Self-taught multi-instrumentalist Alan Arnold describes the good times of a lifelong career playing trumpet and bass parts of traditional mainstream jazz, locally around Essex, nationally, and internationally. Playing a variety of clubs, festivals, radio, and commercial gigs with the Cosmopolitan Jazz Band, and later Tom Collins Band, alongside many household names, Alan ultimately reflects they fulfilled ‘what it's all about’: stirring happiness and enjoyment in the audiences they serve.
|Interview date||28th December 2016|
|Interview source||National Jazz Archive|
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Interviewer: So, if we could just start then with you telling me your name and spelling your name please.
Alan: Alan Arnold. A.R.N.O.L.D.
Interviewer: O, thank you and could you just tell me your date of birth and where you were born.
Alan: 5/4/1943; Colchester. Maternity Hospital.
Interviewer: Oh awesome thank you. So you’ve always been local then in that case?
Interviewer: Yeah? Can you tell me a little bit about your parents and your early background in music.
Alan: Father was an engineer at Paxmans one of the biggest companies in Colchester, Mother was a secretary and nurse during the war, brother was sixteen years older than me, he used to come home when I was a little boy and I used to wonder who this chap was sitting in front of me, and they told me that he was called up in the army.
And after that I knew that he was a musician and had a band so I used to follow him about and that’s how I got into jazz basically that’s… Listening to everything that would happen about the house, after I got to know him that was when he actually came and lived with us again, but sixteen years is a lot of difference with older parents as well of course. Mother was 43, Dad was 49 when they had me, so there wasn’t a lot of going out to do’s with them.
You know, so brother used to tag me along with his band, ‘…’ they were a dance band who used to do Swing and [Allington?]… this was in late 40’s early 50’s and brother’s band won the area Melody Maker contest in 1948, and they had some aluminium records made - LPs. One sold was Stella by Starlight and Leavers Leap don’t know what the other one was, no idea where that record went to. So that was really I suppose the start of it, other than being in the Boys Brigade, playing in bugle bands and then a brass band, so that’s my early start into music.
Interviewer: And where did you start then playing musical instruments? What was your first instrument and how did that develop into a career?
Alan: Well both at the same time really, about 11 years old - Bugle and Cornet. Also, there was nobody [who] played the euphonium much and I used to like playing the euphonium because in the military bands the euphonium takes a lot of the lead and that was rather pleasant to play that sort of thing and that was great and of course we used to go up into the room afterwards and play all the popularist tunes if we could play them.
And then we decided, I suppose about 14 to play a little bit of jazz, so we started to get into jazz really. And the first band was formed though Boys Brigade. Five of us Boys Brigade and a bass player who was in the army band and when I went to College there was young lad down there who played trombone and a bit of jazz so that was the forming of the Cosmopolitan jazz band. ‘Jazz Men’, that’s what we used to call ourselves, and we progressed from there onwards really.
Interviewer: So, in terms of your moving into [a] professional music career then, what different bands have you been involved with over the years and what’s been your role in those bands?
Alan: Well about twelve years playing trumpet with the Cosmopolitan jazz band and then also working alongside [the] Tom Collins band we both worked together funnily enough, I followed him for years and I turned up a work one day this gentleman was stood there turned around and that was Tom Collins. I used to go to the jazz club and listen to him, when we was in the Boys Brigade we used to listen to him at one of the pubs, you know stand outside the doorway we weren’t allowed in so that was really a great a great start.
In 1968 my cousin played bass with Tom which progressed from my brother who taught him bass, and he said to me would I like to join his band on bass and I used to sit in play on bass and going back when our bass player came out of the army he went to Australia so that’s another gap and there was a lad who followed us about playing a little bit of guitar said he wouldn’t mind learning Bass so home round mine at nights teaching him Bass, taught myself twice, three times quicker.
Then [he] used to play one or two numbers in the band with a quartet you see in our band and as I say sitting with Tom’s band, me cousin had to leave that band because he was the bank manager and they didn’t like people playing in bands, so I got the job playing with Tom and I’ve been with that band ever since. And still with, being a different name but same personnel. We can get to that later but... during the time of that I’ve played with so many other bands you know as deps and whatever but the bread and butter band was the Tom Collins band.
Interviewer: And did you tour with them as well and if so was there quite a lot of audience, and locally as well […] Colchester?
Alan: The Colchester jazz club was one of the biggest in the country, and it’s the longest going one even now. It’s gotta be nearly sixty years I reckon now it’s been going. At one time we progressed from various venues when I joined the jazz club it was at the Albert on the roundabout by the Colchester old bypass. I suppose we played there; our little band did intervals and special nights. When I joined the band they’d just moved to Langham on Lyme there used to be about two hundred and fifty people out there. [They] had to move from there ‘cause it was not big enough, we went to the Townhouse in Colchester which produced about four, five hundred people every Sunday night – one of the biggest clubs in the country.
And we played every Sunday night and then we came up with the idea with the committee that’d be nice to have once a month off so we were playing alongside Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and various other bands and it’d be nice to have them down the Colchester so that’s what we'd do once a month they came down and played and we still play at the Colchester Jazz Club about twice a year. That’s a story well left alone how we left there really – change of people and they thought they were going to do better and the club went completely downhill to about sixty people.
And after a little later the treasurer ran away with the money, we go back again because we are the local band who most probably do it for virtually nothing and then we got back and said we wouldn’t go back regular, we used to go back about 3/4 times a year to play which was enough, it gave us time to have Sunday night off.
Interviewer: And, I notice actually online as well you also toured across the world as a band as well, so how important was that to your development as a band and did you notice a difference in audience in different countries?
Alan: Well the usual things, before I joined the band they’d been to Germany and places like that and also we got a van across France when I joined in ’68 and then we also went to the Dunkirk jazz festival – big jazz festival over Friday, Saturday and Sunday and they used to have an amateur contest from people all over Europe and the first year we came second, the second year we came first in our category, it was categorised in traditional jazz, modern jazz and free jazz, well the free jazz forget about as far as I was concerned .
I loved modern jazz as well as mainstream jazz but our band was basically traditional mainstream and we’d play a lot of unusual stuff which took a good audience appreciation and the grand side used to be somewhere in the region of about 5,000 people there. It was just outside Dunkirk called [Grand savie?] or something like that. Massive, the car park was huge and this building in the middle was massive and we won all three categories, we won the best band, the best arranged band, the best band soloist which was all in the Melody Maker about, and after that we went back several times for a week at a time going around different clubs, colleges, music schools promoting the jazz, and then playing alongside the top bands at night you know the warm up band which was great. Basie and Art Blakey people like that, absolutely brilliant.
And one night they said ‘Would I take the bass down to a nightclub?’ and went down to this nightclub and there was – I forget who was on the piano now - and there was Oliver Jackson on drums and myself on bass, one of the players out of the Count Basie band, I forget who was – I don’t think it was Basie on piano. Then I looked around and I was playing away and I thought to myself you know these are the people I’ve been listening to the records and collecting at home, and I’m now standing here playing with them, you know absolutely brilliant.
Great you know and we’d been to Canada for three weeks. Stayed with various folk, they have the Hot Club of Jazz, they owned the big premises, jazz every night and we played several times there, done a lot of radio and television work while we were over there. Likewise we were in the [Romonchere?] hotel in Casablanca, the Kings hotel with some lovely people beside us in the other rooms with guns outside and that was Prince Charles and his entourage at the big world trade fair these were.
The first one we went to I think was in the late 80’s, it was 1988, 1988 we done that - there for three weeks, biggest covered, well… festival in the world. Fantastic, lived like kings at the Sheraton hotel, done jazz balls, played every day at the place for three weeks, while it was shut it was open to all the business people. It was huge, it was about 3 square miles covered area. Phenomenal place and lovely people I might say. Then at night time - dinner dances in the hotels. The big receptions at the British embassy and other embassies and that was eye-opening and getting paid well which made it extra nice ‘…’
At the night time when the big fair, well it was the trade fair was open to the general public, I was amazed there was about thirty or forty people on the this big grass patch with a road up the middle a road up the front of the stage which was from here to London long I think, with a big picture of our big friend on the back I won’t mention the name – the man in charge of Iraq and there was a six stand in the middle of this big stage with Russian dancers came on and some American people done some things in the end there must have been about a couple of thousand people, and I think the only time that I realised how much pressure these people are under over there.
They all came up and chucked these little antirrhinums the little, bunny heads at us at the band which meant you enjoyed it, came up and surrounded us on stage and a police car pulled up which was a white and blue, the army were white and blue as well so I didn’t know which was… Three words in Arabic or whatever they call it over there on the phone and that was like a bulldozer, it never happened in this country, and it just went ‘Bang’ straight behind those beds and the road the other side you know as quick as that not one left behind, you know and you realise that they were really under pressure but superb people and very into jazz by the sound of it and they thoroughly enjoyed it so other than that we’ve been to Tuns… and world trade fairs.
Done a lot of broadcasting in this country, used to do Jazz Club, Band Parade, The Music in You – Truckers Hour, (inaudible) Tracey and people like that. We done some BBC work up at Norwich, half-hour jazz programmes up there, that was quite interesting so we’ve been around you know and done our share of here there and everywhere.
Interviewer: …Obviously you play music yourself but have you been involved with like the clubs or teaching or anything in other ways?
Alan: Not really, when you’re playing every night of the week you don’t get a lot of choice of working during the day. You know I mean it was a professional band some of ‘em lived off of the band I ran a little business so I could get away when I wanted to any rate but my lads would look after themselves [...] I’ve taught one or two people bits and pieces, not really had the time I used to say I’ll put you in the right area, give you a few bits and pieces to go away and go to college or somewhere like that to learn cause I just haven’t got time, more so now but there’s not so many people about.
Interviewer: …you’ve had a very long career by this point, what’s motivated you to keep investing in jazz particularly and to keep you playing?
Alan: I could say fun. When you’ve got a good load of musicians, a very, very good band and we get on, we’ve had some phenomenal times and it’s a treat to go out with the lads to play and of course making the crowd happy as well, which appears to happen so you know we keep getting asked back. With all the recessions there’s not as much about now of course but we used to do the Mayor’s ball in Colchester, the Mayor’s ball in Ipswich, Norwich, corporate do’s.
We were a very good function band as well because we played lot of big band stuff albeit only six of us, but you know as one chap on the radio said the sax section were playing I think it was Tuxedo Junction and he said ‘The sax sounded a bit thin’ and the presenter said ‘well there was only one man playing it’. Other than that we got good reports on it. You know so we could do good dinner dances, particularly weddings because they could get up and do Jive and we used to – if anything was good in the hit parade we’d play it like ‘In the Summer time’ with Mungo Jerry I think it was came out with ‘In the Summer time’, it was a good little jazz tune we made of it, went down well at weddings and stuff like that so you know rather than play just traditional jazz...
We used to do a lot with Humphrey Lyttelton because Tom used to work at the Spastics Society and in some form Humph was a lot to do it… whether it was somebody in the family I don’t quite remember, we played quite a lot for Humph – his daughter’s wedding, his granddaughter’s wedding and their 18th birthday parties so you know we’ve done a lot with Humphrey Lyttelton over the years and you know it’s nice to be able to go to those do’s rather than just go round to jazz clubs which are lovely but you do get a little bit pigeon holed in jazz clubs you know but we still go and play what we play you know.
Nine times out of ten we have people coming up saying ‘Can you play Molasses?’ or tunes that most probably other people never heard of. Joe Zawinul Cannonball Addley’s pianist number, you know which is all of fairly mainstream modern but the good old punchy way and if people ask for it in these jazz clubs - you play it! You know, you can’t keep everybody happy, can you?
Interviewer: And over the years have you had any big influences as a band within the world of jazz that you think have helped shape your music along the way?
Alan: Oh we’ve all got our individual people I think, I mean one of the first things that I remember doing I made a radio when I was about twelve, thirteen, and only with headphones, and I could pick up Luxembourg [Radio Luxembourg] and late at night there was the Voice of America – Willis Karloff, Karlover I think it was Willis Karlover [Cannover] and jazz from eleven until twelve and when you heard all the different top jazz musicians you know, Dizzy Gillespie, and I got fixed onto a trumpet player called Carmell Jones which I’ve got several albums of. Liked his style. I like Miles Davis – phenomenal. I don’t think there’ll ever be another man with a tone like his; Dizzy Gillespie all those sorts of people and of course Louis Armstrong.
When you start off playing the trumpet at an early age, traditional jazz is basically not easy but it's basic you know and good basic and when Louis Armstrong started off he was basic when he finished he was playing poppy, as you most probably know, mainstream, good musicians behind him, so there’s lots of influence[s].
British bands, I would say Freddy Randall, Alex Welsh, Aker, Kenny and, very good band - bit more commercialised which was great but you’ve got different styles. Ken Coyler kept himself basic which was nice from the traditional side so you know you’ve got a variety. I think you know on television there was the trad boom which when you see the archive stuff they miss some of the good stuff out.
There was a lot of good musicians playing about in the London area which they seem to have missed. You can mention thousands of names from the 50’s you know which were very good musicians. Unfortunately, faded over a little bit from youngsters coming in, a lot of the youngsters are coming back now and learning a little bit of the traditional rather than going into all the modern. I means there are some superb modern[ists] coming out of the music colleges which are brilliant but it’s a select audience. I am one of the audience and I play it as well but that’s beside the point - if you’re a musician and you love all styles of music you try and play ‘em.
I’m not all that brilliant on modernist because I would have loved to have learnt about the bass, I only learnt what I learnt at home and progressed since you know, when I was in Colchester silver band on trumpet and the Boys Brigade, you learn top line, you learn the scales, that’s it. I wanted to go to music college like my brother, I had call up papers came and within about two weeks I some more come to say I wouldn’t be called up. That was finished ‘…’ [they’d] send these papers well in advance but I’d already signed up as an apprentice, so I would’ve been 21 so I’d never would’ve got in any rate in the end but I do miss that point of view, and when you start out earning money when you’re young and getting in a band that’s it - you’re away, you know - you’re not at home every night studying which you should be you know, I’ve done good steed.
I’m not the world’s best Bass player not the world’s best Trumpet player of course but I’ve got along I’ve enjoyed myself, I’ve made a lot of money out of it and that’s brilliant - taken me all around the world, lots of lovely big houses and played for lots of special people you know? So it’s been lovely.
Interviewer: Obviously again you’ve been in more than one band over the years but how would you say the organisation and the coordination of your actual jazz band, your activities has it stayed the same how you’ve organised things over the years to be successful and to get gigs and things like that?
Alan: Yeah, it’s hard work now getting gigs because the venues are non-existent really I mean in the last I should say six to eight years we’ve lost a lot of our corporate stuff because they just haven’t got the money to do it. A lot of the companies we used to work for we used to do quite a lot for a big solicitor’s company in Ipswich. Haven’t got the money to do it - corporate do’s.
Weddings we used to be booked two years ahead, now sometimes I get a phone call – ‘Any chance of getting a band together?’ and that’s usually about a fortnight beforehand because people found they most probably got a few pounds spare. Why people want to spend thirty or forty thousand pounds on a wedding I don’t know. They say a wedding is between ten and twenty thousand pound[s] you know, forget about that but no, I mean seriously it’s a job there are still the Colchester jazz club, Southend jazz club and one or two others.
We tend to just keep locally now we're all in late our late sixties and seventies we enjoy what we get now, you know? I don’t want to be out every night playing now obviously, one a week would be lovely but of course to do that you’ve got to have the venues.
We do about two a year at Branford British Legion club, so all these ‘two a years’ keep coming down, and you know makes it so you’ve got… the other week we played three times in one week now we’ve got nothing till whenever, you know about two weeks before Christmas - Southend jazz club, played at Wicks, with another little band and then Branford British Legion… keeps me going. I would like more, again I do more playing with other bands now which keeps me going, you know depping [deputising] and that’s rather nice cause you can meet all the old folks up you haven’t seen for a long time.
Interviewer: So you talked a little bit about how you met Tom Collins for instance but the first band The Cosmopolitan Jazz Men, how did that come about that you decided that you wanted to form an actual group and actually try and play together?
Alan: Well as I said from Boys Brigade when we were NCOs which are older boys, lance corporals and corporals we were allowed to go in the room at the church, there was a big school room ‘…’ Methodist school beside it with lots of rooms and we had one big room at the top with snooker tables in and we used to go up and play snooker, then get the instruments out and play around the piano. Joe would get one of the drums out, get the snare drum out, and away we went you see, and about four of us having a blow and that’s [how] it came about ‘shall we form a little band.’
So we played for the youth club, the Boys Brigade Fish Supper… it went down a treat so we thought ’Yeah keep this going’. Then we got in one of the little pubs and had a blow in there and they said ‘you can come back’ so you know so really that was the start, when I was doing my apprenticeship I was going to college, which was then the North East Essex Technical college.
Mike Nason was in my class and we got talking and he said ‘you know, you play Trombone’ I said ‘ooh’. I had a mate at school who was a trombone player at the Salvation Army he didn’t want to know nothing about jazz so that was no point... so I said to Mick ‘What do you play, what sort of music?’ he said ‘I copy all the old jazz stuff you know on record, I sit and play alongside it’ I said ‘Would you like to come and play alongside us?’ He came and had a few rehearsals. I was working at the Pub in Colchester - The Castle, and the old boy there said ‘You can used the upstairs room for rehearsal’ so we used to go up there and rehearse once a week, other than that round various houses and so forth that was how we really got into forming it sort of thing and going round saying ‘Can we come and have a blow for you for nothing?’ and we used to get free drinks and paid at the end, so we thought ‘right then we’ll start putting the feelers out a bit more’.
As people left and got married we gradually kept the band going and we had another Trombone player who was the manager of the power station at Sizewell and when he left a mate of mine who later joined Tom Collins band I think he was with us for about a year, then at the end of that it was a case of… I’d got on the phone then, just married so we got a phone instead of writing letters to everybody, which was wonderful. All going down the road to find a post-box or a telephone box and ring somebody who was about two doors away from the person you wanted you know. All this caper was going on you know, and particularly when you’re a spread band, in the end I got a bit fed up.
I had Mick Hurrell another pianist from Ipswich and Chub Wardley a banjo player playing with me and then they all progressed to other things… and then Tom said about this [joining?] I thought ‘That’s it’. In the meantime, I was also playing with a chap at Ipswich a nice pianist Bill Haigh Joyce, and he used to play with a guitarist who used to live down that way he used to run jazz club at the BBC - Ken Sykora. So I used to go and play Trumpet with them and a little bit of Bass as well. ‘...’ There was a… first floor club, [and] we used to play at this club at Ipswich when it first opened and some Americans ran it, it was a night club with a casino attached.
When I left playing Bill was [doing something?] there and asked if I would play and one night I turned up and there was this black drummer and he was a - I don’t know if? he was a pilot or what he was actually - in the American air force up from I think it was Bentwaters - he was the drummer from one of the big bands in America – phenomenal drummer ‘…’ so I’ve been you know mixing around and even with Tom I was… but Tom’s band was the bread and butter band and if I took a spare time job with other people, I would say If anything came up I’d say ‘Tom, I’m afraid I shall have to ring..’ and they use to say ‘that’s fine’ and you used to know within several days and they could get somebody else you know I would never do jobs if I was offered £100 for a job or £20 for a job if I was doing the £20 one and there was another for £100, I’d wouldn’t take the £100 one. If I’ve said I’d do a job for somebody that’s it I’d never… there's a lot of people who do and sometimes there’s a line of about four different people in the bands, can’t do that I’m afraid.
If you’re in one band and that’s the bread butter band that's it but that’s how I really progressed round to get into playing you know, with lots of other people as well to start with you know little bands here there – Mike Leigh’s band I used to have a blow with on the Bass when I was still playing Trumpet yeah it was great fun.
Interviewer: And was it always quite easy to find things like practice space as well over the years or has that ever been problematic in order to get together because as well with you all having different jobs was it ever hard to find time?
Alan: Last time we practiced in the jazz band, tape recorders - VHS recorders were just starting. We had to learn two numbers for the BBC programmes we were doing, so we went to the Golden Hind I think it was in Ipswich, one night there and one night at the (inaudible). We done one and they rang up and said could we play another one and we hadn’t got a clue, we found it and got it going and the next day recording the half hour programme ‘…’ Somebody would bring some chords in and we started off with not too many people there and we’d run through it and that was it and then play it later.
Every Friday night at the moment we have a practice with a Rock band. But no jazz, once you’ve got it in your head these tunes are pretty easy any rate but I mean if they come along with the chords which most people nowadays has chords, that’s why my reading is not as good as it used to be nobody hardly uses dots you know, occasionally but still got the chords above, at any rate once you come up with a chord sequence and if you know the chord sequence you can motivate round anything, you know which is great. Particularly if you’re playing with a lot of the London guys, we used to play with another chap from… well he used to be in London then Basildon, then moved to Clacton. He was a modern jazz pianist - Ray Ward or Terry Thompson was his real name but under Ray Ward he used to get a lot of the top tenor players and people from London. Used to do some down at the Pizza Express at Southend as a trio and get other people in and that was a by-product at the time you know, I was with Tom at the time if we weren’t playing ‘…’ that was Wednesday we used to have a little club down – two of us, three of us in the band and get other people in.
So, there was always a quintet of two different people on the front line so that was a nice. Wednesday nights used to be down at the Pizza [Pizza Express] so I was still playing every night of the week. But that was a nice diverse scene and that was more of the modern jazz and Don Weller and people like that used to come down, you know - big smile on your face – ‘Oh I’m playing with Don Weller tonight’ you know that was lovely, and I used to think to myself ‘God, am I going to manage this bit?’ and I used to go away and think that bit was all fine [laughs] playing tunes I’d never heard of and I used to look at the old piano sat left hand and get some chords off of him and away you go that was lovely. But the majority of the stuff was easy if there was any complicated stuff it was always books which I very, very rarely use but they were nice if we just wanted to see a pattern of a particular tune that you didn’t really know that well.
Interviewer: And over the years have there been any people or organisations that have helped support any of your jazz band or activities that you’ve done?
Alan: Not really, it's all been self… well other than the jazz clubs obviously you know because we do regular ones as I say from [Hayden Green?] at Southend and the Colchester club, Branford you now they always keep us going there. We used to do a lot at Branford every time they open the season we’d always used to do the first one, they used to do it over the winter season you know, and then ‘cause personnel changed so we’d just do a couple whenever you know which is nice. ‘…’
We usually do two or three down Southend. […] Agent said I’ll give you a call in January, so it keeps coming in. We still get one or two parties, some of our old folks from the jazz club we do sixtieth and seventieth parties nowadays you know which is rather nice. There’s still folks coming to the jazz club since I’ve been going to the jazz club any rate, some of them are in their mid-eighties, you know, that's great. The Colchester jazz club when we used to have four, five or sometimes six-hundred people there was from sixteen to ninety. You know, really diverse crowd and at any one time about one-hundred, one-hundred and fifty couples on the floor. You know - massive.
Interviewer: And would you say that the actual Colchester scene itself shaped you as a player in the band at all?
Alan: Yeah, basically I suppose because when you’re playing every Sunday night at Colchester ‘…’ and we started having other bands in from up London say ‘Cor blimey you’ve got some dancers going here’ and we have a different style here instead of what we call the old ‘Stomp’- a sort of a very slow stomping jive, down here they were the jazz Jive - a cross between Rock n’ Roll and ‘thingamy’ which was rather quick you know so that was nice. As I say out of that of course came lots of weddings, birthdays, whatever you know so that was a good scene.
Unfortunately, all these jazz clubs were struggling. I mean Colchester - we’d get a good crowd about eighty go there, Southend sort of sixty to eighty I suppose but you know it depended on the bands I suppose as well you know, if we keep going back we can’t be that bad I suppose. People keep coming up after and say ‘lovely band’ and they say they like the repertoire we play we try and do a bit of everything you know whether they like it or not it’s fine.
Interviewer: In terms of again, like over the years this may have changed, how have you communicated to people about who you are as a band over the years and how have you got like sort of self-promotion really about things like yourself as a band and getting gigs, stuff like that?
Alan: Well I mean we don’t do so much now occasionally I’ve taken a poster with this band - a lot of it is what Humphrey has written and what I've written because I’ve had to change things around because of Tom not being here but we were one of the top twelve bands in the country we was, and still is a very, very good band. I’ll play you a tune later if you like so you can hear yourself…
The LPs sold themselves, when we done Tom’s funeral I done the eulogy and I was worried a bit sick because there was going to be a lot of people there from all different areas and different bands you know because as I say we were a popular band and there were about three hundred odd people and all there. I’d written the list out cause knowing Tom, I knew his background any rate you see at that time he was in the Boys Brigade as well, so wrote all this stuff out in the office and typed it all out with headings you see, and I thought ‘If I read this, I’m gonna stumble’ but my Mrs said ‘you read it as it is you know’ and I said ‘alright’. Well I was expecting to be towards the end I was told, well – straight in, I think me and [Mr. Collins?] and the vicar we knew because we played for him many times, from Tom’s village which is [?] and he said ‘now Alan’s gonna come and do a few words about Tom’.
I got down there and I thought ‘Ahh’ and I draped me arms over the lectern sort of thing and I was told to make ‘em laugh. Well the poor old Vicar was in tears nearly, laughing at some of the antics we got up to and things and then I said ‘this is not the first time me and Tom had been in coffins.’ I told ‘em a little bit of [a] story - we were chased one day and a certain chap said ‘hey, Tom’, again a lad I went to college with who was working for an undertaker's behind The Castle pub [...] we’ll leave names out! And he worked there and we were being chased round by a painter, who was a horrible little man but that’s beside the point. He was really after us we just squirted the whole of his back with two soda syphons up the jersey into his helmet in the back of the painters van and he was – ‘Ran’. So we hid in these coffins and so I said about that and as I ended up I said ‘He’d be ever so proud now to know that our albums are on Ebay’. I said there’s one on… well they’re both for £25 actually. One was being placed from Camden and one from Scotland ‘cause we used to play in Scotland quite often, I said ‘we only sell ‘em for 6 quid’, so we made a bit of money. I reckon we hit the top spot with that. Any rate when I went out the door, I’ve never had so many people shake my hands in my life and they reckon that was brilliant and I never looked at those words - all headings that’s all…
Anyway when I went outside, [there] was another undertaker there he said ‘that was Tom’s funeral.’ I said ‘yeah I just spoke about you I said but no name.’ He said ‘what’s that?’ I said ‘the old coffins in the shop window coffins.’ ‘Blimey that was a long while ago, that was. I think that was 1961’ [he said], and he remembered and he got us - Honeyboards, the big undertakers in Colchester. Trevor Honeyboard that was you see. So we made good fun of that and that was brilliant.
Going out of the church there was a lovely tune on our CD called ‘Higher Ground’ which was spiritual, Tom sung that very well. And we went out to that and I’ve never seen so many people with tears in their eyes over hearing him sing that song - brought back a lot of memories but there you go that was Tom when he left us unfortunately he had a stroke and then he was about 5 years after he died and that shook us although he was a poor old boy in the end but I didn’t expect him to go quite as quick as that. But that’s life, unfortunate isn’t it?
Interviewer: So, over the years, the actual East Coast Wanderers now is pretty much the original Tom Collins Jazz Band.
Alan: It’s the same band. There’s two of us who have been in it since ’68, two since, well the drummer came in after our other drummer left, which was a progression from my band. The Clarinettist was from my band and then we joined Tom and then John moved away and… well not firstly; he had the symbols upsetting his ears and he had to have medical things so Ron West came in on drums for a little while and then went again and John came back then Ron came again and Ron’s been with us, well both of ‘em since early seventies I think. Tim the clarinettist/tenor player has been at least twenty-odd years with us at least I reckon.
Interviewer: And would you say over the years you yourself or the band have faced any particular barriers to playing jazz or being a band?
Alan: No, nowadays we all play in different bands because there is not a lot of work about I mean you know as I say I do some for [Fell Barrack?] at Cambridge. Other little bands - Blackwater band take over a lot of our work, I’ve played with them occasionally. Whoever rings up and want deps, I’ll go you know - trundle away, so there’s always work you know which is nice from that point of view which I never had a chance to do quite as much of years ago and a lot of people say ‘corr when you’re retired that’ll be great’. Cause I retired about, well gotta be about eight years ago now I suppose. I’ve not really retired but you know and of course with the recessions and that all the day functions that were on and the weddings and that just don’t seem to be there with the money now you know. Val used to book us a lot during the day because I could have days off when I wanted… but there’ve been no barriers I don’t think at all of any sort like that, we just keep on we’re all paying little bits and pieces. I put some on I do one a year for the church, one a year for wood turning so we can still do our own little things at any rate and earn a little bit of money from it so you know, keep the mice away from us.
Interviewer: And would you say ‘cause you’ve mentioned Rock yourself earlier, would you say things like Rock n’ Roll and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling stones had an impact on jazz?
Alan: Well it all comes from jazz any rate doesn’t it you see? So no, it brought in different phase at the time which really the jazz went all the way through. I never got into Rock n’ Roll – on the way home from gigs, I used to listen to it, there was some very good stuff about in the fifties and sixties written, I wouldn’t say too much at the moment but that’s another point but there was some good stuff - Wilson Pickett, people like that and American good singers you know… people in big bands can play, I mean like some of the Beatles stuff has been taken on [by] big bands, jazz, we’ve played a couple of Beatles numbers in the jazz band because there was a little bit more content [than] some of them you know… if I look at some of the books a lot of the top ten stuff was coming and you know I think ‘ooh we can make something of that’ you know and play it as a jazz - and people would say ‘ooh, that sounds nice, great’ and that’s what they like, we do it in a jazz form. When you're doing parties and so forth away from the jazz people you’ve gotta go to the crowd and that’s what we done - we don’t just go there and play traditional jazz. You know, we try and diversify.
Interviewer: And would you say that… and again this may have changed over time but when you were first starting out, was there a particular reaction of your parents or the older generation to jazz or to you playing jazz?
Alan: No, not really. I mean Mum and Dad were that age a lot older, I mean they’d been through the age with my brother playing music and so forth like that, and Mum died in 1961 so she didn’t ever know really how well I was playing you know and how popular I got and Dad died in seventy, nineteen-seventy so I mean he knew I was all over the place because there was always letters coming through the door saying that we got a gig so and so… you know. The only thing Dad used to do was, I was always late in at night I would hear him sometimes wander through and just have a look in the door to see if I was about you know, poor old boy but you know he was quite content.
He was in the first world war and came through all that, never came home in four years went all through Europe from Egypt and goodness knows what, so his life was really after that sitting in chair and telling nobody nothing about it really you know but no he was an engineer, a very good engineer at Paxmans he was in the tool room but other than that I could never tell you his taste in music, he used to hum along to the television or the radio and so forth but you know, I used to say ‘what did you think of that then Dad, that jazz?’ - ‘alright’ [he’d say] so that was it.
Interviewer: Did you find then, cause you kinda mentioned Boys Brigade and stuff like that, but did you notice that your own peer group when you were younger, were they all particularly into jazz?
Alan: They were when we started playing it, they had to be and I’m still down there now and there’s one or two like jazz. There’s a girl who’s an officer now she plays in a Methodist silver band and one or two other little bands so there’s a lot rub off. I keep teaching these kids trumpets and bugles and so forth and they say ‘can we come to you and have lessons?’ I say ‘no find yourself a school or somebody who does it as a continuous thing or go to the college’. There used to be Greyfriars at the top of East Hill at one time they had a Saturday where you could go and learn any sort of instrument - that was brilliant from that point of view, but it is hard to find people now, and the schools stopped at one time but they don’t have time either really unless you’re really dedicated and [feel?] those teachers look after you but if you’re only willing to learn to be able to play in like the Boys Brigade [then they] don’t want to know nothing about it really, which is rather sad. And of course, some schools have got not bands at all now which I think is terrible but there you go.
Interviewer: And again, this may not apply to you but some people were involved in jazz in quite a political way with things like CND and Trade Unions and stuff like that over the years. Was your jazz bands ever involved?
Alan: No we were in the union because we had to be to be able to do radio work and stuff like that but other than that the union's been good to us. We’ve never had to use them for any particular reason but that is good we get ten-million-pound insurance out of it and two-thousand-pound insurance for your instruments you know. Cost a few quid to belong to but that’s beside the point you know, feel you’ve got something behind you to… in case of problems which is good and most of our reps round this area have been good guys and good musicians so yeah fine but I’ve never wanted to or had the time to get involved that’s a whole new ball game you know that takes you away for what I want to do [which] is play.
Interviewer: …again over the years things have changed quite a lot but in the early days when you were starting out in jazz would you say that the diversity in jazz changed or influenced ideas about things like race and crossing borders and things like that with music?
Alan: I think I might’ve personally [inaudible] helped with race because when you heard people you know knocking black people, I used to think well I’m listening to… all the people I’m listening to who are brilliant musicians and been teachers in the colleges… music college and that, why? And I used to think ‘well we all come from black, so why do we have to have all this?’ That’s my argument, I mean there’s as many white baddies as is black baddies you know and I hate it when you done history about all the things that happened down in the South in America you know in the 1800’s and so forth you know and it’s still going on of course you know and I can’t see… well I don’t know if you’re ever gonna get - I thought with a black president things might help, they have I’m sure. In my mind he’s been a good president but I don’t know you know, I mean I thought that in my case and a lot of jazz musicians’ case we look up to those people and I had a black person live next to me for a little while after my old mate died and he was brilliant, lovely guy, and I’ve got no problem with them at all, at all any colour or race. I feel like jazz is even better.
Interviewer: And then just looking then at long term contribution a bit more, but first looking back, what would you say you’re particularly proud of? It could be your career or it could just be jazz generally.
Alan: Well I think I'm proud I've been playing with a very good band and we've put a lot in for happiness for other people you know and I think that’s what it's all about… It is nice to go out there and play for yourself but that’s not what it's all about. In the rhythm section our main thing is to push the men in the front line then the whole band is to keep those people happy and if you're keeping them happy you’ve done a good job as far as I'm concerned, any rate. And I think we have over the years, I think we have, so I've been proud I've got a cup over there from Dunkirk, we’ve got a big plaque on the window from working out in Iraq, that went down a storm. I've got one or two presentation things which I've got all the archive stuff now from when Tom died, you know brilliant, you know that’s all you can do - you're there for people to enjoy and if they are enjoying it, you've done a good job as far as I'm concerned.
Interviewer: And would you say that jazz itself has had an impact on British culture?
Alan: I’m sure it has and I think it still comes back - people you see, I still get this thing: ‘I don’t like jazz’. ‘So have you ever listened to it?’ ‘Well no, not really’. ‘Well how do you know?’ ‘Well mostly people have said.’ ‘What have they said?’ ‘Well they don’t like jazz. I said ‘Oh yeah?’ particularly in the village - get ‘em come along to the church you see. ‘Blimey I didn't know it was like that!’ you see they get blown away by it because there is some very, very good musicians playing, very good instruments with all these lovely notes coming out.
And afterward I say ‘Did you enjoy that?’ Our minister the new minister came - Folk Guitarist – [he said] ‘I hate jazz’. So I gave him one of our CDs and he said ‘Cor I like that.’ And for the first time in three years he came to the do last Christmas and he was astounded what we done and how we - he got over and said ‘I didn’t think it was like this.’ He said ‘I've never bothered ‘cause I like me Folk’. I said ‘I like Folk.’ I said ‘I like any music where my foot is tapping.’ I like Classical, I mean I get bored with some of the classical I get bored with some of the jazz.
I'm not a lover of particularly what I call ‘free jazz’ you know this blowin’ a note here and a note there and you know to me it's gotta flow. Modern jazz start with a tune and then they go in and they are the clever people who make their intermediate solos up you know, if you don’t like it, move out but they don’t move out, they stay there so you know. I've seen ‘em at the jazz club move out half way through an evening when some bands come in and I say ‘that was a good band’, and some people say ‘cor that’s brilliant.’ And I’ll say ‘well’ and they was hardy people and when I say hardy people they was the ones who like diversity but my, it was bad. [Inaudible]
Interviewer: What would you say the future of your activities are now, looking forward?
Alan: Well I suppose the box is not far away now, no I hope that goes on I sit sometime until 2/3 o’clock in the morning watching the old television on Youtube and finding people I've never even heard of and they've absolutely magnificent. Last night, a quintet. Never even heard of ‘em, not one of ‘em. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant but I think that might have been early/late 90’s… Not so long back, chaps all in - I would’ve said, mostly sixties, absolutely superb so there is still a lot to learn, a lot to find out about. That’s where I’m going now which I always have done of course, I like to know what's going on you know and what there is out there which is - there is a lot of stuff. A lot of youngsters, very good youngsters coming up, but there’s still a lot of oldies who play well I assure you, and the youngsters still look up to, and some of those people they are looking up to most probably had nothing in the way of music grounding.
I was lucky in the Silver band and the Boy’s Brigade - didn’t learn what I would’ve like to learn of course but I do regret that in one respect; I wish I could have gone on to a college, Colchester College was no good at all that was only classical, now they do jazz and everything down there you see but in my area, there was just classical. And when Spike Heatley who used to play with Dankworth [Sir John Dankworth] who used to be on television, a mate of mine you see and he said to me one night ‘Alan’ he said ‘you play a good bass but you're making hard work of it now.’ I said ‘It's alright for you old boys who come from London there was lots of teachers and that round there, here there's nothing’. I said ‘nobody plays bass about here it's only orchestral college’. He said ‘well come down to mine’ so I went down to his.
He lived [Oakley?] at the time, and he said ‘my old mate next door was Romanian, his wife was German used to make homemade wines’ – [used to take her?] down there and have a good night. I learnt more in about three or four nights than I would have learnt in about three or four years. I still keep with Spike he’s just been over and done another couple of tours at Harwich again. We spent a couple of hours together beforehand and he reckons he’s given up the ghost but the other drummer down there Kevin Harris who used to play him and Dankworth - I was playing with him the other night and he just said ‘Happy Christmas’ to him and he said ‘I’ve just taken the Bass out of the corner and tinkled it again.’ He was at the Fleece, at thingummy few weeks ago, well a few months ago I meant to say and that was his last tour of this country ‘cause he lives in France now but we still keep in touch. But I got my grounding - a better grounding from him and what he taught me you know, would've took years on the thingamy.
Interviewer: Thank you very much then in that case.
Alan: You're most welcome, as I say I hope you can learn something from it yourself.
Interviewer: Thank you.