Studio 20 by Chris Nickson – & ‘Dark Briggate Blues’ Competition

Chris Nickson delves into the Leeds Jazz scene of the 1950s, setting the backdrop for his upcoming novel Dark Briggate Blues, to be launched on Friday 6th February at Waterstones Leeds, 6.30pm. To enter the competition to win a copy of Dark Briggate Blues, please see below for details.

Jazz is one of those uniquely American musical forms that’s been exported and adapted all around the world. It started in the late 19th century in New Orleans, as far as anyone can tell, and by the end of World War One it was a global phenomenon.

Leeds wasn’t immune from it all. Throughout the 1930s, for instance, there were small local bands that played dances – my father led one of them, as swing became the fashion. But the small boom in Leeds jazz arrived after the Second World War, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Art College was at the forefront.

They were the Vernon Street Ramblers, named for the road where the college was located, and they played some gigs, mostly charity and rag week events. It was Trad Jazz, which was the British take on the early Dixieland style. It was gaining in popularity among students who were looking to America for something different, and Trad would remain important until the late 1950s when rock’n’roll took over.

The most famous alumnus of the Vernon Street Ramblers was guitarist/banjo player Diz Disley, who went on to enjoy a glittering career spanning folk and jazz until his death in 2010. The first step up for him, however, was to become a member of the more professional Yorkshire Jazz Band.

The nine-piece group was active in the late ‘40s, recording several singles into the 1950s for Tempo Records in London, among them “The Trumpet Of The Lord.”


The tuba player in the group was Bob Barclay who would go on to become a seminal figure in the Leeds jazz scene. In the 1950s he opened Studio 20. It was the only club in Leeds that was dedicated solely to jazz, unlike pubs like the Peel Hotel, where jazz was part of the menu. Studio 20 was on New Briggate, down in a cellar, as all good jazz clubs should be.

The music ran seven nights a week, going on as long as people were willing to play, the jam sessions sometimes lasting all night. Musicians would find their way to the club after their regular gigs had finished, which was early in those days. Studio 20 was a jazz sanctuary for musicians. In the Yorkshire Post, trombonist Ed O’Donnell recalled,

“It was quite a smoky place. Bob Barclay would be dishing the dinners out and they had all-night sessions that went on until seven, or eight o’clock in the morning. But I didn’t like them because even though you had breaks, it was still hard work.

“Humphrey Lyttelton went there and he got up with his band and they kept on playing until it was time to catch their train at the crack of dawn.”

Studio 20 with Humphrey Lyttelton (right) by Terry Cryer

Studio 20 with Humphrey Lyttelton (right) by Terry Cryer

A whole gallery of major names visited. George Melly played there, as did Tubby Hayes, while the iconic Sarah Vaughan was a visitor, as was Ronnie Scott, the father of modern British jazz.

It wasn’t plush, but few places were in the postwar austerity. There wasn’t even a real stage, and the audience seats were hard – no cabaret here. The wallpaper featured a musical motif, and part of one wall was reserved for the signatures of those who’d played there.

It’s doubtful that the club made much money, but it was a labour of love for Barclay, one that was documented by Terry Cryer, then a young photographer, whom we thank for his permission to reproduce the above photograph. You can see more of his work from there on the Leodis website or at

In a city where the main entertainment was the cinema or theatre, Studio 20 offered some alternative nightlife, along with Nelly’s, the snooker club tucked back off the Headrow, or the shebeens, the illegal, after-hours drinking clubs that sprang up and faded around town.

Studio 20 lasted into the second half of the 1950s, hosting skiffle bands along with the jazz. But finally its day passed.

Before I started researching 1950s Leeds for my crime novel Dark Briggate Blues, I had no idea Studio 20 had ever existed. But with a main character who loves jazz, it was natural to bring in a fictionalised version of the place.

And, in one of those wonderful twists of fate, there’s still music where Studio 20 used to be. These days it’s Sela Bar, and yes, they have live jazz. The wheel turns full circle.

Competition time!

For your chance to win a copy of Chris Nickson’s new crime novel Dark Briggate Blues, please answer the following question:

Q. Where was Studio 20 located?

Please email your answer to Chris Nickson here. The competition closes on Wednesday 11th February at 6pm. 

We will announce the winner here and on Twitter and Facebook. Good luck!

The winner was Angela C from Bradford.

Also don’t forget to come along on Friday 6th February (6.30pm @ Waterstones Leeds) for the opportunity to talk to the author, drink wine, eat nibbles, and hear more about Dark Briggate Blues.


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