Alan Wickham
Alex Mendham

Young orchestra leader of 20s and 30s jazz from South Ockendon.

 

Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.

Alex North

Alex Mendham

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Where did you begin with all this, was clarinet your first instrument?

 

Saxophone was the first instrument, I picked that up at the last year of primary school. Someone came to the school demonstrating instruments and yes the alto sax was one of the ones they came in with and I started lesson on that.

 

You would have been six or seven then?

 

No, about eight or nine.I started on lessons at that and the clarinet came a lot later when I started lessons with Bob Wilbur and he said, “You know, if you want to make a professional career of being a musician you're not really going to get by just playing the saxophone, you need sort of have a doubling instrument and the most common one is clarinet”.

 

I would have thought it would be flute.

 

Sometimes it’s flute, but yes, you really should have all three, saxophone, clarinet and flute but I stopped at clarinet. I really didn't know what music to listen to, music teachers were suggesting all kinds of things really, some stuff I liked and other things I didn't. Most of the teachers would suggest music of the 50’s onwards, and some of that I caught a hold of, stuff with a lot of melody, but then from there I started to look back and came across a Bix Beiderbecke CD.

 

How old were you then?

 

Maybe about 10.And I just stuck with that and from there things like Jelly Roll Morton.At the same time I was looking for places to play.

 

At 10 years old?

 

Yes. A lot of the music teachers would suggest to go home and just practice and a lot of the students that I was having lessons with never went out to play or wanted to play in other bands or had aspirations, but I always wanted to play in bands and to play that style of music.The closest thing I could find was Dixieland jazz or what was left of the Trad boom, so guys in their 70’s and 80’s and one of the bands was in a local theatre (the Queens Theatre, Hornchurch) that play every Sunday lunchtime, Pete Corrigan and his Band of Hope, and from there I met George Tidiman and all the other guys.On the whole they were really encouraging and they had me sitting in the band, so it was kind of baptism by fire.

 

That's how they started – baptism of fire.

 

Yes, and you don't make too many mistakes after a while and I think that's the best way to learn. It's the only way to learn really.After secondary school I didn't really follow in going to college or university, I just decided to learn more about this music on the job so to speak.

 

So you're about 16 now, by the time you're about to leave school.You’re saying you sat in with Pete Corrigan, George Tidiman etc., what other kind of…what other groups…were you playing with anyone regularly at all?

 

No.

 

Did you stick with the same teacher?

 

No, I went through a couple of teachers, a couple of saxophone teachers, and the whole time I was interested in that older style of music so I was doing as much research as I could and I wanted to see if there was anybody around today playing that music properly, because the Dixieland Trad thing is kind of a hybrid version of that music, you know like the banjo is heavily mic’d and the double bass is electric. It's moved on a long way since New Orleans jazz or Dixieland jazz and I really like the dance band stuff, 11 piece and bigger, you know pre-big band, pre-Glenn Miller, because I knew about Glenn Miller, I really liked dance band music, things like Harry Roy, Guy Lombardo and bands like that.

 

The mighty Lew Stone of course.

 

Yes, Lew Stone, Ambrose. I was trying to find out if there were any bands playing this music authentically, and I checked out all the British bands that are around today and I was kind of a bit turned off by them, or left a bit cold, but there was one band in New York, and about 14 I got in touch with a guy called Vince Giordano and he’s provided music for all of Martin Scorcese’s period films and now he's doing Boardwalk Empire and he did all of Woody Allen’s films that are period films. At that time he was doing The Aviator with Leonardo di Caprio and I wrote an email to him, not expecting a reply, saying that I'm this young kid and I'm really interested in Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman and he wrote back to me and he said “So what are you going to do with your music career, what do you really want to do?”, and I said “Well I just want to play in a band playing this style of music”, and we carried on a conversation through email for a couple of years and then that progressed to phone calls and he said “Have you ever been to America before?”I said no and he invited me over! I spent quite a while with him just learning how all the cogs come together in leading a band that size and playing on Broadway with the band, sitting in with the band, so going from this kid who sort of enjoys this music in Essex and then being at the forefront epicentre in Manhattan and playing saxophone in the section.You know, I was way out of my depth at that time but you get pulled up so quickly you don’t get chance to catch your breath. Then the following year I went back again and made a saxophone album with him and some of the saxophone players in New York.

 

Wow. What was that called?

 

That was based on the Six Brown Brothers who were a vaudeville saxophone band, so six saxes, all different sizes, and they played like a Ragtime style of music and they recorded at the turn of the century and when we recorded it was almost 100 years since, so it was kind of a tribute.

 

How old were you at this time?

 

Could have been 19?

 

So your first visit to America you were 18 then?

 

Yeah.

 

And how long did you spend in New York on your first trip?

 

A couple of months, and then I went back again for a shorter time to record this album. From then, I came back. I'd been through various kinds of day jobs and I'd never, still never been able to support myself fully as a musician, which I think if probably the case for most young musicians now.

 

It's the case for most old musicians!

 

Most musicians full stop!But since then one of the saxophone players I became friends with, by the name of Dan Levinson, in Vince’s band, came to the UK to perform at the Hammersmith Balboa Festival and I spent some time with him. He said “You know there’s a world-famous American clarinettist that lives in England and if you're looking for a teacher or someone more of a full-time teacher he’d be one to contact”.So I got in touch with him. His name is Bob Wilbur, and I didn’t really know at the time but his teacher was Sidney Bechet.So I spent a couple of years studying with him, privately at his house, and that was when I started playing clarinet.And it wasn't until then that I really started to come to grips with the saxophone.Because I think there’s a British school of playing and there’s an American school of playing and they're two completely different animals, so learning from an American who’s also had the lineage it was, yeah it was amazing really.

 

That's incredible isn't it really, that’s a very unique experience.Your age as well and being able to appreciate the lineage as well, so…may not have meant a lot to a lot of people, you know, Sidney Bechet, but to someone into that period of music that’s quite incredible isn't it.That’s almost from the horse’s mouth in a way. So you were studying under him for a couple of years.

 

Yeah, maybe about 3 years. Then I think after that, playing gigs in London here and there with other groups I thought that whole scene was missing from London.

 

What other groups?

 

I've been playing with…I've forgotten a lot of their names; they were sort of one-nighters, here there and everywhere.One lead by a guy who was a drummer who sort of just owned a drum kit, other small, younger attempts at playing in a Trad style. And I really thought that style of music, like a real authentic dance-band scene, was missing in London. I mean, I've come up with some of the answers why that is since leading a band, there’s a lot less space in London than there is in New York, there’s not as many basement clubs and if there are they've turned them into restaurants and there's, like, music policies and licensing and money as well!But it's getting easier and we've built a following and you know it's quite a loyal following for the group and the same people come to the gigs and we’re starting to attract a dancing crowd as well, and to do that in London it's not been easy, but I think it's something that we can hopefully sustain and keep building on.

 

You need a tour bus because the audience is out there everywhere for you, it's just getting there isn't it, that's the thing.All the old orchestras had their own tour bus didn't they, or their own train carriage!

 

It’s been a challenge but I think it's starting to pay off.

 

When did you form your orchestra?

 

I think I've had the orchestra now for 4 years and it's not always been in the same formation.

 

You're only 23 now, so you formed an orchestra at 19?My God.

 

Yeah.I was working up in London and the same guy, Dan Levinson, who came from America to the UK from Vince’s band as I've said, lead me on to a guy called John Elliot who played all the bass instruments.He was an older guy, I suppose he was almost 60, and I really didn't know any of the session musicians in London at the time and so he basically recruited my first band and working with older guys they're not as flexible as this younger band I've got together now, so the only way I could get my first gig was to put it on myself, go to a club and say “Would you have us on your quiet night?”So they gave us the worst night of the week, a Monday night or something.

 

Where was that?

 

Volupte in Chancery Lane.It’s a tiny club and so I had an 11-piece orchestra and they’d only come out for, say, £80 and I think I only made about £400 on the door so I had to pay out the rest out of my own pocket and I did that a couple of times trying to build a following and it wasn’t working. You know, there was my family in the audience and a few other people and that was it!And this was before I had a car or any kind of transport so I'd carry all the music stands in a big suitcase on the underground which was the biggest suitcase I could find on wheels and I don't live near a train station so I had to walk to the station.Did the same thing again at the end of the night, and there were times when I wondered why I was doing this. I've lost a load of money, nobody in the band has really enjoyed the music, the people in the audience are all my family, why am I doing this?But it was those first few gigs where I sort of really learned how to face an audience properly as the band leader, and it’s not easy but I think at 19 you sort of just let it go over your head a bit and just carry on, but I think that's what I've got to do, just carry on with the band because if I don't do it I think it's so hard that nobody else would. After a few of those gigs I thought “No this is it, this is enough”, so I let that band go and I thought that I couldn't let it go because I've already started something now, so I then recruited a whole new band and it seemed like a couple of steps back when I first recruited this new band because they didn't really have a clue on how to interpret the music, some of them couldn't even read music, but by showing them films and making them tapes and CDs they’re getting a lot better.Even silly things like, I think a lot of people have become a lot more lax on presentation and things like that, I see a lot of these older bands, they've got like full beards and they've not ironed their shirts or polished their shoes and these are all things that might seem quite trivial to a lot of people but that is the style, and you know none of the original band leaders would have stood for that.

 

No they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t have let you on stage with un-polished shoes.

 

And things like taking drinks on to the band stand.

 

I disagree with you that! [laughs]

 

It’s horses for courses isn't it.But yeah, all those things.The younger guys are a lot more open to trying new things. And it seems much more like a team effort now and I'm in a much happier place with the band.

 

Yes, all going forward with the same vision as it were, they’ve got to follow your vision haven't they which is great. So you’ve got a young band, you've just released your first CD under the Alex Mendham Orchestra and a 78.

 

Well the 78 is still in production, still being printed, but the CD’s out there, yeah.That was recorded in October of last year at a church over the course of two days and it was done much in the same way the original records would have been done, in a church. There were very few studios in those times so they just used the biggest space as you could find and done on a single microphone so there was really no post-production really, just levels. If you made a mistake you had to do another take.

 

Which made all the soloists quite jittery I would imagine! And at this time of this interview you've already been doing some very exciting concerts haven’t you.

 

Yes, well we did Blackpool Tower Ballroom and that was sold out, in February this year, and we did New Year’s Eve at The Savoy.We were asked back at The Savoy on the 27th July for a summer ball and we're booked again to do the Winter Gardens instead of Blackpool Tower Ballroom and that’s in February of next year.Also we’re starting a residency at new place in Brewton’s Lane which is off Berkeley Square called Mr Fogg’s. It's based on Phileas Fogg’s travels around the world and the restaurant is themed, or the club is themed, so there’s a VIP area which is like a hot-air balloon basket and all taxidermy and books, they have book cased on the walls and things, so yes we’re lucky really.

 

And Mayfair Arts Centre of course.

 

Yes.

 

Which has been going 100 years hasn't it.

 

Really?I never realised. But yes, we’re lucky to have played there and I mean it's slightly more intermittent than it was but it's still great to be tapped to do it.

 

It’s an exclusive club, you know, it’s an exclusive club and it seems that you’re playing the best of everywhere at the moment.

 

Yes.All I can say is we’ve been really lucky. I've tried to stick as rigidly as possible to my original aim of trying to go one way or the other. There have been lots of people that say “Oh could you do like a 4-piece or a 3-piece” and I've shied away from that on the thought that if you go out with those bands that’s all you'll ever go out with and people forget that you’ve got an 11-piece band.

 

People always book the cheaper option because they want you.

 

And it's not the same sound at all, as you know.4 people doesn't sound like 11 people, it doesn't matter how good you play!

 

And what eras do you span in the orchestra?

 

We probably span…our playing repertoire probably covers from about 1924 to 1936, but within that, I mean that’s just the working repertoire but the collection that I've got, the sheet music collection, probably ranges from about 1900 up until the 40’s and within the formation that we’ve got all of that is playable.

 

That’s quite incredible isn't it. Do you see any opportunities perhaps with theatre tours or, you know, whereas for God’s sake you’re doing New Year’s Eve at The Savoy and that’s probably as good as it gets really, probably the only thing better than that would be Buckingham Palace!And that will probably happen for you I've no doubt. Like all groups you're not working 7 nights a week but it seems to me that at such a young age you've already played a lot of what you would consider the higher echelon places, so is there anywhere else you see at the moment that you’ve got a desire to play at?

 

Well I think things are just getting bigger and better. They seem to be. The amount of people we have coming to the shows keeps growing and it probably sounds like a crazy idea but I try to aim higher but I would like to take this music…I mean the next big thing is to try and get on television and then of course from there I would really like to play stadiums.I know that probably sounds a bit silly with a dance band but I think it's possible, I do.It's only got to become a fad for 5 minutes but, you know, I think it is just a case of being in the right place at the right time.We’ve been lucky so far and I just hope it carries on.

 

Also at this time of doing this interview there suddenly seems to be a lot more focus on the 30’s all of a sudden isn't there. It's not just all about wartime and 40’s now, people are going back into the 30’s, there’s definitely a big underground 30’s scene.The dance styles of Foxtrot, Quickstep, these are all very very popular now, it's almost becoming a big wave of that coming through, you know, people one minute they’re Lindy-hopping and now they’re Fox-trotting and stuff like that so, and of course with kind of the 30’s scene you're going to be, well you already are the market leader for that obviously. The only other people doing 30’s music are, there’s quite a lot of Gypsy Jazz groups around at the moment.

 

Yes.

 

That’s no real competition to you.Do you see any other groups around who are competition to yourself?

 

Not really, no.I think we are….well we've been told that we're pretty unique. There are groups that touch upon our repertoire, in terms of era, but they usually do it from a different standpoint, or a different stance.You've got a couple of dance bands that are not particularly active, but they're older and they've got a different audience I would say.Or they’re smaller groups. I think my band is probably the only one in our age group of that size and I think with the age, I mean you might not have the experience but there’s definitely a different kind of energy because that music in those dance bands, if you look amongst the guys they're in their 20’s, and yeah I mean it’s just party music, it's young person’s music really. So, no I wouldn't say we do have a lot of competition.

 

Obviously all over Essex there is still very much a strong New Orleans jazz scene, in Trad and Chicago jazz, but what’s been your experience?Have you ever had any opportunity of sitting in with any of these bands?

 

Yep.I have to say that Pete Corrigan was very helpful and his band, and so was George Tidiman, but I would say that they were the minority.I think a lot of the time I had quite a bad experience trying to sit in with other groups.There were a couple of occasions where it did get quite nasty. 

There was a club in Hornchurch and I would just, you know, out of routine, take a clarinet or a saxophone along on the off-chance that I might get a chance to play and I knew a lot of the people in the bands and a lot of people in the audience as well.But one particular group that was playing there was lead by a guy who played banjo and their clarinet player didn't turn up so I approached them and said “I've brought a clarinet with me”, but they said “Oh no, we’ll do without the clarinet for tonight but maybe we'll get you up later”.And you know reading books, I tried to study as much as I could on Jazz musicians of the past, and their way of learning was through sitting in with other bands.So I thought, you know, that is the tradition, you have to sit in with other groups and you have to make mistakes and that’s how you learn, on the bandstand, so it kind of baffled me really.Anyway, this particular evening it got to the last number of the night and I still hadn't been asked to come up and I felt, you know, you feel hurt in a way because you put yourself out there and it takes a lot of courage for a young guy who wants to play in a band to put himself forward to a group of obviously more hardened pros than yourself and I felt a bit knocked back, but then I felt a bit angry as well, so on the last number I put my clarinet together and I started playing with the group anyway!

 

Oh did you?

 

Yes.For better or worse I wanted to play with the group, but the guy grabbed me and he pulled the horn out of my mouth and put it back in the box and said “Why don’t you effing wait your turn?”

You know the people in the audience booed at this and the band had to stop playing and the guy on the microphone said “Oh this guys having a bit of a sulk” or something like that and so, you know, that was a lot of my experience, that’s quite typical.I mean that’s the worst it got but that’s quite typical of a lot…and when I went to America a few of the guys in the Band of Hope n Hornchurch they said “Oh I hope he played better in America than he does here” and things like that!But you've just got to let it go because I've learned, since looking, I mean at the time I was obviously hurt because I was a teenager but looking back you feel that these are just bitter old men that have never made it as far as they wanted to, and I mean it's upsetting in a way and when you're growing up and you read these books about all these jazz musicians that have made fortunes, you know, and it's probably not true, and then the older you get the wiser you get and you think well actually there might not be a lot of glory in playing jazz music and you just have to take from it, you might never be a millionaire or you might never be a great player, or as great as you want to be, but you just have to take those gigs as the reward really, the playing of the music is really the reward and what you can take from it.

 

It's funny what you were saying just now about the attitude about you sitting in because that’s the one thing that they all go on about is that we need young people coming along, you know. This music is going to die without young people coming along, passing the torch, yet it's weird isn't it that they don't encourage that.

 

I would say it was the majority that are like that and the minority that do actually encourage the music, which is a shame but it's the truth.

 

And if only they knew your background as well, even at such a young age. Learning with someone that was taught by Sidney Bechet, as well as all your New York experience. That’s incredible.

 

Well they probably did and that was part of the problem!