Dan Spanner: Spanner Big Band at the Gunners pub

20 Jan

Everyone has a story. Here’s one for your new year resolutions – go see a fabulous 16-piece big band at an Islington pub. The Spanner Big Band, set up by saxophone-playing, singer and compere Dan Spanner (who also masterminds Spanner Jazz Punks), is live at the Gunners pub on Blackstock Road every Wednesday (so long as Arsenal isn’t playing). Interview by Nicola Baird

Dan Spanner xxx

Dan Spanner: organiser of the Spanner Big Band – which does free, live shows every Wednesday at The Gunners pub, N5 – and Spanner Jazz Punks.

“I blame the saxophone solos in the Glen Miller band for getting me into music,” says Dan Spanner tracing his musical awakening to the time he was seven listening to his parents’ records.

For most of us there’s something unforgettable about big band sound – and the Spanner Big Band won’t disappoint with it’s energetic swing (or free entry). The band – and its edgier spin off, Spanner Jazz Punks – has been going for 10 years now. But it’s only recently that they took on the Wednesday night residency at the Gunners pub, run by Una and Andrew.

NEVER MISS AN ISLINGTON FACES: if you enjoy reading about people who live or work in Islington please follow this blog by email (see how on right hand panel). Fresh interviews are published once a week.

“I don’t know what we’re going play until about an hour before as I don’t know who’s in the band until then,” says Dan when we meet at the Oak & Pastor off Junction Road. He’s wearing a hat but on session nights he’s in eyeliner and his musical energy fizzes across the room.

“The band has some professional musicians, but we have a diverse crowd of players – like you would with any business model. Some are regular amateurs but all have spirit. We’ve got teachers (of music, peripatetic, maths, history) as well as an architect, lawyers, advertising executive and a Black Cabbie.”

xx Big Band plays every Wednesday (on stage at 8.30pm) at the Gunners Pub on Blackstock Road. Free entry.

Spanner Big Band plays every Wednesday (on stage at 8.30pm) at the Gunners Pub on Blackstock Road. Free entry. It’s great music and a good way to meet neighbours.

“We don’t rehearse. We just do the gigs,” explains Dan. “I think rehearsal takes the soul of out of music, it’s much better if you are on the seat of your pants! And it’s great to have people turn up to listen to the band because it is difficult to play to an empty house.”

On stage Dan is a charismatic musician. But by day he teaches 700 kids, including whole class ukulele, at a French school an eight-minute cycle ride from his home near the bus garage in Upper Holloway. Sir is a Professeur de Musique – partly thanks to his mum being French so he grew up bilingual.

“The reason I like teaching is because I like performing, they’re similar,” explains Dan. “And the reason I run a big band is because I’m a teacher. It’s like being a sheepdog getting all the group together and happy. We need at least five saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones and a 3-piece rhythm section. But the ideal size is four trumpets and four trombones. To get this I have more than 300 musicians’ contact details on my phone. Thankfully I’ve got a smart phone, it’s not like the old days of going to the call box and feeding it 2p bits, then hoping the person you called would be in!”

Dan spent his first few months in Leytonstone then moved to Buckhurst Hill in Essex. He may have lived the teenage dream between Billericay and Brentwood, which could explain why some people think the Spanner Jazz Punks have an Ian Dury feel – but he’s been a Londoner since 1982.

“I came to Islington because I answered an ad in Melody Maker to be in a band, then moved into the guitar player’s flat off Brecknock Road. I lived all round London, then 20 years later I was back in Tufnell Park. It was a coincidence. I didn’t chase the area but I’d like to keep living here,” he adds.

In the late 1980s while living on the notorious Pullens Estate at Elephant & Castle* and playing in The Thunderdogs, Dan heard that the resident band was leaving the ground-breaking, rebel show Cirque Archaos – with chainsaw jugglers, razor-blade swallowers and Snake Woman the body contortionist.

“The Thunderdogs were psychedelic, a mix of Hawkwind and Gong which suited Archaos and we got the job. I spent a year and a half playing 4,000-seater sold out tents from Marseille to Copenhagen. It was the best,” says Dan.

See the link here.

When Cirque Archaos wound up Dan came back to Islington to raise his family, which led to a job at a primary school in Willesden Green and late night studying to be a teacher. He’s got three children – two are at university now.

Dan Spanner in action with the Spanner Big Band at The Gunners pub.

Dan Spanner in action with the Spanner Big Band at The Gunners.

Meeting Dan in the school holidays, on a non-gig day, you will be struck by his work ethic. “I grew up with two brothers and two sisters. We all learnt the piano and my next oldest brother, who is only a year older than me, was very good. It was bad being in his wake. I liked music but I felt I needed another instrument. I played the recorder, then the clarinet. My parents took advice and said when I’d got grade 5 clarinet I could learn the saxophone, and that’s what I did. I still think saxophones are too big for little kids – they brandish them like a supersoaker gun. It’s wrong!” So at seven he began the clarinet and at 15 moved on to sax.

In the band
“I quite liked playing scales. A bit weird I know, a bit OCD. But scales suited my character and that fitted with what you have to do to improve. Trying to get a child to play for 10 minutes a day should be easy but it can be a battle…” he says sympathetically, adding, “for me it was a way of having an identity separate from the rest of my siblings. And then when I was 15 I formed a band with a friend at school and never looked back.”


The Gunners Pub Highbury, 204 Blackstock Road, N5. @thegunnerspub

Some of Dan Spanner’s story you know… his band’s journey with Cirque Archaos and now the regular Wednesday residency at the Gunners pub with Spanner Big Band. Here’s to the big swing sounds – may they bring us all joy in 2016.

  • The Gunners Pub, 204 Blackstock Road, London N5 1EN (tel: 020 7359 2467). Every Wednesday (in 2016 from 20 January onwards) from 8.30pm, entry free.
  • In March the Spanner Big Band’s new album, Live at the Gunners goes on sale. Listen out for a Gunners’ regular’s dog joining in at Dan’s “One, Two, Three…”
  • Find out all play and tour dates for the Spanner Big Band and the Spanner Jazz Punks at http://www.spannerhq.com/

Pullens Estate, Elephant & Castle.
Many of the Victorian tenements became squats squats (often musicians and artists). When Pullens Estate was condemned to be pulled down there were 40+ evictions, fought by the Pullens Squatter Organisation. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pullens_buildings

Cirque Archaos was a late 1980s/early 1990s phenomenon. The circus spent two years on the road. In 2010 the Mayor’s River Festival included a photo exhibition of the circus on tour, see report here.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola


So, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: