The building dates back to around 1862 when a local brewery, the McKenna Brothers, built it as the flagship pub of their operation. It was called the George and Dragon; the first licence on the site was granted to Elizabeth March in 1803. No-one knows when music started to be played at the venue but market pubs were well known for their musical connections, and the nearby Smithfield Markets and textile factories ensured that this was a bustling area with many musicians and buskers. Manchester was then at its height as the first industrial city at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.
The 'Band on the Wall' was a nickname from the 1930s when the landlord of the time Ernie Tyson placed a stage high on the far wall of the pub on which the musicians played. A regular band of twoaccordions, piano, drums, a singer and occasionally a saxophone would play.
During World War II the venue was popular with British, American, Canadian and French servicemen as well as the local market traders and mill workers. Italian prisoners of war and deserters were rumoured to frequent the establishment. The band often played on during air raids, particularly as they became more common. Walter Greenwood wrote that a record 24,000 bottles of beer were sold here on one day of a Bank Holiday weekend.
The Band on the Wall's iconic logoThe Zoe Rahman Quartet playing at Band on the Wall during the Manchester Jazz festival in 2012
The area fell into decline during the middle of the 20th century as the textile manufacturing industry declined and many people left the area; the market was also suffering.
In 1975 local jazz musician Steve Morris and his business partner Frank Cusick bought the George & Dragon with the idea of turning it into a jazz club, a conversation with Johnny Roadhouse convinced them to name it the Band on the Wall, jazz musicians from the local area as well as international artist played at the club. The late 1970s saw the emergence of a new sound, punk, and it was at the Band on the Wall that many of the Manchester punk bands played. This was part of the New Manchester Review nights, a fanzine and listings magazine which was the starting point for the now defunct City Life. Many notable post-punk bands played during this time including Buzzcocks, Fast Cars, and the Fall amongst others. The venue was also used by the Manchester Musicians Collective. An album entitled "A Manchester Collection" was released by Object Records featuring some of those members in April 1979. Several other bands later released music through Factory Records played including Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. In 1982 the venue briefly closed for some internal redevelopment work. It was after the reopening that the Dizzy Gillespie logo was first used. It was during this decade that the venue began to gain an international reputation for so-called "World Music" and a programme that covered multiple genres. Performers who went on to gain international reputations included Mick Hucknall, who played on several occasions as Frantic Elevators. Other notable performances came from Purrkur Pillnikk who supported The Fall for three dates in 1982, supporting vocals came from a young Björk.
Band on the Wall is operated by Inner City Music Ltd, a registered charity. The organisation was awarded £3.2 million in July 2007, in combined awards by Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of a £4 million project to transform the venue into a 21st-century centre for music. The Band on the Wall has been refurbished and opened on September 25, 2009 with a performance by the venue's patrons Julian Joseph and Mica Paris.
Brighter Sound, formerly known as GMMAZ (Greater Manchester Music Action Zone), is a creative music education company founded in 2000 has their office at Band on the Wall. They run music projects here and elsewhere for children and young people aged between 0-19, work with emerging musicians and music practitioners, and deliver organisational development for companies that work with young people through music, across Manchester and the greater North. The young people who take part write their own material and develop their skills as songwriters, musicians and collaborators. Projects last for anything from a week to a year. Brighter Sound participants have performed at the nationwide Children in Need Choir in 2011 singing "Keep Holding On" by Avril Lavigne, the Lowry Theatre, and worked with musicians such as Elbow, Schlomo and Soweto Kinch. A project delivered as a partnership between Brighter Sound and Band on the Wall in 2012 provided opportunities for emerging musicians from across the UK to work with The Unthanks.