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Blue Notes

Past and present briefly reunite on a British pub’s dance floor

Author Hannah Stuart-Leach



BRISTOL, ENGLAND—Looking up from her sudoku puzzle for the first time in a half hour, Paula Tunnicliffe fixes her gaze on a bearded man and a lithe woman who are twirling between battered barstools. The couple has attracted an audience, and as the man dips his partner, some murmur, “Ooh.”

A modest pub on a cobbled street in Bristol, The Old Duke seems more Duke of York than Duke Ellington. Every Monday, though, it hosts a jazz night, which always draws a crowd. And it’s not only those who can recall spinning 78s on their hi-fis—you’re as likely to see dreadlocks here as a blue rinse.

For Tunnicliffe, The Old Duke’s jazz nights have little to do with retro cool. Her husband of 44 years, Bob, is the trombone player in Cass Caswell’s Allstars, who have a monthly residency here. Tunnicliffe attends every show, as she has for years. The band is onstage now, dressed in smart white shirts, whipping up a swirl of Dixieland gaiety.

From her table, sipping white wine, Tunnicliffe watches the dancing man tilt his partner back in time to her husband’s music, and half smiles. Maybe she’s remembering the days when she and Bob could captivate an audience like this. Or maybe not. “I can’t dance at all, actually,” she says, “but I always wished I could.”

At the end of the set, Bob approaches his wife. His movements are uncertain, his expression a bit lost. “He’s losing his memory,” she says, passing him his coat. “He always remembers this place, though, and the band’s music. That’s why we keep coming back.”

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