as one half of the comic Flat Tops, with his Australian partner Ross Edgerton. It was slapstick pantomime fare that travelled well in Asia and then on to Las Vegas.
While Ned’s might be 45 now, the beginnings were tough, says Parker. Ashley Road was known as one street off the docks in the 1970s. “So when I first opened, it was a pretty tough area. There was no Tsing Yi cargo area, all the godowns were in Tsim Sha Tsui – so all those merchant seamen – and there was some rough ones – once they had offloaded everything they headed to the first street off the docks, which in those days was Ashley Road.”
“In those days there was Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, the Red Lion, the Scandinavia Inn, there was Mary Olsen’s Scandinavia, the Hawaii Bar, all girly bars bar us.”
Shortly after opening, there was the oil crisis in 1973. No lights allowed after 6pm.
“So we had jam tins out there with candles, surrounding the door to say that we were open. But no one would go out because it was too dark and if they were tourists they stayed in their hotels because they had light inside their hotels. We weathered all that storm and got through it.”
Parker’s first band leader was American Larry Allen, “a fine piano player and comedian” who had played in Asia since the Second World War and can be found on YouTube in a 1970s clip playing “The Wanchai National Anthem.”
Then came a band called Steamboat. Early musicians included trumpeter Benny Ligon, and clarinettist Nigel Porteous, who were also part of the next band – the Jamestown Five – plus one or two – of the late bandleader Dennis James. His son, RTHK Radio 3 DJ Steve James, remembers walking in at the age of 16 to Ned’s after an education in the UK.
“Dad would enjoy telling me how he got thrown out of music lessons as a boy for playing Boogie Woogie. I think the story got exaggerated over time,” laughs Steve. “He was a big fan of [Trinidadian ragtime and boogie woogie] pianist Winifred Atwell. My Dad would start a set and, I’d think, ‘Dad, Dad, you’ve got four hours to go, pace yourself’ – there would be steam coming off his fingers.”
Dennis James was also great friends with Alan “Red” Price, who came out to Hong Kong with Harry Bence’s band. Price was a phenomenal clarinetist and saxophonist, who current bandleader Colin Aitchison also met as a boy when Price came to the house of his musician father, Huey Aitchison.
In the current lineup, clarinettist Franco Valussi, 55, cites Benny Goodman as the reason he took up the difficult instrument at age 16. “I started quite late, and had to do classical music first. Working in a bar is the perfect thing. It’s like a living room with entertainment. It’s representative of the world community at any age.”
Trumpeter Bert Amparado also started out at Ned Kelly’s in 1972. On the pub’s 40th anniversary, he explained how he played in Taipei for seven years prior to coming to Hong Kong in the 1970s: “I played in a military club during the Vietnam War.”
“After Dennis [James], we had an Australian piano player name of Ken Bennett who stayed with me for 13 very productive years,” says Parker. “Ken was rough and raw Australian. He had a different concept of comedy. He was an excellent musician.”
And after Ken Bennett and his Kowloon Honkers came Colin Aitchison and the Chinacoast Jazzmen. The late Filipino trumpeter Silverio “Berry” Yaneza played well into his 80s for the band. With a phenomenal embouchure, he could play a spine-tingling rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, as well as ham it up with Aitchison, wearing a dress and throwing a rubber chicken.
Yaneza recalls entertaining US troops after the Japanese surrender at the end of the second world war, and flying over Hiroshima and seeing the huge crater after the hydrogen bomb had been dropped. He would later work for the big bands in Hong Kong during the 1950s.
Over the years, Ned Kelly’s Last Stand has had plenty of visiting stars grace the stage, including Matt Munroe and Rosemary Clooney and even violinist Nigel Kennedy.
Aitchison, a Geordie, started early on trombone and then trumpet. These days he also plays a fine hardware store tin teapot by putting his mouthpiece in the spout and wiggling the lid for the “wah wah” effect.
Hamburg businessman Uli Scheller comes to Hong Kong about four times a year. While most of the trade is done on the mainland, he says, he enjoys the vibrancy of the city and Ned’s is always a must for the jazz and atmosphere.
One of the challenges these days, says Parker, is finding new musicians who are familiar with “that band book” – musicians who are versed in Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Goodman. But with a regularly-packed house, Ned Kelly’s Last Stand will be hosting live music for years to come.
Current line-up: Colin Aitchison (Bandleader , Trombone , Vocals & Teapot) Peping Ciriaco (Trumpet & Flugel Horn) Franco Valussi (Clarinet, Tenor Sax & Vocals). Aki Espiritu (Guitar, Banjo, Piano & Sousaphone) Joe Nadres (Bass & Banjo) Noel Villanueva (drums)
The Ned Kelly’s 45th Anniversary show on Radio 3’s Vintage Chart Toppers, hosted by Colin Aitchison, will go out on Sunday, December 17 at 8-30am.