geoff stokes open group

Geoff Stokes goes to jail!

Geoff Stokes began his journey to incarceration with piano lessons in 1959 aged eight. A year later he joined Elmwood choir.  Elmwood was a congregational church in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham. John Stratton, the organist, choirmaster and Peaky Blinders-like figure, became a very big influence on Geoff.  John still plays the organ in South Staffordshire, so be careful.

When John was a boy, he was Head Chorister at Birmingham Cathedral.  He became assistant organist at St Martins in the Bullring at the age of just 14 in 1957.  John was given the opportunity to study music at Bristol University, but instead, he chose to go to teacher training college.  He is a gifted teacher and obtained a Masters in both education and music.  He soon became a school headmaster and held that position for 20 years.  This year he celebrated 60 years as church organist with a special choral evensong in the church at Trysull in South Staffordshire.

In 1963 a further significant step was taken towards Geoff being locked-up as he took to the organ for the first time, playing during the Offertory at Elmwood. Two years later he sang in the RSCM festival evensong in the Royal Albert Hall.

JS Bach & Walcha

By this time Geoff had become very interested in a number of classical music composers, not knowing the slippery slope down which this would lead him. The list included Johann Sebastien Bach who wrote a huge amount of music for the church and various instruments including the organ.  A friend bought him an LP of the Swingle Singers.  It was called Jazz Sebastien Bach and included a version of Bach’s arrangement for organ of the Advent Hymn ‘Sleepers Wake’.

Geoff also particularly loved the sound of Hulmut Walcha playing the organ of St Laurens Kerk at Alkmaar in the Netherlands. Geoff played tracks from them both.

In 1967 Geoff moved to Christ Church Summerfield choir where John had become organist and choirmaster.  Here there was a full 4-part choir and they sang a great variety of anthems and church settings.  A particular favourite was Handel and they sang number of pieces from Messiah.

Riffs & ostinato

Geoff is keen on riffs in jazz and popular music including the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.  But it goes back to earlier times and is called, in Italian, Ostinato meaning ‘obstinate’:  it won’t go away.  Generally, the music starts with the riff, which is a repeated pattern, and this continues underneath when the main theme or melody is introduced.

A great example of a modern version is ‘Take Five’ by Paul Desmond as played by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. An older one is by Georg Frideric Handel called ‘Nisi Dominus’. This piece also has a riff.  Handel wrote this at a young age, during his early studies in Italy.  This was before his time in England, when he absorbed the music of Henry Purcell.  So, the music seems to have a distinctly Italian style akin to Vivaldi and others of that time, around the end of the 17th century.  It begins with a repeating movement in the violins, with a descending bass scale before the voices recite the plainchant melody.  The singers then respond to the rhythm of the strings.  The stately dance seems to reflect the dignity of the text of the psalm.

Winson Green

In 1968 Geoff took his Piano Grade 7 with London College of Music. And then, a year later, it happened. All his misspent youth culminated in him being locked up. He found himself in Winson Green Prison… playing on the chapel organ deputising for the regular organist.  He had to be secured into the area with the organ. Whether that was to stop Geoff getting out or the other inmates in, wasn’t clear. The longer-term residents didn’t want church music and the priest asked Geoff to play songs from the shows.  So, Geoff played Richard Rogers Sound of Music, with ‘Edelweiss’ apparently being particularly well received!

Whether a similar flexibility in musical approach by priest and organist would have prevented the later Strangeways Prison Riot (which significantly started in a prison chapel) remains a matter for idle speculation.

Up to Oxford

After his release, Geoff went up to Oxford to study Physics and joined the chapel choir.  He was also allowed to practise on the chapel organ. He went to the Royal Albert Hall again, this time to sing in the processional choir for the Remembrance Festival.

The St. Peter’s chapel choir was recorded to LP with Geoff singing bass. We heard the track ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’, attributed to John Redford (Philippians 4:4-7).

Geoff listened to music while doing overnighters to get his essays in on time and we heard favourite tracks from Elgar’s ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings’ and Sibelius ‘Symphony 5, final movement’.

Woodford Green & Romanza with Tricia

In 1973 Geoff moved to Ilford in Essex to start work, training as an electronics engineer and soon began playing organ in the United Reformed Church at Leytonstone in East London. He also played in other URC’s especially one called Woodford Green United Free Church from the mid-80s until 1997.  At Woodford Green there was a full 4-part choir and they regularly sang anthems and psalms. Woodford Green also has a prison…

Seeking to break with his criminal past, Geoff moved to the Northwest in 1998 and in 2001 began attending Christ Church Walmersley. He resumed organ lessons with Kevin Bowyer, who is now Glasgow University Organist. In 2001 Geoff met Tricia to whom he is now married. Tricia is credited with helping to reform Geoff and restoring him as a useful member of society.  She bought him a CD ‘Romanza’ sung by Andrea Bocelli. Geoff particularly like Bocelli’s ability to switch musical styles mid-performance.

In 2002 Geoff gained his Organ diploma DipABRSM and in 2003 became Rehearsal Piano Accompanist to Bury Choral Society. Meanwhile he had become regular organist at St Chad’s in New Moston.

Geoff Stokes: Bang up-to-date

For his birthday present in 2012 he had a session on the £1.2 million pipe organ at Bridgewater Hall. The organ has 5500 pipes and we saw a video of Geoff playing Widor’s ‘Organ Symphony No. 5, final movement, Toccata’.

Geoff Stokes became regular organist at Christ Church Walmersley on the retirement of Arthur Smith in 2015. Arthur was aged 100. Walmersley doesn’t have a prison.

This is loosely what Geoff Stokes delivered to the Open Group on May 9th 2018.

[For more about St John & St Mark, Bury please visit our ‘about’ page. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read then please give this post a ‘like’ or leave a comment. Thank you]

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