Who Is Xero Slingsby?


There will be many who remember Xero Slingsby; either in full flow with Selmer alto sax in the Adelphi, The Cardigan Arms, the Café Click Essen, the Café Damberd Ghent, or in passing; busking in the Leidesplein Amsterdam, or in Leeds, or in a string of other Northern Towns where he clocked up many arrests at a time when to play music on the streets was to break the cities bylaws.

The closing evening of the JazzLeeds Festival 2018 is one of jubilation to celebrate the music of Leeds’ iconic saxman Xero Slingsby, and it will take place at the Wardrobe on 24th July. Xero is part of Leeds’ popular folklore and the evening will be of interest to those who were there, as well as today’s jazz enthusiasts, players and tune writers.

Slingby’s immortal tunes include snappy titles such as Shove It, Tom Waits for No Man, Up Down; as well as the more rhetorical ones: Out the In Door, Hurricane Damage in Leeds and Shovelling Cement in the Dark. These titles give an insight into Slingsby’s style of playing – a punchy, humorous, soulful style and rhythmic, melodic, punk form. The influence of major players such as Monk, Kirk, Dolphy and Ornette Coleman are evident in his style. His tunes, like all good tunes, reflect the inner-city world around him. Slingsby at the peak of his career performed with the “anarcho-syndicalist collective” The Works. The trio were a sell-out in concert venues in Leeds and around North UK, and across the Channel in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland, where these tunes are still played regularly, and the remarkable tones of Slingsby’s inventions: throat mike, Pandemoniphone, Bikepumpaphone and other various repurposed plumbing items are still heard.

In the 1981 BBC TV documentary “A Town like New Orleans”, Slingsby, already a seasoned busker, says he likes “to play on the streets because it gives people a chance to hear [the music] and to participate”.

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As busking was illegal Xero’s passion for playing outdoors for whoever would listen led him to an apocryphal number of court hearings, but he remained undeterred. All Leeds jazz fans and probably half Leeds’ population relish and cherish their own anecdotes of Xero’s busking.

One of my own earliest memories of him was in the morning rush hour traffic, unicycling along Hyde Park Road whilst reading the Guardian, with the number 49 bus growling impatiently inches behind his lone wheel. Paper reading was a precursor to unicycling whilst playing the saxophone. He was impressive, fearless, funny, defiant, generous and full of energy, and this energy pulsed through his music. It isn’t surprising then that although he died in 1988 when the internet was not even a fledgling being on the edges of our consciousness, that if you put his name in a search engine now you will be presented with yards of hyperlinks to explore. Here’s just one:

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Xero’s first sortee into Europe was with drummer Paul Hession and saxophonist Alan Wilkinson in 1979 as the band 'Crow'. Xero’s faultless plan was to travel in two identical Morris Minor Travellers so that in the event of either or both breaking down, they would make one good out of the pair for the journey back. The band's first continental stop was at Cafe Damberd in Ghent, where they arrived unannounced, wearing a motley selection of hats and smoking cigars and arranged their first gig for the same evening. ‘The rest says Paul Hession,’ ‘ is a blur...’

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On the 23rd November 2014 Den Hoed a young Belgian band held a Birthday party for Xero in the Damberd, in recognition of a man who had died before they were born, and who they had only come to know through local legend, the internet and the two albums which still play out to the patrons of the Café Damberd.

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Den Hoed will make the journey to Leeds to perform on the 24th July commemorating the 30th anniversary of the end of the life of Xero Slinsgby, aka Matthew Coe, a colourful life of 30 years, tragically cut short by a brain tumour. On his untimely death he left a trail of hilarious anecdotes and blistering tunes and many musicians who played alongside him are back to relight the blue touch paper again including Paul Hession, Alan Wilkinson, Gene Velocette, Louis Colan, Richard Bostock, Maggie Somers and Tony Birkhill.

The fantastic finale to the evening and the festival are old friends of Xero Slingsby and the Works – The Shuffle Demons a high-energy Canadian band who blend virtuosic jazz and funk with eye-rattling costumes and over the top stage antics to produce an incredible show shot through with phenomenal playing by some of Canada’s most talented musicians. Back in the mid 1980’s the two bands met busking in Amsterdam, that evening the Shuffle Demons played a set at Amsterdam’s main contemporary music venue Bimhuis at the invitation of Xero Slingsby and the Works who were playing there as part of the Dutch leg of a tour. On recording the second Xero Slingsby album the band paid tribute to two of their favourite artists with a medley called ‘Roland Kirk meets The Shuffle Demons in The Afternoon’.

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