Documentary to capture story of inspirational jazz musician Xero Slingsby who was often found busking on Leeds' streets in 1980s

‘Genius’ jazz musician Matthew Coe, aka Xero Slingsby, had fans in clubs across Europe and on the streets of Leeds. Now a film is being made about his life. Laura Reid reports.

The 40 plus charges that were brought against Matthew Coe in relation to street busking didn’t deter him from sharing his music with fans. Neither did his brain tumour.

Stoic in the face of adversity, Xero Slingsby, as he was also known, was determined to keep performing right up until his death. The jazz musician’s presence was felt in and around Leeds in the 1980s.

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Often found performing saxophone on the streets of the city and across the North, he made his living through a combination of busking and gigging both here in Yorkshire and over on the continent.

Matthew Coe, aka Xero Slingsby, pictured during his treatment for a brain tumour. Photo: Denis Dalby, Supplied by Robert Crampton and Sally Coe

Approaching 40 years since the formation of the band Xero Slingsby and The Works, with whom he enjoyed the peak of his career, Coe’s story is being turned into a documentary film celebrating his life and work.

Robert Crampton, the director behind the project, recalls his first introduction to Coe. “I lived in Leeds in the eighties and a friend of mine took me to the Adelphi for a night out and there was this band playing - Xero Slingsby and The Works. I had never heard of them before at all but they blew me away. The music they were playing was totally fresh and different.

“Part of their appeal I think was that it wasn’t just the music that was exciting, but the way they carried themselves. Matthew Coe was a great showman. It was a theatrical event as much as a music event.”

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Matthew and Sally Coe on their wedding day. Picture: Yorkshire Post Newspapers, supplied by Sally Coe.

The memory of the gig has stuck with Crampton for decades, as has his Xero Slingsby casette tape, which he rediscovered about 18 months ago. It piqued his interest in Coe once again and he began to read the internet’s offerings about the musician’s life and career. Rich material, he thought, for a documentary film and so he approached Coe’s widow Sally and set the wheels in motion.

Crampton, who grew up in York, has been making films for 25 years, mainly corporate and commercial work. Shove It, named after a Xero Slingsby and The Works album, is his first full length professional documentary.

“Matthew Coe’s genius deserves to be celebrated,” he says. “The film will be the story of his music, his musicianship, his influences and those he has influenced. It’s a story about creativity in the face of adversity, about living to make music, and making music to live.”

Coe was born in Bradford in 1957 and grew up in the area before moving to Leeds in the late 1970s. He originally played double bass and spent much of his teenage years in bands, playing around with punk music and then jazz.

Coe’s grandparents on both sides were involved in big bands and his father played saxophone, influenced by the bebop style introduced to him by Americans during his time as a conscript in Germany.

“Those were the influences very much present in a fledgling Matthew as he was growing up,” Sally explains. “Saxophone became an important instrument quite early on for Matthew. That then became his main focus.”

Coe built a reputation for lively and energetic performances which often utilised props, sound effects and sirens to complement his unique brand of jazz. He invented all manner of instruments, delving into skips to repurpose their contents.

In 1983, Xero Slingsby and The Works was formed, with Louis Colan and Gene Velocette joining Coe to create a trio. The band regularly played at Leeds venues including The Cardigan Arms and The Adelphi, released two albums, and gained a devoted following among the UK and European jazz scene.

Coe was often found busking in Leeds city centre and elsewhere across Yorkshire and the North. He clocked up many arrests, making 47 court appearances charged with the likes of causing public disorder with a saxophone and generating gatherings of people.

He would put up his own defence; sometimes he’d be fined, whilst other times the court would find in his favour. “He very much believed in taking music to the streets,” Sally says. “He thought it was important to the environment to be able to play, and it gave him an audience.”

Coe, who enjoyed potholing, dabbled in sea fishing and blacksmithing before taking up music in earnest. He and his bandmates made their records in Germany and toured there, and in Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as their UK gigs.

“The thing that was particularly special about Matthew and subsequently Xero Slingsby and The Works is the range of genres they covered from jazz to folk to ska to tango to Latin to dub,” says Sally, who lives in Farnley, Leeds.

“They had all sorts of influences and in the two albums they made you got all of that. That was unusual for a British audience, people at the time were more likely to say we like jazz or punk or rock. People abroad seemed to be more open to the mixing and blending of those different genres.”

Whilst working in Germany in 1985, Coe collapsed and was taken to hospital in Dortmund, where he was operated on immediately after the discovery of a brain tumour. He continued to play during his radiotherapy treatment and after marrying Sally in 1986, he was straight back out on tour.

Showing great courage and strength, and with characteristic energy and vibrancy, he performed almost right up until his death in 1988, aged just 30. “The group was very much on the cusp of being a very busy band right across Europe with a big audience,” Sally says. “Matthew never gave in, he kept going.”

Shove It is a passion project for Crampton. It’s about capturing Coe’s inspiring story whilst there are people still around to tell it first-hand. He hopes to enter it into film festivals, including in Leeds, and it will have a life online as a legacy for Coe and the band.

However, Crampton has two appeals to help make it happen. The first is for donations; he needs to raise £5,000 to cover the documentary’s production costs. The second is for material. Sally has a range of archive footage, set lists, images, posters and flyers, but Crampton is asking for anyone who has more - or who wants to share their memories of Coe - to come forward.

“The film has got lots of appeal,” says Sally. “Leeds has got a very strong music scene and I think Xero Slingsby and The Works are an important part of that story.”

Paying tribute to her late husband, she finishes: “Matthew was very inquisitive and very fearless in a lot of ways and brave to continue as he did throughout his illness.”

“He was an inspiration to many through his music,” she adds. “He was impressive, fearless, funny, defiant, generous, and full of energy.”

The documentary is being produced by independent production company The Stanley Studio. To contact Crampton about material and memories, email [email protected]

The fundraising appeal runs until April 10 at crowdfunder.co.uk/p/the-xero-slingsby-documentary

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