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Jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, broadcaster and author.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
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So how far back do you remember being interested in music generally, before you were a musician?
Oh golly, before I was a musician I got interested in music probably around the age of 3 or 4, because my father, a marvellous man, was an orchestral conductor amongst other things and had actually taken one lesson from the great Sir Henry Wood who told him, “You’ll never be a great conductor but you’ll always be able to get the musicians to do what you want”. Which wasn’t bad really, was it? He conducted the Southend Philharmonic Orchestra in the l930's, and was Musical Director for musicals including ‘No No Nanette’ and ‘Rio Rita’ in the late l920's - and also taught the cello, and piano, in a local music shop called Gilberts in Southchurch Road, Southend, which was the biggest in town in those days. Later it turned into ‘Hodges and Johnson’ – and later still into ‘Musicland’ which still exists. Back then, I believe they had a cubicle with two grand pianos back to back, and that was how he met my mother, Ena. She’d come down from Birmingham amid a family move, and one thing she thought she'd like to do was to learn the piano and John taught her to play. They were married in 1938, and I came along in 1946 - so I was a baby boomer. But to answer your question; my Dad after the war, gave up most of his practical music making, although he played the piano for a while. But by that time he was a devotee of classical music, in particular Frederick Delius. So he would sit me on the sofa next to him in our big house called ‘Fountain House’ in Hockley on the corner of Fountain Lane back at the turn of the l950's and play me William Walton's Belshazzar’s Feast, Strauss' Die Fledermaus, Benjamin Britten and Delius, and I think he really had in mind that I would be a classical musician. And that lasted until I suppose '54 maybe? On the radio at that time, there was no Rock and Roll music - it hadn't been born. So what you heard was big band music and a little Dixieland too. When I was eight years, old which was in '54, I used to read a comic called ‘The Lion’ and one week they ran a feature with a picture of me playing my little home-made drum kit! At that time I really wanted to play the drums you see; I loved Eric Delaney’s band. But we couldn’t afford to buy a drum set so I built myself a home made kit; a 5 inch cymbal on a photographic light stand! That was because after the war – right up until about l963 - my dad was a professional photographer, with his own studio in Weston Road, Southend. So I mounted the cymbal on the stand, and I had a tin drum, an old military side-drum with ropes which I bought for ten bob from a junk-shop in Alexandra Street, a brass tea-tray which I used as a gong, and various other bits and pieces, and I would whack away on that; no doubt to the distress of one or two visitors who were invited to view the spectacle of me as a junior Krupa – or Joe Daniels. I’d bought Rock Around The Clock, when it came out but – more importantly - I'd also discovered some Jazz recordings. An old friend of my fathers had left me a wind up gramophone in the Hockley house and a whole pile of 78's and that’s really how I deviated down the jazz route. There were records by Scott Wood’s Six Swingers, Red Nichols and even one by Fletcher Henderson! So I was enthralled by Jazz even then – and got my first little book on Jazz too! It was called a ‘Smatterbook’ and told the story of Jazz. I still have a copy and it knocked me out that ‘Smatterbooks’ which were little tiny things covered a number of subjects – including ‘death’by the way! Then I remember seeing a movie when I was 10, called It's Great To Be Young, which starred John Mills, and Cecil Parker. John Mills plays a Jazz- loving music teacher – and there’s a lot of Jazz in the film dubbed by Humphrey Lyttelton’s bandd. Have you seen that?
It’s a great movie isn't it?
Yes it is
Yes, Mills’ character likes Jazz on the side but of course his main job in the film is to conduct the school orchestra too, which may have been the National Youth Orchestra – I’m not sure. But I think I'm right in saying that Simon Purcell, who runs the Trinity Laban Jazz course now – I think his Mum and Dad are in the string section. So that film attracted me to Jazz some more. As did another movie – Daddy Long-Legs. You know that?
Where Fred Astaire's playing the drums? Wonderful!
Yes, Beautiful film.
So, to make an endless story slightly shorter, that was more or less how I got started. And I used to drive around with my mother, staring enviously into all the music and junk shops in Southend, because, although my father was very, very musical, we were also relatively poor and couldn’t afford luxuries like real musical instruments – although we did have a baby grand piano. He had his photographic studio in Weston Road , but we weren't rich so he couldn't say, “Richard (that’s my real name) I'll buy you a trumpet” or whatever. But then two wonderful things happened and this was the first of them. I think I was about 10 when my Dad drove us out into the country, and found us a wonderful 17th century timbered house called ‘Stannetts’ on the meadows, in a tiny village in Essex called Paglesham.You know Paglesham? The Plough And Sail pub?
Oh yes – Beautiful
Yes, beautiful. I still go out there occasionally. And at the same time, in l957, I went to Southend High school, where of course, you got free instruments, as you do now. So the first door I went past I heard a roomful of young violinists, and thought “Gosh I can get a free violin”! So I went in and joined the violin class and did that for a year or two. But then I realised the poor little thing didn't stand a chance in a Jazz situation, so I moved onto clarinet, and studied under a local clarinet and piano teacher called Ron Meachan, who later on taught Tim Huskisson, who is a superb clarinet player who works all over Essex.
Oh yes, fantastic, yes.
Yes, and also he plays great piano, but Tim is self taught on that.
Is he? I didn't know that.
Yes, it’s extraordinary, neither did I. I couldn't believe it when I heard him play! He's one of the best piano players in Britain now I think. Anyhow when we got to Paglesham it was a thriving little community. It's only a tiny village but it was full of exciting people and I remember the first jazz band I ever heard was in a tent in the village show; that would have been in the late l950s and I was probably 13. They said that when they’d finished the show and everyone had their awards for the biggest marrow or whatever - or the nicest flower arrangement - there's going to be a jazz band in the tent! So we walked back from our house, which was in the middle of the farm down the road, and four young men came in: a piano player called Dirk Wood, who was on the scene for a lot of years in Southend, good piano player; Alan Lindsay was the trumpet player, the bass and drums I can't quite remember – though I think the drummer may have been called Wyn - not sure! But I do remember that he had his tom toms in a deckchair because he couldn't afford the fittings! Ha ha! And that just enthralled me, you know, to hear four young men playing this beautiful music. I don't know if they were that wonderful at the time really, but they were certainly good enough for me.
Was that more Dixieland Jazz was it?
No, no they were playing Be Bop – or something close!
Oh were they?
Yeah, they played at least one Clifford Brown tune if I remember correctly. And they had a book – a wonderful half handwritten thing called ‘Good Songs’ which was a bit like the ‘Real Books’ which came along years later. Anyhow, a few weeks later we were in the ‘Plough and Sail’ which was our social centre in this thriving little community, and I walked outside - of course I was a bit young to be in the pub really - and I heard St. Louis Blues coming across the fields. So I remember creeping up and following the sound down a little unmade side road to this big manor house which is still there of course called ‘The Chase’. And when I got there they had two big french windows and through the windows I saw these four young men playing which was sheer magic. I was really very cheeky: I just crept in! - opened the door quietly and sat in the corner, and that’s how I was introduced to live Jazz and fell in love with it for ever after!
Wow, amazing, amazing,
And probably from then on – or even by then! - I had a terrific secret urge to play the trumpet. I was playing clarinet at that time, but I really wanted a trumpet, and I used to think “How can it be possible? I mean you've got a mouthpiece, you've got three valves and that's all you've got to make all those fantastic sounds”? So, anyhow, one Sunday lunchtime we were in the Plough And Sail and a friend of the family, Fred Walker, said “I've got an old trumpet under the bed”. I heard this and of course my ears pricked up – sharply! I said to my mother Ena, “Do you think he would lend it to me?”, so she asked him and he said “Yes I'll bring it next week”. Whch ,after a reminder phone-call next Sunday morning, he did. And I’ll never forget seeing the case and opening it up, smelling the valve oil and seeing this beautiful instrument which was my very first trumpet – and I still have it at home! But a couple of years prior to that, at Christmas, my dear Mum and Dad had bought me an old E flat tenor horn which I’d seen in a local junk shop which is still very dear to my heart and in my memories. It was run by a man called Harry Strauss (Junior) because his father had another junk shop a few doors up, in Bradley Street in Southend. Bradley Street isn’t there any more - it was rased to the ground under concrete along with Southend Talza Arcade in the mid-sixties. But after I got my tenor horn I'd learnt the valve fingerings by teaching myself. So by the time we got back to my house, with me playing all the way up the country road back to Stannetts, I could more or less knock out When The Saints Go Marching In.
And you've been playing it ever since hahaha
Absolutely yes, hahaha. There's been a few thousand renditions! But it was a thriving scene, and Dirk Wood in particular, my pal the pianist, had very catholic tastes. So in ‘The Chase’ where he lived with his father and mother Derek and Daphne we had a lot of classic Jazz albums; Fontessa by the MJQ, Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess, Count Basie’s Atomic Mr Basie, and so I got to hear most areas of the music that existed back then! And of course I read all the books, you know; Southend library had the latest ones like Mezz Mezzrow’s 'Really the Blues', Billie Holiday’s 'Lady Sings The Blues', Eddie Condon's Treasury Of Jazz and ‘We Called it Music and Louis Armstrong's Satchmo: My life In New Orleans, and I just devoured all of them - any book at all that I could find about jazz. And of course the great thing about those books written back then was that jazz was a relatively new music so those books had what you might call ‘first-hand reportage’ - very close to the source and immediate.
Yes. I couldn't agree more. There are many, many jazz books now and some of them are great. They give us pictures not seen before, or narrative, or new research we may not have heard or know of, and of course a few of the veterans are still writing their autobiographies, which is wonderful.But I do agree with you. I think when you saw the book by Louis Armstrong, that was straight from the pen of jazz’s greatest genius so that kind of direct speech was the most important thing. I'm not quite so sure about the Billie Holiday autobiography, I think that was partly ghosted by Bill Dufty. It's a bit of a miserable book that, but still, as my old friend George Melly used to say, “Even in the midst of lies you can glimpse the truth”
Yes, that's a lovely expression. So we know about your first trumpet – so where did you go from there to a situation where people would trust you to get up and play with them?
Haha, not for a few years – at least not seriously! I played clarinet mainly in Southend High School. There was a guitar player called Frank Smith, and we did a prefect’s concert one year – maybe l961 - and I remember we played John Dankworth's The Colonel's Tune, which I suppose was a pretty hip choice for its day. And later on there was another guitar player called Steve Sherwin, with whom I played clarinet in duo. But in those days, most guitar players (apart from the sibling rock n rollers) were into Django (Reinhardt). Now they're into Pat Metheny and all the contemporary guys, but in those days Django was a pretty big deal, as he still is now in my opinion, and so that was the beginning. I used to annoy the people of Paglesham enormously by putting on records of Jonah Jones and playing along with them at parties - till they managed to get me upstairs for the sleepover you know, haha - and I played with a real band with Dirk and Alan live at a local party once, and a bit later with Dave Mills New Orleans Jazzman in a barn in Canewdon when I was about 15 I suppose. But I didn't really do much in the way of public playing, until around 1961when the Studio Jazz Club opened in Westcliff. Do you remember that?
No, where was that at?
It was on the corner of Shorefield Road down the road from the Beecroft Art Gallery in Westcliff. It's an 'Old Peoples Home' now in 2013 as we're talking. I suspect that some of the musicians who were in the club then, are probably in the old peoples’ home! Haha!
But it was a remarkable club.
When did that open do you have any idea?
Probably around 61/62. I know when I started A levels in '62 it was already going, and I used to have a wonderful Friday evening after school was over because I would go down there and it was Jazz night. I think the club opened at 8.30 and it was an old brownstone house like several more that are still standing in Station Road, Westcliff just east of Palmeira Avenue where Buddy Greco lives now. It had exterior steps from the street up into the upper room and then you could go down to the Jazz cellar, which was very dark, and very long - and it had sofas I remember, and a wonderful jukebox with lots of Jazz on it. It was a very romantic place to be and a lot of my young friends used to go to the Studio. it was run by a man called Rodney Saxon. I could describe it if you want me to ?
Oh yes, indeed, please.
Well, you went up the steps from the street to the front door of the club, and knocked or just opened the door. And then to the right there was the booth where you paid your money and left your overcoat if you had one, and then you walked down a couple of steps into this big long room which had a counter on the right with one of those wonderful old Gaggia coffee machines; the ones that made the frothy coffee. Then to the left there were plastic seats with tables which were quite comfy, and at the other end there was a pin table I remember. Rodney would usually be behind the coffee machine because the club wasn't licensed. Then if you walked halfway down this room there was a dark entrance to the right down a winding staircase with a very smelly toilet to the downstairs room where they had the jukebox and the seating and a small stage. Every Friday night the star band was Kenny Baxter and the Southend Modern Jazz quintet. The SMJQ….!
Really? Wow! That's amazing.
Yep. It was thrilling for me. This was l962 and the band was tremendous; they played hard-bop and had recently won (I believe) the All-England amateur Jazz band contest – possibly on the Isle of Wight. Ask Kenny Baxter! They played tunes like Valse Hot and Porky by Cannonball Adderley and in the band at the time were Pat Green on drums, who's passed away now, Eddie Johnson on bass, Norman Coker on piano, Kenny of course was the leader, and the trumpet player was probably one of the greatest trumpet players I have ever heard in my life, Vic Wood. He was a terrible man to play trumpet in the same town with! He was, he really was, and future listeners may not believe this, but in many respects he was semi-comparable to Clifford Brown in my opinion. He was an extraordinarily good trumpet player who’d won the Daily Mail Brass band contest when he was eight years old. They put him behind a curtain with then other finalists who were all grown-up – so he was competing on equal terms . And he won anyhow!
And amazing that he just remained with his day job all that time. He never considered himself a professional musician did he? He was a postman I think wasn't he, up until he died?
A postman, cabinet maker, and you and I both know that there is a considerable jump when you make the jump to professionalism because all kinds of pressures move in on you,
Yes, your wages drop for a start haha!
Yes, that doesn't help haha! How right you are! But there are also other pressures and I am sure Vic would've risen to them superbly, but as you say; no he never wanted to do much more than play round the area. I mean he passed all the tests; he played with Kenny for years in certainly the best band of its time, in Southend, and he wrote great arrangements. Kenny's band in later years with Reg Webb was phenomenal too, you know, with Toni Baxter singing, and Vic playing trumpet. That was some band. And then of course he had Turntable, which was another great band with Pete Jacobsen – a huge national talent and deeply missed! So anyhow, back then I would go down to The Studio, every Friday with my friends, and in due course they allowed me to play the intermission, either on trumpet or on clarinet or a bit of both; first with Dirk Wood then later on with Neil Duncan, or Kirk Duncan as he later changed his name to. He's still in Southend and as we speak is composing the theme tune for Southend’s bid for ‘City of Culture’ 2017. I only heard from Neil the other day! Later on in the 60s he went on to play with Spencer Davis's band, and recorded with some other big pop groups. But the only trouble was: we played the intermission spot at the Studio, and as soon as Kenny's band went off – and as the club wasn't licensed - everyone went off to the pub at the bottom of Hamlet Court Road called ‘The Queen’s Hotel’! So we were playing to a largely empty room! Which was probably a very good thing actually at the time! Haha! And of course not only did we have the SMJQ but Kenny brought down a great many good guests. A lot of them were saxophone players which was understandable. Ronnie Scott, in London: his first guests were all saxophone players too, and Kenny played tenor, mainly at that time so we had people like Kathy Stobart who was Kenny's teacher,
Oh yes, beautiful. Kathy was Kenny's teacher?
Yes absolutely, yes. Kathy was Kenny's teacher. She's still alive, although sadly she's in an old people's home now down in Axmouth, Devon. Jimmy Skidmore was there a lot which was great and his son Alan who was about fifteen at the time, dropped in to play at least once too! He was tremendous. Then the great Don Rendell, Art Ellefson, Ray Warleigh – they all played. Joe Harriott dropped in on at least one night too with the pianist Haig Joyce – his real name was Bill Haig. And then there was Tubby Hayes……….
Oh yes, he came and stayed at Kenny's didn't he?
Yes I wouldn't be surprised, and I think Joe did too. But I do remember that Tubby was one of the higher priced acts. You could get most of the great players for less than ten pounds, but if I remember rightly Tubbs charged more, because he was a leader in the field, you know, a bit like Kenny Baker, or George Chisholm.
Well yes, I mean they were big stars then weren't they?
Oh absolutely. At least in jazz terms. I mean The Beatles had just stopped being the intermission group for the jazz bands at The Cavern! But it was a massive takeover when the Beatles arrived in the charts after Love Me Do. That was the greatest most swingeing popular cultural revolution in the 20th century, and many many jazz musicians, as well as the music itself, were totally pushed aside within a year or two. One amongst thousands was my good friend the banjoist Hugh Rainey, who'd been in the charts with Bob Wallis's Storyville Jazzmen in 1961. They’d had two very big hits: I'm Shy Mary Ellen, I'm Shy and Come Along Please, and Hugh went into the London Palladium in 1963 as the opening act for a variety show which had Susan Maugham (Bobby's Girl) amongst others, and possibly Frank Ifield too. When they came out in September of that year, they went back to their agent and said “Well where are we playing?” and he said “You're not. There's no work”! The rhythm and blues bands and what we used to call the ‘beat groups’ in those days had completely taken over. BY l962 at the Studio we were already getting Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Alan Price, Geno Washington, Zoot Money, the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton – and you could see them all for no more than five bob! So the trad boom was extinguished and only a handful of leaders – Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber and Terry Lightfoot survived comfortably; with broadcasts for a while plus concerts and cabaret. And of course Humphrey Lyttelton – but he never was part of the boom anyhow.
Obviously there's a lot of difference between Dixieland and Bebop if you like, and all the other forms of modern Jazz that were happening through the 50s and early 60s: did you differentiate between those or did you just play all styles?
Well I tried to play all styles, because until about 1970, I listened to everybody - and I still do actually. I mean, I love Miles , Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker all the icons you know. But I would say that probably at that time back in the 60's there was a certain feeling that Dixieland music wasn't as intellectual or as demanding as bebop or what was going on even later. But in point of fact, though I don't want to be arrogant, I do know, that Dixieland music, if it's played properly, is as much a demanding aesthetic as any other area of our music. We're not talking about the little banjo bands in the pubs; we're talking about maestros like Louis Armstrong of course, Bobby Hackett, Billy Butterfield, Jack Teagarden, Ruby Braff, any number of others - all those were colossal artists. But back at that time I tried to play everything. I used to play with Kenny a lot of course. We played sort of Swing to Bop at that time, but from around l969 I also played with a marvellous local man called Trevor Taylor.
Yes of course, the drummer.
Trevor was remarkable. I think about 1970 I was playing at the Top Alex, with Kenny, on a Sunday lunchtime, and usually on mellophone actually as we had Vic on trumpet, so they didn't need me on that if he was there! Then one afternoon I was walking up Southend High Street and this young man came up to me and he said “What are you doing playing all that old fashioned stuff?”. That took me back a bit but I said “Well, I like it. I'm studying it” – because I did study quite hard, the aesthetic you know. And he said “Well you don't want to be playing all that old fashioned stuff. Come and play with me and we'll explore some new avenues”. And that was Trevor! He had a studio off Balmoral Road in Westcliff, like a great big shed, and for a year or two I worked with him, playing I suppose what would then be called avant garde music.
Avant garde a clue! Haha!
Hahaha! Avant garde a hope! Haha! Well, seriously I felt very privileged, because he opened my eyes.
He was a maverick wasn't he?
Yes I suppose he was in a way – but now a very successful one. He is I should say – the only jazz musician I know who flew his own helicopter for a while. But he's a fine drummer and back then he was an innovator too. He had the first synthesizer I ever saw. He would play compositions by Mike Gibbs, people like that. ‘Some Echoes’ was one I remember – very hard! He also wrote original scores; sometimes in what we call TN - traditional notation - and suddenly there'd be a drawing in the middle and he'd say, “That's a mountain, play the mountain”! One of the most interesting things he did, and there's probably still a recording somewhere; he took about 30 other players including me, a guitarist called Mike Sagratt who’s still very busy in Southend - an excellent player - and a tenor player called Dave Long up to London with one of these big scores, and there were all kinds of musicians there - string players from the local college, amateurs, people who'd only been playing for a few weeks. And the music was one of these pieces – both notation and visual guidelines as I remember. It was completely atonal of course! So we recorded it in this London studio and then he said “Right, now I want you all to play it a semitone up”, so we did the whole thing again a semitone up as near as we could – and then if I remember rightly a 3rd and a 4th time, so we had this huge score, in semitones, four semitones apart all at the same time! I haven't heard the end result since the day we recorded it but actually it was very interesting. Harry Beckett, who was my trumpet teacher at the time, thanks to Trevor, was on it, and I remember just one note that Harry played. The music was like this huge mountain of abstract sound, and over the top was Harry Beckett playing a single note, and I remember it was like a flash of lightening. It was beautiful. So to finally answer your question, until about l970 I tried to play pretty much all sorts of Jazz. But my family always wanted me to have a legitimate career, so at my father’s behest I worked for about nine months after I left school in l964 as office-boy at the solicitors’ partnership of Gregson and Golding in Alexandra Street – and I loathed it. It's not that I'm against the law in any way but I absolutely hated the idea of being a solicitor for life, so instead I joined the Central Library as a junior librarian in l965 and studied for my library degree at Ealing Technical College from 66-68. By l966, various local musicians, naming no names, had been telling me: “if you play on the side of the lip like you do, you're going to look very strange in a trumpet section” ignoring the fact that (a):I had a simply wonderful teacher in Hockley Bert Collier who taught me most of what I know about trumpet-playing (b): I didn't want to play in a section anyhow , and (c): I had a perfectly good embouchure there already. After all, during 1965/6 when Kenny was running Southend Rhythm Club up at what’s now Club Riga on the corner of Milton Street, I got to play alongside a lot of top stars like Jimmy Skidmore, Don Rendell, Art Ellefson, Kathy, the late Bert Courtley, and they were all very kind to me – particularly Don Rendell I remember - and said “You're a very good player already”. But when I went to college in September 1966 I made up my mind to take this very bad advice and start to play with a standard embouchure (the standard 'central' position), and that lasted until 1970 by which time I'd made a lot of horrible noises and disappointed a lot of people who up until then had thought I had a great future ahead of me. Changing your embouchure is a huge decision for a trumpeter – a bit like a drummer deciding to play left-handed instead of right handed! Anyhow from l965, before Ealing and the big change I worked with local bands; one very good one called the ‘Mel Lewis Band’ which was named after the great American drummer for some reason. I suppose it sounded hip! The MLB which was led by a tenor player Mike Neal, had its own P/A system and keyboards which I thought was wonderful. And they played functions too. But from l965 we got interested in soul music too – Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave – and turned ourselves into ‘The Machine’ for rock gigs. They went OK but most people were still into the Beatles and Hollies so I suppose in a small way we were a bit ahead of our time. Alan Ross was the singer who shouted himself hoarse most nights – he also played bass and was a wonderful funny man - and we as well as Mike we had Trevor Morgan on organ – Organ Morgan, of course – the late Tony Evans on guitar and Jim Smith on drums. So I was playing with them and Kenny, and various people, but from the time I went to Ealing Technical College in l966 I changed my embouchure for four years and that was really hell! Then at last came the magic day! I was on Southend Cliffs one day in l970 and I thought: blow this - I'm not getting the sound I want, and everyone is looking disappointed. So I'm going to put the trumpet back there (points to side of mouth) and it's been there ever since, and the results within a week had surpassed what I'd been trying to do for the past four years. So at that point I thought: I'm playing well again – and all of these different types of music. But actually when I get home, I play Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols and all the other classic names. So I thought I'd make an artistically conscious decision to go against the fashionable grain and try and perfect or explore the proper art of Dixieland playing. There was a wonderful trumpet player who actually was one of the main people who turned me on to the idea - Freddie Randall who worked around East London by that time, and he was spectacular. His career on record had started in the 40's and he was enormously successful with loads of wonderful records for Parlophone. But then in l971 at Dobell’s I bought a much later record of his on Rediffusion called ‘Freddy Randall and his Famous Jazz Band’ which was so beautiful it helped me to make the decision.
Yes, he was an Essex boy. By the time I heard him live he used to play around Chingford and East London, and even once in one rather shabby pub – a sort of roadhouse on the Loughton roundabout - with a local dance band near Epping. It’s still there but much modernised now. I used to follow Freddie and try and pick up on his skills, as I was studying all the time and working out what all the great Dixieland trumpet players in Britain were doing. Shortly before that – around l970 – Freddy had had a new band with Dave Shepherd, the great swing clarinet player, and they made two superb albums for the big label Black Lion run by Alan Bates; one in-studio and one ‘live’ at the Monterey Jazz Festival. in fact I still work with Dave Shepherd now, and he’s still playing wonderfully at eighty-four! But anyhow, back in those days I really thought I'm going to have to make a decision here. So I stopped working with Trevor, and with Kenny so much, and formed a little band which I called 'Digby's Half Dozen' and which did its first gig sometime in 1971at the pub on the sea front called ‘The Esplanade’. Later on we played regularly at the Red Lion, Margaretting, too for a jazz-loving landlord called Gordon Worthy who paid us in sandwiches but also paid fees for guests including Jimmy Skidmore, John Picard, Ray Crane and Bruce Turner. My old friend Alan Clarke was the drummer incidentally and I remembe r almost getting spotted by the police because we went fly-posting our publicity for our big Esplanade gig on hoardings around Southend Victoria Circus! At the Esplanade on our opening night as I recall we had the great altoist Bruce Turner as our guest. He came for £7 because George Chisholm wanted £40! - George was one of the star people who could command big fees like Kenny Baker or Tubby. Then on July 23rd that year, I managed to hustle my way into The 100 Club with my Half Dozen, which was basically all Essex musicians! Ollie Dow was the clarinet player, Jeff Goodman was the trombone player, Bunny Courtenay was the piano player, the bass player I can never remember - because we had one or two - and the drummer was Alan. It was mainly due to my incessant telephone calls to Roger Horton the club-owner, that we got into The 100 Club at all because at that time it was London’s official ‘Home of Traditional Jazz’ and a bit like playing at Mecca. Nowadays of course it's more a Reggae/Punk club, but they still have occasional Jazz sessions. So we rehearsed ourselves into sort of dazed oblivion. And I knew that we were going to be support band for the cornettist Alex Welsh who I would say without doubt had one of the greatest Dixieland bands in the world. He'd been to the Newport Festival in 1969 and played opposite Duke Ellington's orchestra and been given 5 star reviews in Downbeat, so he was a very big deal back then – and still is now for those in the know. I’d heard and met him a year or so earlier at a pub called the ‘Fox and Hounds ‘ in Haywards Heath which was a big Jazz venue run by a famous Jazz landlord called Chris Worrell, and that was another defining moment in my decision about what kind of music I wanted to play. And Alex and I had had a long conversation that evening. He was a dear sweet gentle man, as well as a great cornet player, and when we played at the 100 Club we had a simply marvellous evening; Alex gave us the most phenomenal praise and build-up when we left the stand. And from then on he championed me actually - he really did. He would ring me up at the library and give me little tips on being a professional musician. He'd say “You have to remember lad” - he always called me ‘lad’ “ - they're not all nice in the profession. You'll have to get used to that”. Round about that time Alex had already had a career in England of nearly 20 years – he’d come down from Edinburgh to London in l954 - but unfortunately he had problems with alcohol, vodka really, but very well concealed. He was starting to become ill around that time and because he liked my playing he gave me chances to deputize for him in his band once he realised I could handle it. He also asked me to arrange for his band (something I wasn’t ready for at all) and allowed me to make a record with his band a bit later on, when he was under contract to another label. And he put me on my first South Bank concert in 1974 which was another huge honour. I was at the library, I think it was on the Friday, and he rang up and said “What're you doing tomorrow lad?” so I said “Well nothing that I know of Alex”, and he said “Well, do you want to come and play with me at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for my 20th anniversary concert?”? He'd arrived in London from Edinburgh 20 years earlier, you see.So next night I got to share the stand at the great Queen Elizabeth Hall with the Alex Welsh band, Danny Moss, who was one of Britain’s greatest tenors, Diz Disley, who was a guitar player in the Django-style who went on to work with Stephane Grappelli and who had a long distinguished history in British Jazz, and an American tap dancer called Will Gaines who’s lived in Southend for years now. You know Will?
Yes of course, yes!
Well anyhow, after a year of the first Half Dozen we really just ran out of steam. I hadn’t really learned how to arrange for a small group at all, and we had one or two gigs that weren't so successful. I remember one was at the 100 Club on our return visit: they’d immediately rebooked us and the second band was not as nice to us as Alex. They turned off the P.A so we couldn't be heard and they were very competitive – as well as being powerful soloists - so we got blown off the stand really. And there were a couple of other London gigs at the Hampstead Country Club where we were completely ignored - so I let the project slide. Then in 1972, back in Southend again, I joined a band which had a big effect on me and which was led by a wonderful New Orleans clarinettist called Dave Claridge. Dave had a strict New Orleans band that played very much in the authentic style of Bunk Johnson and George Lewis. I learnt a lot from him, because he not only taught me the repertoire but pointed out that if you want to play New Orleans Jazz properly, there were certain stylistic things...it's an aesthetic, just like every other type of serious Jazz making. I worked with Dave for about a year, it was a tremendous experience and I think we played some very good music together. He was a wonderful man. He's only just died a couple of years ago, less than that – a very dear friend of mine, and a big influence on me. However, what happened at that point was that a whole cadre of ex-professional musicians who'd worked in the Trad boom as well as the Jazz years of the l950s had moved into the Essex area and were now, in a sense, surplus to requirements for the new youth-culture of the Beatles and Stones. Not completely - because there was still a flourishing Jazz scene from the Trad boom, but it was no longer at the top of the charts – or anywhere. So into Essex came the legendary Revivalist clarinettist Cy Laurie, Bob Wallis’ tremendous banjo player Hugh Rainey, and a wonderful soprano-saxophone player called Eggy Ley. David was his real name and why they called him 'Eggy' Ley I'm not quite sure, but he played wonderful soprano. There were some other very good musicians around too: Denny Croker the trombone player who'd been with Freddie Randall, my hero as well as lots of other good bands. And after a bit I was approached by Eggy. I'd sat in with him a couple of times at The Plough And Tractor in Basildon, and I don't think I played well at all actually- particularly as the pub’s acoustics were terrible - but I think perhaps they wanted to do something new. Anyhow Eggy called me and said “You can come and audition for us at the Top Alex in Southend, and if you're good enough you can join the band”. This was actually quite a big opportunity because these men were all ex–professionals – Eggy, Hugh, the trombonist Terry Pitts, who'd worked with Cy Laurie and was a fine player, and the bass and drums who were two marvellous men: Pete Thornett and Don Bishop. Pete and Don were a two-man comedy duo, but they were also very good players in that style. I went along to the Top Alex, sweating furiously, got through this lunchtime session and thought “You've failed”, but to my amazement I hadn't, and a couple of days later Eggy rang and asked me to join the band. He called it ‘Jazz Legend’ – because, as he explained, we were to play all the legendary Jazz classics. And that was really the beginning of working with people from the Traditional Jazz fraternity who had been in the business full time as working professionals. They were still playing in the London area in places like ‘The Mitre’ which was on the south side of the Blackwall Tunnel and had Jazz seven nights a week, and many, many other venues too all over central London. Hugh was wonderful – a complete gentleman and still a dear friend – and after ‘Jazz Legend’ broke up I worked with his band too right up until l977 when I turned professional But in the meantime in l974 with ‘Jazz Legend’ we recorded in BFBS studios where Eggy worked as a radio producer. Eggy was very supportive too and put me in touch with older names from the l950s Jazz revival like Eric Silk, who was a fine banjo player and who had a very neat little New Orleans band. He didn't like me much, because I was still trying to play like Freddie Randall – lots of notes,
Yes, and you were probably a young upstart as well!
I was! I mean, I wanted to show him I could play anything on the trumpet, which I could back then – well practically anything. So at half time I went up and said, “is it alright for you Mr Silk?” and he said “It's very good playing Digby, but it's too florid”! Which it probably was because I used to play a million notes a minute. I remember his father, Pop Silk. They had a long residency at the Red Lion in Leytonstone, which at that time was still part of Essex I think. Pop Silk had a voice like Peter Sellers’ character in The Goon Show, called ‘William 'Mate' Cobblers’ if you remember him. He was an army man, and being an army man he used to grade you. Depending on your status in the Silk band you were either Private, Sergeant, Corporal, Major, General or whatever, you know. But I never got further than Private! So he'd ring up and say “Private Fairweather, are you available for an engagement with the Eric Silk Jazz band on Friday the 2nd Februray 1974?” or whatever it was... “and the fee will be £3.10”. So of course I'd go and do it – fantastic distances from Southend like the Thames Hotel at Hampton Court which was one I remember; very difficult for late night trains back to Southend. So in short: along with lots of others I worked with Eric's band a few times. And then there was a collision between the members and its leader (something about money I think) and Eric's trombone player left. His name was Alan Dean, and he formed a band called the Gene Allen Jazzmen, with his wife who was called Jean. Alan's another one who’s left us now. We used to play at The Mitre, which really was a very big centre for the music – and then one day Alan came to me and said “What do you do on Sundays?” and I said “Well, it depends. Whatever comes in”, and he said “Would you like a regular Sunday gig?” and of course I said yes. He said “It's 'The 100 Club' - Britain's home of Traditional Jazz”. And although it was a very good band, it was strictly a busking make-it-up-as-you-go-along group, and I was terrified because I thought that when I played there with my Half Dozen, we at least had rehearsed arrangements, a bit of a show and even uniforms – we wore kaftans which a library friend of mine made; a lovely girl called Joyce Rooke. And I thought “Well we're going into the Mecca of London Jazz, with just this busking traditional band” and we might get the bird! , But it was a Sunday night and it was free, and in fact the band really did go down very well; to begin with it was a very musical and quite light-swinging unit. It was a tourist night at the club, so basically the policy was “come on in free of charge and buy beer” and I think they paid us £5 a head or something. Lots of famous musicians used to come in: Lennie Hastings the great Dixieland drummer used to drop in sometimes just to listen, and drink, and other people too – and that was a very good exposure for me because I was in the top club in London for about 4 years in a row playing every Sunday and I suppose the word got around a bit. And with Alex's help too, by 1976 I was playing with all the top players in the field – particularly after I joined a wonderful band in South London led by the bassist who’s still a great friend Ron Russell. Not everyone knows Ron but he always surrounded himself with the cream of British mainstreamers - Dave Jones, who was the clarinettist on all Kenny Ball’s biggest hits and a superb musician; Dave Shepherd too, Pete Strange, one of the two or three greatest Jazz trombonists in Britain who later worked with Humphrey Lyttelton for over twenty years; the pianists Brian Lemon and Keith Ingham; Lennie Hastings, John Richardson and Tony Allen all three swapping drum chores. What a band that was – and we still work together today by the way – at least the survivors! It was the cream, and back then for me it was better than being asked to join the Beatles – much better. I had to audition for Ron’s band too, but I got the job! And of course that put me in touch with pretty much everybody. We worked twice a week in South London; did loads of broadcasts for the BBC and Capitol Radio and I think that was one of the best Dixieland bands ever in Britain. Certainly at the period anyhow…….. So by 1976 I weighed about 5 stone, as I was playing every night in London and sometimes coming to work at the library in a dinner jacket at 9 in the morning! And they'd say “You're not looking particularly good Mr Fairweather. You'd better go and sit over there and shelve those books”. So at last on November 25th l976 after 11 years as a librarian I wrote 'the great letter', to my very dear boss, Frank Easton (who subsequently helped me set up the National Jazz Archive about ten years later). It said “Dear Mr Eastern: after some years I feel the time is right to try a career in music.......”. Well, he interviewed me and I told him: I have this huge problem in my life because I'm well settled in a standard daytime job, but I feel there's something I must do - and he was very helpful. He said “Well how old are you?”. I told him I was nearly 30 and Frank very wisely said “Well if you were 40 I'd say no, but I think at 30 you've still got a chance”. So I wrote my official resignation letter and started my career, I think, on January 1st 1977 as a full time Jazz trumpeter. And that's how it all began – as a serious full-time career.
Well from then on it got a lot more complicated! Ha ha!
Haha! Yes, now it was all about how am I going to pay the bills? Well it was - really! But in one way I was very lucky because by the time I turned pro I was working with all the best people in my field.
Oh yes, you were completely established.
You probably could have gone pro years before in actual fact.
Well, you’re absolutely right Mark. In fact Trevor Taylor had said to me some years before:’you’re leaving it too late, Dig’. And I think if I'd have had a family that had lots of money and were able to support me I would probably have taken the risk earlier on, but I had nothing in the way of positive support for the idea really, and so it took a long time. 30 is really pretty late to change, and after I'd changed I did have a few rather tough years. In fact, looking back now, I think I probably had a bit of a breakdown. I got through it after a few years, but the change from working with a great many people in a large community of delightful librarians and playing Jazz part-time – well that was a very different situation. All of a sudden it became a very serious business and I had to get used to the fact that there might be a camera there, and a recording unit there, and now I had to produce the goods at all costs. And you know as well as I do that there's an insecurity involved in that, isn't there?
Yes that's right. Totally.
So, I have to say that the moment the library door swung shut this heavy hand went on my shoulder and said “Now you've got to be better, even better. And you've got to answer every challenge, and you haven't got a daytime job to come back to if you fail”. And that for me produced something like musical impotence for a while. I lost the carefree joy completely. And that was hard. So I had a few years where I went through a rough patch - and I right out of the blue I also got agoraphobia, which is very scary. I wouldn’t have thought of that a year or two before……….
Oh that's the last thing you need when you're going into clubs!
Oh! I mean I couldn't easily go on the tube, or even walk to the bank. And that took some getting over. But I did get over it in the end, and in the first few years I did make quite a lot of money. Before I turned pro. I paid off all of my HP, and amassed £500 and I thought that was a fortune – but over the next 6 years or so from 1977, I actually turned that into £15,000, which was quite a lot of money then. Because, you see, I was broadcasting on the BBC and doing TV, making recording sessions with Keith Nichols, Dave Shepherd, John Altman and lots of others and I had my own solo recording contract with Black Lion records thanks to my dear friend Alan Bates who owns Candid Records now. Alan was a fantastic friend and help (he’s still a great friend now) and in l977 I worked briefly as his assistant, produced several albums, wrote liner-notes and even tried tape-editing – which was a disaster! I did a lot more different musical things too - even with people like the great bebop altoist Peter King. Under the leadership of bassist-flautist Bernie Cash we did a project called ‘Great Jazz solos Revisited’ which Peter Ind recorded on his Wave label and we did a ‘South Bank Show’ too as well as a live BBC ‘Sounds of Jazz’. Very difficult music! And BBC Jazz Club was always live with an audience which was definitely a test of confidence. Then there was Keith Nichols’ Ragtime Orchestra, the ‘Midnite Follies Orchestra’ which Keith and I put together in l978 and which had a very big contract with EMI and lots of national exposure. Keith was a great friend to me in those days – and he still is! And then, at the same time, I joined the quartet called ‘Velvet’, which was Stephan Grappelli's trio – Denny Wright, the great Ike Isaacs and Len Skeat - minus Stephane, but plus me! Denny had been Lonnie Donegan’s lead guitarist all the way through Lonnie’s hit-parading days; Ike was probably the premier session guitarist at the time, an absolute master, and of course Len was also a top session man. A bit intimidating at the time! So there were all these very different things going on and I made quite a bit of money. But to be honest I wasn't very happy living in London. I lived in Forest Gate for a few years, right in the drab part of the East End, which wasn't very pleasant, and it was, I would say, a hard professional apprenticeship. I was doing a lot of work for everybody and loving playing with all these people that I'd been reading about for years who were my heroes! People I'd only dreamed of playing with a few years earlier! But, what I discovered after 5 or 6 years, was that if you do that, then you're playing their music, not your own. And I wasn't really happy with one or two of the bands because there wasn't really any kind of artistic policy involved: basically get together and busk a few tunes you know. Which was ok because the playing was superb, but I felt a little discontented by that time. I think I'd had one or two experiences that weren't so good. From l979 I was with a very starry band called the Pizza Express All-Stars – which had a lot of my very best friends in it; Brian Lemon, Dave Shepherd, Roy Williams from Alex’s wonderful band – and the superb drummer Kenny Clare. But it also had a couple of bullies in it, and if I had an off night they'd get onto me, and in the end I found they’d actually taken a five-day tour without me! So from 1983 I decided to go solo and tackle projects that I wanted to do for myself. I suppose, looking back, that was a bit of a big moment really.
Yes, that's right, you left the temple!
Yes, I left the temple! I thank heavens I was lucky enough to retain all my real friends, and we worked together over the next 30 years in dozens of combinations. But I think the first project that really was my own was in l983; a touring tribute show, with my own band and backed by Jazz Services, to the wonderful British trumpeter called Nat Gonella. He was really the first star trumpet player in Britain from around l930. And he was popular all the way though the 1930's and had his own band called The Georgians, from 1935 which made at least two records a month and topped the bill at the number one Moss Empire halls all around the country right up until the war. Nat was a true household name with a great six piece band called the Georgians. And he earned £700 a week then, which he told me later, all went over the counter at Ladbrokes!
But by that time he was living in Gosport and every Tuesday night, if I remember right, he would make a very quiet incognito appearance to meet his friends and sing a song at a pub called the Park at Alverstoke, just outside Gosport itself. And my good friend, the clarinettist Chris Walker said “If you don't tell anybody, Nat Gonella is often at the pub this night”. So I literally made a pilgrimage down to to meet this marvelous man who had all these dozens of records in the 30's. He was a huge star back then - big as the Beatles. And there he was: he walked in, quite a short man with his smart jacket and a scarf and beautiful silky hair – a lovely cockney east-ender. I walked over and said, “Mr Gonella, it's a privilege and a pleasure”, and he said “Well you'd better buy me a pint then hadn't you” – which I did! And I played alongside him, because by then he'd given up the trumpet completely. I was pretty nervous about that because I could see him watching me very carefully, so if at any point he said “Not bad” I thought, “Phew, thank you”. So anyway, when it came to 1983, I thought it would be good to do a real tribute tour for Nat, and that was the first of my really important solo projects. I put together a band of some of my favourite musicians: John Barnes on saxophones, Pete Strange (who was my constant musical partner and friend for over thirty years) on trombone, Paul Sealey on guitar, the drummer was Johnny Armatage, and two bass players! The first of them was Jack Fallon who was a beautiful player who'd worked all the way through the 40's and 50's. He was Canadian, and one of the absolute first-call bassists for recording all the way through the l950s – and 60s too; he toured with Duke Ellington in Britain in the late l940s and he’s on the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ – playing solo violin! Jack also ran agency called Cana, which had some of the first contracts of the Beatles, and the Stones whom he could put out then for something between fifty and a hundred pounds! . He was also a very dear sweet man and one of his oldest friends was Nat Gonella's old friend Tiny Winters, whose real name was Frederick Gittins. He played with Lew Stone's band in the 30's, and he was another very big star in those days, not only for his bass playing but for his singing, because – as well as playing for Nat’s ‘Georgians’ when they were still a band-within-a band for Lew Stone before l935 - he used to sing for Lew Stone’s band too!
What a group that was.
Oh a great band eh? Tiny had a rather high voice, and he used to get a lot of fan mail including one addressed to MISS Tiny Winters!
But he was a very, very sweet man – and a bundle of energy - and we worked together for at least ten years from l983 until a couple of years before he died in l996. So anyhow, for the Nat Gonella Tribute show I rang round the original Georgians that Nat had had in the 30's, and on the first gigs, we had Pat Smuts, who was Nat’s tenor player back then. We couldn't get his pianist Harold Hood because Harold was too old and ill by that time - but we did get Tiny! As I think I said, Tiny had recorded with Nat as well as with Lew Stone, in bands already called the Georgians, as Nat had had a big hit with ‘Georgia on my Mind’ by Hoagy Carmichael and Lew - who was a very generous man - let Nat finish the first half of his orchestra’s shows with a band within a band from Lew’s ensemble. And of course it was known as ‘The Georgians’. But when Nat finally left Lew and went out on his own, on April 1st 1935, opening at Glasgow Empire with a new set of Georgians, Tiny didn't want to join so he stayed with Lew and Nat took along a bass player called Charlie Winter - with no ‘s’ at the end of his surname. Well to my discredit I mixed the two of them up – I thought Tiny Winters was Charlie Winter! So we did the tour with two bassists, Jack Fallon, and Tiny which was a good idea as it allowed Tiny to sing – and he also played Tea For Two as a bass duet with Jack which was marvellous. It was a very successful tour by the way; on the last night Nat Gonella joined us in Gosport where he was living. And a couple of years later we did a complete show for Channel 4 in '85 called ‘Fifty Years of Nat Gonella’ with the band, Nat and Tiny on Southsea Pier. Benny Green was the compere I remember and Humph came on at the end as a special guest to play Tiger Rag too – dressed in a tiger skin! Meantime though we did the tour and I didn’t know – though Tiny did! - that his successor Charlie Winter was a wild man, a sort of prehistoric rock-star, and he'd left young girls ‘en-famille’ in virtually every town in England! So on one date near Oxford we had an elegant man at the stage door saying “You've got my father with you and I've never met him!”. I said “What was your fathers name?”. He said ‘Winter’ and I said “Well I'm terribly sorry but actually this is Tiny Winters”. I had to take him into the dressing room to make the introduction and explain: ‘this is a delightful man but it’s not your father!’ Of course Tiny was wonderful about it; very gentle and understanding. And he told me later that after Charlie toured with Nat’s Georgians in the 30's Tiny used to get furious phone calls at 3 o'clock at his home in Hendon, you know – ‘you've got my 15 year old child pregnant!’ So there were some awkward phone calls back then, but Tiny was the complete gentleman, always sorted things out and made sure that the situation was clear – so that was alright in the end! And the one other thing that I definitely remember was walking into the loo at half time at Oxford and somebody had graffiti'd on the wall 'Long summers are good but Tiny Winters is best'! Hahaha
It was lovely, and that was I think the first major project. The singer was Lisa Lincoln who's been a friend of mine for many years and now promotes Jazz round the Southend area in a very big way. And though I say it as shouldn’t, we did make a very good album of the show for George Buck’s American label Jazzology. Wild Bill Davison actually sang the vocals for Nat!”
Going back to the 60's, because you were talking about Kenny's first club – were there any other Jazz clubs you can think of in the area at that time?
Oh there were loads and loads – the Haigh Hall in Victoria Avenue, the Elms Hotel in Leigh-on-Sea, the London Hotel in Tylers Avenue and the Royal Stores, opposite the Royal Hotel down at the bottom of Southend High Street for just four examples. And in all of these and many more the ‘modernists’ and ‘traditionalists’ continued to ply their separate trades. Occasionally there was crossover too. There was ‘Southend Rhythm Club’ on Sundays at the Arlington Hall, Leigh-on-Sea where both Modern and Traditional Jazz was played and the Kursaal Ballroom where all the great big bands from Ted Heath, Jack Parnell and John Dankworth to Ken Mackintosh and Basil and Ivor Kirchin appeared regularly. Between them, by l960, the Rhythm Club and Kursaal had hosted most if not all of the most famous British stars of the jazz scene. And there were lots of clubs, lots of venues you know, because back then jazz was still a dominant youth culture and the ‘Trad Boom’ which shot people like Chris Barber, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball into the charts had still to come along from l960-63. Rock n roll hadn't really got under way in a big way, apart from the Teddy Boy movement, and Jazz musicians didn't really take Elvis terribly seriously to be honest. It was really only when the Beatles came along with their truly fresh sound that they posed a huge cultural threat to us – and they very quickly dismissed Jazz from any sort of major popular attention from then on. So there was a big, big movement in Southend, yes, lots of Jazz clubs, and lots of bands from bebop to New Orleans. I think Kenny Baxter who’s really known as a ‘Modern Jazzman’ if you like, once told me he took up the clarinet because he'd heard the clarinet player in the Riverside Jazz band which was led by a very good Traditional trumpeter called ‘Punch Pilgrim’ – Geoff Pilgrim - so there was crossover.
(On Kenny Ball) Kenny Ball was an extraordinary trumpeter who effortlessly set new standards for Dixieland music – and trumpet-playing in that style - in Britain by l960. He arrived on the scene as a bandleader in l958 after around 10 years of training, with amongst others, trombonist Charlie Galbraith; his own Chicagoans and soon after with clarinettist Sid Phillips who led a very schooled – and very famous - Dixieland band which was constantly recording and broadcasting on the BBC. Then he worked with Eric Delaney's big band which was another highly disciplined training-ground (and very famous again) and finally clarinettist Terry Lightfoot's Jazzmen. But then in 1958 he decided to leave Terry with Lightfoot’s trombone player John Bennett and they were the two brothers - in spirit anyhow – who formed Kenny Ball's Jazzmen. Very soon after too, they got Dave Jones who was a tremendous clarinettist - arguably, with Dave Shepherd, the best in the country – and they did their very first gig at the Arlington Hall in Leigh in 1958. Around that time, they were doing some kind of audition in London, and Lonnie Donegan was in the next-door studio. He heard Kenny's fiery trumpet playing and great band running through a tune and went in and said “You're just wonderful. This is a new standard for British Traditional Jazz”. Which it was because Kenny was phenomenal as I said, and John Bennett was a fine trombone player - probably one of the best-ever in his field. And then they had Dave Jones too to complete what was a fantastic front line! So Lonnie, who was a hugely powerful megastar at the time, said “Have you got a broadcast?” and they said “-no”, and he said “Yes you have. Have you got a record contract?”. “ No..”. “Yes you have. Have you been on television?”. “...No..”. “Well you are now, you're going on television”. Donegan really opened the doors for them and pushed them.
He was such an enormous star then wasn't he.
Huge! People don't always remember but he was as big as any star now, you know. He did pantomime and everything – a real all-rounder! Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard would soon follow on, but Donegan was the king of Skiffle and the biggest star in pop music – so he had amazing influence and basically he just said to Kenny “Whatever you want I'll give you”. He got him a contract with Pye records and they made their first album, Invitation To The Ball . And not long after, they had their first hit record which was Samantha from Cole Porter’s ‘High Society’. I vividly remember the first time I heard that record on the radio and thinking “this is something truly sensational!” We had Acker Bilk of course, who also had a wonderful band with a great trumpeter Colin Smith, and clarinettist Monty Sunshine had had his solo hits with Chris Barber’s band like Petite Fleur and Hushabye which really launched the Trad boom to begin with. But when Samantha came along I remember thinking “Oh, that's special”, because Kenny was such an effortlessly powerful trumpet player. He could do anything on the trumpet back then. Samantha went rocketing up the charts, and that was the beginning of 10 hit records for Kenny Ball. The last of them was in l967 when the Beatles had come, saw and conquered – he did When I'm 64, from the Sergeant Pepper album, and that was his last hit record. But he remained a top theatre draw for more than four more decades - one of Essex's great men and ente rtainers. He toured all over the world; conquered America and got the key to New Orleans with his wonderous band. Years later in the l990s I worked with a very good American guitar player called Marty Grosz who’s well known in the international Jazz world these days. And back in the 60s Marty was working with a club band in – I think – Chicago and he said “One night this bunch of English guys came in and they just blew us up the street! So we were like ‘Where did they come from?’!” Kenny's a book in himself really. He's just died as we speak in 2013 but he had a phenomenally successful career for well over half a century, and was a household name for many generations – on the Morecambe and Wise show and Saturday Night At The Mill on TV later on in his career. I’m very glad that about two years ago Kenny and I did a book together with John Bennett called ‘Kenny Ball’s Musical Skylarks’ which is out now and which tells quite a lot of his story – and the ups-and-downs of his career. If you said to him: “Kenny – you really are a household name!” he would say “Yes just like Harpic! Clean round the bend!”. Haha
He was lovely! A gentleman, an East End gentleman, and in his prime a tremendous player, as well as a very genuine, generous and courageous man. I suppose we ought to mention ‘the troubles’ though. If I have this right; in 1965 he was still touring absolutely full-time with his band and at the time was top of the charts I think in Australia. So he went to Sydney to do a bill-topping concert, went on the stage and not one note would come out of the trumpet! His embouchure had been strained beyond endurance - embouchure by the way is what we call the muscles round the lips which trumpet players rest on to produce the sound - and for a time he couldn't produce a note and had to take other trumpet players with him on the stand with him to do his show. Over the years – and right up until he died – that’s' something he had to conquer occasionally, but he did it with immense fortitude, despite the fact that I believe, deep down, he may have been quite a nervous and insecure man. But he never let it show. People had come to see Kenny, they wanted to hear him play as beautifully as he could and sometimes he couldn't, so he would occasionally take out a second trumpet player - and later on, sometimes it was me. Not very often because I don't think I was quite the trumpet player he wanted – he was very keen on a straight lead which was never my strongest point - but I would go out with him from time to time and play the trumpet parts for Midnight In Moscow and Samantha and all those things. He knew what he wanted of course but he was a lovely man to know and much more stylistically inspired than people realize. His favourite trumpeters were Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan – and Clifford Brown, believe it or not who was probably the greatest modern jazz trumpeter of them all!
What was the matter with his embouchure? Did it just get tired for no reason?
No one was quite sure.
Maybe it was a muscle spasm or something.
I think it must have been something to do with unrelenting muscular strain, because he was constantly performing to the limits of his ability with no chance to rest and recoup energy – or practise constructively - in his own time. Doing broadcasts, television, record dates, all kinds of stuff - and often 2 concerts a day during the Trad Boom – well, that’s enough to tire anyone out and he simply worked his lip to its utmost. And those muscles can rebel if you don’t treat them fairly. In '87, as a matter of fact, my embouchure packed up on me too. I lost mine completely for – well if I'm telling you the truth, Mark, about 13 years. And that’s a long, long time to reconstruct a working structure – and a deeply discouraging setback as well. But anyway to return to Kenny, I saw him four times in 1968 in London with Louis Armstrong's all stars and by that time he was playing beautifully again. All the old strength was back and I remember he was really proud because Louis said “You're a genius”. And coming from the 'Shakespeare of Jazz' that was quite a compliment as Kenny said.
Yes, that’s very interesting talking to Enrico Tomasso about Louis Armstrong. I loved that photo of him having his first lesson with him at 4.
At Heathrow Airport!
Was that where it was?
Yes, his family took him onto the runway and he played for Louis, as he got off the plane, and of course Louis was dancing! Beautiful! And after that, even though Louis was quite ill then, I think his father took Enrico up to Batley variety club for two weeks, and every night Louis would invite Enrico into the dressing room and give him a little lesson.
Oh that's lovely!
Oh well, I often say this - and I've actually done a lecture on this at one of the big Jazz conventions at Leeds - suggesting that Louis was a supernova; that he was somebody sent by someone rather superior to show us how life should be lived! And I wasn't actually carted away in a straitjacket! So Kenny Ball was, I think, a complex mixture beneath the carefree image; a huge talent, cruelly handicapped by circumstance from time to time, and a man of enormous fortitude who actually conquered a great many problems triumphantly throughout an amazing professional career as entertainer and musician. But as I said he was also very modest; a friend of the world. If you met Kenny and I've met him on many occasions, he was the most accessible soul. Truly, as we so often say, ‘a lovely man’………..
Yes, well we talk about Southend of course, were there any other main areas for Jazz at the time would you say in your travels? I'm assuming there was probably something around Harwich, I would've thought, because of it being a port.
Yes, certainly the Electric Palace, Harwich had odd Jazz events much later and I’ve played for them a couple of times. I can't speak for the whole of the county of course, but I do know that Colchester Jazz club has had a very long standing club which celebrates New Orleans and traditional Jazz only – and it’s still going strong today. Then back in the latter 1960s and early 70's there was the Red Lion in Margaretting near Ingatestone. The landlord Gordon Worthy and his wife Hazel were great Jazz fans and they had Jazz at least two or three nights of the week and maybe more. I played there regularly around l968-69 in a quintet with a very good alto-player called Jim Livesey who sometimes called himself ‘Jasper’. Jim had worked with the Mel Lewis Band too and he played very well in a style a bit like Lee Konitz. I’d love to know where Jim is now and later he was on the ‘Great Jazz Solos Revisited’ project for Bernie Cash too incidentally. During that time something else remarkable happened; Charlie Parker’s piano contemporary Joe Albany arrived in Britain from America and made his debut at the Red Lion. That was truly amazing as Albany had been out of the scene for years and was an absolute legend. He’d come to stay with Tony Williams and played his very first British gig with Jim and our quintet! It made a big impact in the Jazz press! And when my embouchure came back on the side in 1970 - after which I really was playing much better again, as I said - I was there with Dirk Wood, my old friend from the Paglesham days on piano and a trio. I'd love to hear the tapes of those sessions now because they taped everything, and some of the music, as I remember, was very good indeed. And of course my first Half Dozen played there too - and as well as the guests I mentioned earlier we had a very good American cornet player who was in London at that time called Dick Sudhalter. Dick was a huge follower of Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett – all the great cornettists – and he wrote several wonderful books, including the first definitive biography of Bix; another fine biography of Hoagy Carmichael later on, and a huge volume of analysis of the work of classic white Jazz musicians called ‘Lost Chords’. Dick was a very intellectual man and a great friend; a true kindred spirit. I must say that when he came to the Red Lion for the first time he rather perplexed people because he did some of his announcing in German, and we were never quite sure why - because he came from Boston Massachusetts! But he was a gifted cornet player and he made a big, big contribution to Jazz whilst he was in Britain – and back in America afterwards. He was a correspondent for UPI during his time over here and when he went back to the States he had a very successful career, from about '75, as both cornettist and author. But he was in Essex with me several times and we were great friends. Sadly he died, much too young, a few years ago from a terrifying illness called ‘multiple systems atrophy’. In short his body just gave up and nobody knew why. And he was only in his later 60s. Terrible.
I heard that the Cricketers was very much a home for Jazz here for a while?
Yes. Oh it was. I'm not sure if it came directly after the Arlington Hall but certainly by 1965, Kenny Baxter was running an enormously successful Jazz club at the Cricketers in Westcliff-on-sea – where Club Riga is now. Another man who was often there as compere – and who became a sort of ‘inherited’ Essex legend - was Bix Curtis. Bix was with the Willcox Brothers when they first defied the Musicians’ Union ban on American Jazzmen playing in Britain by putting Sidney Bechet on a London stage with Humphrey Lyttelton after the war – and he narrowly escaped gaol in the process. He’d also been compere at the Flamingo Club in London alongside Tony Hall, who later became a pop DJ on Radio Luxembourg: ‘That’s it and that’s all – from yours sincerely, Tony Hall’ was his on-radio sign-off ! In the l950s Bix ran ‘Club Satchmo’ in Willesden North London, and he had a touring show called 'Jazz from London' and another one called 'Jazz at the Prom' which had the same initials as JATP, Norman Granz’s legendary American package show. Bix told me, he had had personal permission from Granz to tour a show called JATP with those same initials! His shows had great British players like Tubby Hayes, his own great friend Jimmy Skidmore, trumpeters Hank Shaw and Dizzy Reece and it featured ‘Battle of the Saxes’ and ‘Tussle of the Trumpets’ as two of his concert features. Bix would sit on the stage and introduce the show. I remember he told me one time that while ‘Tussle of the Trumpets’ was going on he noticed that no-one was watching the stage but looking to the side instead. So he crept down and looked across, and between an illuminated crack in the double exit doors there was Tubby with a beautiful lady balanced on a proud area of his anatomy! Anyhow after the Beatles hit, Bix decided to come down and live in Southend. He didn't really want to know about rock music, so he moved to Shoeburyness and, if the rumours are true, I heard he opened an electricians shop. And I say this with great love and a gentle laugh - but I heard that it burned down after 3 months due to an electrical fault! Perhaps he plugged something in the wrong way – I don’t know! So anyhow the bungalow where he lived was up on Crays Hill in Basildon. He was really quite poor but he was always on the scene as an MC. He would host club dates for Kenny, when his friends came down from London; he was very tight with Jimmy Skidmore, and they would come down and invade Southend together. Believe me that was fun, because both were as lovably outrageous as the other. I once remember Bix introducing a tune called Sanctity and saying that it had been composed by a Frenchman who owned a company that produced multi-cup brassieres! Thanks to Bix I actually played my very first professional concert away from Southend at Lewes Prison in 1965 with Jimmy Skidmore, the Gerry Haim Trio – Gerry was the younger brother of the traditional cornettist John Haim who died very young - and a lady singer whose name I don't recall now. I remember we had a fantastic concert and afterwards, if I’ve got this right, Bix tried to make off with his chairman’s stool provided by the management until he was politely asked to return it by one of the officers. So that was great fun – and of course a huge musical thrill for me – and then after that, Bix drove me down to the ‘Fox and Hounds’ in Haywards Heath. They had the '14 Foot Band' which was a very high-class semi-pro band there that night, as well as Lennie Felix who was one of the top piano players in this country. So thanks to Bix I got the chance to play with Jimmy Skidmore and the great Lennie Felix – as well as the Fourteen Foot band - all in one day, and it was lovely. Bix was in Essex for many years, but he had a rather tragic story at the end. Would you like to hear it?
Well, Bix was overweight really - and he smoked big King Edward cigars and drank a fair bit too, usually Scotch I think, and one day on the motorway he had a heart attack while he was driving. This would have been probably about 1967/68 and in those days, heart surgery was not as advanced as it is now. Over the next few years he had more heart attacks which gradually weakened him. And one day, Kenny Baxter had a lovely idea; that we should present Bix with an award for his services to British Jazz, which were enormous. So Blanche, who was his wife, drove him down to Southend and Kenny made the presentation, but when they got back home to Crays Hill, Bix was completely exhausted. So he went and laid on the bed to relax with his trophy. But when he looked out of the window, he saw the car that Blanche was locking up being rocked by a couple of young thugs and thought she was in danger. Well, for whatever reason, Bix kept a loaded shotgun in the house , so he took it and fired a warning shot over their heads and the louts disappeared. But five minutes later they came back in a police car, and poor Bix was arrested on a charge of attempted manslaughter - which was nonsense. He’d simply been defending his wife and property and had no idea of killing anybody! Anyway, the case started in Magistrate’s Court and then moved on to Crown court in Chelmsford and there was a wait of about 18 months until it came up again. And of course this was for a man who'd had multiple heart attacks and now had all this extra stress to deal with. On the day of the trial, I went along to act as a character witness if required but wasn’t called of course. But I never forgot that on that day. He arrive at court with Blanche - and this was Bix to the T - he said, “I've got a present for you” and gave me a record wrapped up in brown paper by the great trumpeter Kenny Baker, a beautiful record, with an orchestra, a string orchestra. Can you imagine? – on the very day of his trial! Anyhow he went in the dock and there was a thundering judge, who wouldn't let him sit down, which was very, very cruel. Bix was in tears at times, but after a couple of days, it took the jury about 3 minutes to acquit him. So he came out, and said to me, “I think some of my fans were in the jury actually,” which they may have been! And so he went home, a free man, to his cottage in Crays Hill, which was a place on its own! It didn't really have connecting walls inside you see; it was half-built, so I don't quite remember if you could see the loo from the sitting room - but certainly some of the internal walls were missing. I would go up there occasionally and we'd drink quite a lot of whisky, and he would smoke his cigars. Anyway, he lived on there for quite a while – a few years - and then in 1978 or 9 I got a phone call to tell me that he'd died. I went to his funeral which was in Willesden in North London. Jimmy and Alan Skidmore both went, Jack Fallon went too, but it wasn't much of a Jazz funeral; there was a thundering preacher, who ran through his 'ashes to ashes and dust to dust' routine and there was no eulogy, and no talk of what Bix had done for the music or how much he loved it. It was a very sad event. I was with a friend of mine and we came out feeling dismal But – and I’ve never forgotten this - there was a lark singing in the branches of a tree in the courtyard of the crematorium, and my friend said “That’ s Bix” which was a beautiful thing to say. So that was Bix Curtis. And he was a beloved fixture on the Jazz scene down here for many years, and a hero really. I interviewed Ronnie Scott in 1969, while I was planning to write a book, about British Modern Jazz, and interviewed a few people including dear Kathy Stobart and Britain’s be bop founder, the pianist and trumpeter, Denis Rose, who was a legend, and taught most of the post-war youngsters including Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth about the harmonic principles of be bop. I interviewed Ronnie too and asked him what he thought about Bix. And Ronnie said, “Well he did as much for British Jazz as anybody really, in those days”, which was a big tribute you know, coming from him.
I did read that there was Jazz regularly on Southend Pier, but was that 60's or was that earlier?
Well, from l946 to l956 they had Ben Oakley’s band which was a neat little band of around ten men who could play almost anything from Grieg to Boogie-woogie. I went to see them once or twice with my mother when I was very young and one day a lady asked for ‘something really hot’ and the music sounded good! Ben was a trombonist who’d worked with Jack Payne back in the l930s and I think Mauri Owen – who played lead alto for John Dankworth in his earlier years – may have worked with them too from time to time. Their signature tune was The Way You Look Tonight and sometimes in the season they’sd play two concerts a day I think. But I can tell you for certain that in 1961 there were six or seven real Jazz concerts on the end of the Pier, Sunday afternoon, because I saw all but one. That was the Fairweather-Brown all-stars, no relation: Al Fairweather – a wonderful Scottish trumpet player, and his longtime musical partner Sandy Brown, who was probably one of the greatest Jazz clarinettists anywhere in the world. I missed that one because my parents thought I was a bit too young to go to a Jazz concert on my own - even at 15. But over the next weeks every Sunday afternoon I saw Humphrey Lyttelton (with his great three-saxophone band), Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, The Clyde Valley Stompers, Bruce Turner’s wonderful Jump Band with Jeannie Lambe and Kenny Ball. This was the time of the ‘Trad Boom’ so most of the visitors were in and out of the charts all the time, and although they had a pretty big concert area at the top of the pier in the ‘Sundeck Theatre’ , it was always loaded with people. The concerts were almost always sold out and they could probably have sold out ten times over. And they were wonderful.
So that would have been at the height of the whole Trad Jazz thing then wasn't it? Just pre-Beatles?
Absolutely. Just before the Beatles came down the motorway and changed everything! Jazz at that point was still absolutely the youth culture. I remember glancing through the old ‘Southend Standard’ newspapers for l960 in our Central Library a few months ago and noting that there was a Rock 'n' Roll show starring Marty Wilde at the Odeon, and at a cinema down the road they were showing a movie with Anthony Newley called 'Jazz Boat' with Ted Heath's orchestra. So the two cultures were running side by side. But in my opinion, Rock 'n' Roll hadn't really taken over – at least not just yet! There's that wonderful line in the David Essex movie 'That'll Be The Day' where he goes into a club with Ringo Starr around l961 and everyone’s dancing to a Trad band. And one of the dancers says ‘we love Trad – it’s here to stay!’ And one of them – I’m not sure if it’s Essex or Starr - says “Bollocks” and how right he was! Because you know two or three years later Trad had disappeared as a pop culture and Jazz was quickly consigned to the background too. That's not to say that there weren't the strongholds around Essex still (as indeed there were round the UK) but most of the baby-boom Trad fans moved over pretty comprehensively to the Beatles or the Stones or whatever. There was still a thriving Jazz community in Essex that continued to follow the music because they really loved it and probably understood the music’s history as I said. But it became something for the specialist rather than widespread consumption.
And would that be Modern Jazz as well as Traditional Jazz or are you just talking about Traditional Jazz? Because they would be two different divisions in a way wouldn't they, to a certain degree?
Well there were Mark; yes there were. In the 50's we had what we called the Trad/Modern wars. It was quite political: the Trad people were 'the mouldy figs' to the modernists and the Modern people were 'the dirty boppers' to the Traditionalists; that’s what they called each other – and there was a lot of quite concerted rivalry between the two movements. But I think after the Beatles came along that subsided – at least to a limited degree. Even now you have the clubs and venues that only book Modern Jazz, or who won’t tolerate anything other than authentic New Orleans Jazz – like Colchester for example. But once the Beatles came along, it was probably inevitable that all kinds of jazz people – and musicians - banded together, which I think they gradually did. I mean, even back in the l950s when the ‘wars’ were flourishing ‘modern’ musicians like Joe Harriott would enjoy playing with Chris Barber’s ‘traditional’ band, though that was probably a bit more unusual then. But by the late l960s it was as easy – and enjoyable and challenging - for me to play with Trevor Taylor’s new music as it was to play with Kenny Baxter’s swing-to-bop or with Dave Claridge’s New Orleans Jazz band in the early 70s. Basically – and very gradually - we banded together like a herd of sheep who were going to be sent to the cultural slaughterhouse.
Yes, you were very brave I think, in the early 70's when you did decide to go back to the real roots of the Dixieland Jazz when Jazz itself was probably going through its greatest change, in that you had the experimentation of Coltrane, you had the Jazz Fusion coming through, the Soul Jazz, Jazz Funk with CTI records - Grover Washington, you know, in '70 '71, so there was so much happening and a whole new generation of youth were getting into these new forms of Jazz. That was really going against the grain.
Well that's a very kind remark, and if I may say so Mark, it’s perceptive too, because I did have to make some fairly heavy aesthetic decisions actually. I know that sounds pompous, but I mean, if you wanted to play like Freddie Randall - who was my British hero, or indeed like Harry James, who still is one of my favourite trumpeters - you definitely had -and still have - to make conscious musical and even technical decisions about that. Kenny (Baxter) was to some degree the opposite to me. Kenny was marvellously progressive - he's basically a bebop musician but he had his Jazz-Funk group 'Turntable', he took the music along with him and followed the trends. He even played free Jazz with me for Trevor Taylor for a while, and he was very good at that too. I, on the other hand, did make a certain decision - and a very definite artistic decision - that for me the only way was to go back and defy what was happening. And finding six musicians in Essex who would go along with me was really fairly difficult. Alan Clarke, my old pal, was one – he loved all sorts of Jazz – and we actually tried out a tiny Dixieland band for a month or two as far back as l965!
And playing Jazz then, in 65?
Oh sure! That was - can I use the word 'foetus'? - of the Half Dozen in 1965 and we rehgearsed at Stannetts and did just one gig somewhere near Loughton with a tenor-player Brian Everington and his quartet one evening. But we did our first real gigs with mostly different musicians , apart from Alan and maybe Bunny Coutney, in '71 after I left college as I told you. That was the first real Half Dozen. The little band in l965 had a clarinettist whose name, I think, was Johnny Toogood and a trombone player called John Worsdale too……..……..
Oh thats not the Worsdale who writes for the Evening Echo is it?
No that’s his brother I believe – Jim Worsdale, another devoted Southender. John Worsdale was an artist and he played with me first of all in a band that was led by a trumpet player called ‘Punch’ Pilgrim – Geoff Pilgrim. Geoff had started out playing New Orleans Jazz, hence the ‘Punch’; like ‘Punch’ Miller I suppose. And by day he sold what was then called ‘Musak’ - you know the ‘piped music’ which you heard in retail outlets back then. But he was also a very capable New Orleans trumpet player who first of all led the Riverside Jazz Band and later on ‘went mainstream’ which a lot of people did in the wake of Humphrey Lyttelton I suppose. John Worsdale (who also wrote a very good Jazz column in a local paper) was on trombone and there was another trombonist too - Stan Reed who played rather like Dickie Wells and was a good contrast to John. And would you believe he had me on alto saxophone, which was probably fairly dreadful.
Mind you its not surprising seeing as you studied clarinet because that’s the nearest ………….
Oh absolutely. I mean - although he didn't really like the music I was playing - my dear father bought me an alto-saxophone, and I did play it for a few years around the scene because I loved Bruce Turner. And Johnny Hodges! But the trumpet was always here you know. Why I diversified was because until I was 19 I didn't 'form a proper embouchure' you see. I could play a bit on the trumpet and I played with little groups on clarinet alto and trumpet, swapping between the three. But then in l964 after I left school I put the trumpet away for around eight months, for the simple reason that I got my first real girlfriend, Barbara Rudling! And when I picked up the trumpet again one morning in Spring 1965 something had happened and a great big fat note simply fell out of the end of the bell when I blew. And it was like “Wow what's happened here?” So very soon after I went to a wonderful trumpet teacher in Hockley, in Mount Avenue, called Bert Collier. Bert – whose full official title was E.M. Collier – was trained at Kneller Hall and had a huge career in the l930s working with Joe Loss on his earliest records, playing wonderful lead trumpet. He was a big celebrity back then and even played for the Royals when they went clubbing in London. But when war broke out he immediately joined the army to serve his country and later contracted sand fly fever, which badly damaged his lungs. So later on he opened a trumpet school in Ilford and also, just after the war, led an all-girl orchestra too! I imagine they all thought he was a bit of a charmer because he certainly was – and very, very handsome too! But nonetheless he ended up in Hockley and took on a series of pupils, myself included. I’d visit for my lesson every Sunday morning and although he didn’t any longer play the trumpet very much he was a tremendous teacher and I’d come away every week after my lesson blissfully inspired. It was Vic Wood who first told me about Bert. At that time he was brass consultant in Gilberts music shop in Southchurch Road and over the next few months he introduced me to the great Arban trumpet tutor and taught me all the proper basics of playing properly. I’d take my lesson in his sitting room, and he'd sit there in the corner with his cigarette holder and his cup of tea. And he'd say “Dick” – he never called me ‘Digby’ - “play me this exercise” and I'd go ta ta ta ta ta ta …........and he'd say, “If you carry on as you are you'll be the best trumpet player in England”.
So in the 70's in the Southend area obviously we know there was the institution that was the Top Alex of course, that was incredible, even I witnessed that for many years myself. From about 78/79 I used to go there virtually every Sunday lunchtime to see Turntable because I was a Jazz Funk fanatic. It was rammed solid in there. You couldn't get another person in there. It was literally just looking over the top of people to see what was going on.
Its amazing isn't it? I was in London by then but I do remember the Alex and after of course later on the Jazz moved over to Churchills didn’t it? Don't forget the Middleton Hotel as well.
Yes. Did the Middleton start in the 70's or in the 60's though?
If I remember rightly, I think the Middleton was doing Sunday lunchtime Jazz in the mid-60's. I played at the Middleton on and off around then – often with Kenny as well, once or twice, with some of the guys from the Mel Lewis Band.
And where was that again?
The Middleton Hotel is now the Irish pub, O'Neill’s, adjacent to South Essex College. At the turn of the 60's it also hosted the Jazz Jamborees. About 1961 I think I played on one or maybe two Jamborees in the upper ballroom of the Middleton and they were packed solid. On the bill, if I remember correctly – though maybe on two different years; I’d have to look it up - were Alan Elsdon’s Jazz Band and, maybe another year, the Original Downtown Syncopators and a very good local tenor player Dudley Errington who had a quartet called ‘Unit 62’ and played in the cool style. Dudley’s passed away now, sadly – I met his ex-wife down in Devon quite recently. The Middleton did carry on for a long time in the 60s for sure. I remember seeing Tubby Hayes there too, probably around 1967/8 with his quartet and Ian Hamer the lead trumpeter with ‘Top of the Pops’ who turned up in an all-leather outfit and had the hots for Kenny Baxter’s wife Angie at the time! I remember he played with Kenny’s rhythm section and wasn’t too kind to them as he picked impossibly fast tempii and one number actually broke down completely. Ian’s the trumpeter on the Tremeloe’s record called Call Me Number One incidentally – I was at the session! Of course Kenny, once again was at the centre of all this activity, because apart from being a fine tenor player, he's done an enormous amount to encourage Jazz. He's a lifelong promoter. He's always encouraged new talent too.
Yes that's right, well my cousin, Martin Johnson, is a Jazz organist. He was guesting with Turntable at 16 years old at the Top Alex, and he shouldn't have even been in the pub let alone playing in there!
I got raided once! With Dirk Wood, whom I mentioned earlier, and we were playing at a club called ‘The Foxhunters’ which was at the bottom of the hill in Hawkwell. It's now a great big private house, and if you go past the Cock Inn pub, up past David Keddie’s house, and down the hill there's this enormous mansion! That used to be the Foxhunters nightclub, and Dirk smuggled me in to play when I was 15 I think, and they raided the joint! Everyone was saying “Hide him under the piano”
Whats that old Louis Jordan song? ‘They raided the joint and took everybody else but me!’ But I got away with it. In fact no-one even noticed I don’t think. The police were very kind and probably didn’t care anyhow.
Was that Jazz in the Foxhunters then?
Oh yes, there were so many places. It was wonderful during the 50's, there were endless Jazz clubs and people would get together, well not quite anywhere, but any pub was probably right for Jazz,
Because there was a fever for it wasn't there you see?
It was a youth culture as we said! Remember The Royal Stores at the bottom of the High street? That was a Jazz haunt. And the Kursaal had all the great big bands. Basically, any pub that had a room was a Jazz place.
So the Nat Gonella tribute was your first major…
My sort of first major initiative in a way, yes, because, as I mentioned earlier, I'd been working for years with people who’d been my heroes; there was the quartet 'Velvet', which had previously been Stephane Grappelli’s trio, with Denny Wright, the wonderful Ike Isaacs, and Len Skeat on bass. The Midnight Follies Orchestra led by Keith Nichols and Alan Cohen and lots of other bands as well, including the Pizza Express All-Stars which was actually put together by Peter Boizot. Peter was really an entrepreneur; he introduced pizza into this country in a big way in ’66 and was one of the richest men in England. He opened the very first Pizza Express in Coptic Street opposite the British Museum in (I think) l966 and from there he built up his enormous national chain and franchise . 10 Dean Street survives and is still the Pizza Express Jazz Club, and he had another club and restaurant called the Pizza on the Park which was over in Knightsbridge at Hyde Park Corner.
Yes, that's right, it's closed again unfortunately.
Yes it's gone, what a shame. And also Kettner’s Restaurant which is in Soho. So anyhow he formed an all-star band in 1979 if I remember rightly called the Pizza Express All-Stars, and was kind enough to ask me to join. I quite enjoyed it but after a few years did realize that if you belonged to somebody else’s band, however much you respect what they do, you’re playing their music. And I was beginning to feel restricted.
Yes, you can't express yourself as much as you’d like to can you.
No I think not Mark. Of course it took a while to get over the headiness of working with these people that I’d been reading about as stars in the Melody Maker. My first thought had been “Well this is marvellous; how lucky can you be?” . But sometimes after a while you can start to think ‘I don’t particularly like having to wear this uniform - or this or that musical format blah blah blah’ , and by ’83 I'd had about 6 years of being a professional. So I suppose I'd got a bit disillusioned with working for certain other people and the Nat Gonella project was the first one that was truly my own that had some kind of national impact. The other thing I was going tell you about was that in 1979 I met a wonderful man in Lancashire called Stan Barker. Stan, like me, had turned pro very late, I think he was 54 when he gave up his job as a senior administrator at Tarmac the people who do the roads. But he decided that he wanted to be a full-time Jazz pianist so he and I met up when were doing a Jazz club in the Lake District and got on ever so well. We’d had a couple of years playing Jazz in the rough-and-tumble of professional life, which you know as well as anybody is very different to playing it for fun. Stan was a very intelligent man and said “Well why don’t we leaven our gigs - the ones where you got paid seven £1 notes paid into your hand at the end of the night - with an educational project?”. So together we formed a registered educational charity, called ‘Jazz College’ From 1980 – 1987 we were ‘artists in residence at Southport Arts Centre and conducted school workshops around Lancashire. And later on we moved down to Essex briefly and did some work there too for a local music adviser called David Dennis. So that was one week a month for me and the rest of the time from 1983 I was doing a whole lot of different projects really and I think probably playing as well as I've ever played in my career. I’d got over the trauma of turning professional and I'd also fallen under the spell of an American cornet player called Warren Vache Junior. Warren was like the new saviour of the mainstream in the 1970’s and from the late 70's he used to come to the Pizza Express jazz club at 10 Dean Street and I would sit at his feet and listen. One of Warren’s trademarks was – and is - that he can play very, very high up on the cornet, like a violin, very softly with an exquisite vibrato. Anyway, I found that if I tilted my embouchure upwards – for anybody that’s worried the embouchure is the set of muscles around your lips which control the trumpet – and pushed my mouthpiece into my top lip I could do the same. But there is a way of dealing with your embouchure to keep it working properly, and if you're a qualified professional trumpet player you have to be very careful. Anyhow I found that if I tipped my mouthpiece into my upper lip I could play just like Warren and that worked very well for three of four years at least. But then in 1987 we were playing at Southport Arts Centre on a Tuesday night where we did a little session - just the two of us, Stan Barker on piano and myself on cornet -and we had a full house as usual. In fact the recordings I made with Stan back then I think are probably my best ever on record; they’ve been reissued on the ‘Jazzology’ label now. All the local music teachers used to come in, all the local Jazz fans would come and it was usually a packed bar. And also my adopted son, Martin Smith, who was a young trumpet player then who’s now certainly the best trumpet player in Liverpool; he’s toured with the Who and done all kinds of wonderful things But he was my pupil when he was younger andwe’re still the very closest of friends.
Anyhow, for a couple of weeks I’d been thinking ‘something’s not quite right’. I didn’t feel comfortable playing, the ease of it had gone, and this particular night in 1987, I went for a big top ‘G’ and a crashing pain went straight down my right cheek into my chest and right up to the top of my head. And over the next week or so my playing just turned upside down completely. I couldn’t play the bottom notes on the trumpet at all, I had a physical twitch on my face and all I could do was play ugly sounds on the cornet. That was a horrible time.
Did you think you'd had a stroke or something at the time?
I did, I thought something very serious has happened me- and indeed it had. I went to a lot of trumpet teachers; Paul Eshelby for one who played with the BBC Big Band and a couple of other so-called ‘embouchure therapists’, who said “we can do anything with an embouchure” and they were all completely foxed and absolutely no help at all. So I didn’t really know what to do. I knew I couldn’t give up playing because that was my living. So I assembled all my good friends that I'd met with over the years and they were very good players indeed., Allan Ganley, who had worked with just about everyone; all the Americans who came to Ronnie Scott’s; Tubby Hayes of course – the finest drummer I ever worked with. Bassist Len Skeat who we called the Time Lord because he was like Britain’s Ray Brown; a wonderful player. I’ve worked with him for forty years now. Brian Lemon, Dave Shepherd, Roy Williams and a great tenor player called Al Gay. We called the band the ‘Jazz Superkings’, a modest little title, and I wrote a library for the band which included the notes I could still play on the trumpet. So really I just played lead and left all the clever soloing to everybody else. I would say to regain any level of decent control on my trumpet playing took about 13 years. And that’s a long time - longer than the great oboist Eugene Goossens. If I’m right (and I haven’t been able to authenticate the story so far, I should say!) Goossens had a car crash; went into the steering wheel with his lip and embouchure and broke his teeth. It took him a long long time 12 – 13 years to put things right, but it took me just as long and during that time I did whatever I could to bluff my way through. I had a good band but I really wasn’t playing well at all. That was a bad patch (and possibly the worst period of my life, at least so far!) but the redeeming thing was that I'd been doing a bit of broadcasting. My old friend Eggy Ley who was a fine soprano player – I think we talked about Eggy a little while ago in the interview – had moved into Essex where we had first played together. But by this time he was also a radio producer for BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) and I'd told him I'd be very interested in trying to learn to be a Jazz broadcaster. So he gave me an audition and kindly said I’ll give you a try. So successively from ’86 he put me through the training grounds - started off on BFBS which was on Millbank London. I had a six-part series called ‘Young Music’ which I think had an audience of 6 people! Internationally! Very very gradually I learned how not to be nervous - actually reading a link is quite hard if you haven’t done it on microphone before - and also how to regulate my voice, because I used to talk like that [raises and speeds up voice] “Hello everybody, it’s good to have you here on the programme” [slows down voice] “and this particular week we have such and such a person and they're just wonderful”. I was going up and down like Tower Bridge! With BFBS after that I did 2 series with Peter Clayton who was one of the greatest Jazz broadcasters ever in this country. Our show was called ‘Having a good time’ and we just played our favourite records to each other on-air and enthused! After that, with Keith Stewart, I moved on World Service which was the next level up and they gave me a series called ‘That’s Trad’ – ouch! – and I did that for 3 seasons and got through that too. For Keith I also presented Humphrey Lyttelton’s ‘Best Of Jazz’ live . The show went out on Radio 2 on Monday nights and Humph presented it for forty years; a huge gift to the Jazz world. When I did it I thought “That seemed to go quite well’; there weren’t any actual fluffs, the cues were ok and we came out on time for the news at nine-o-clock. But at that time I'd moved back to Southend and bought a little flat which I was redecorating, so I went into a paint shop on London Road and the lady behind the counter said “I heard you on Radio 2 last night, love!”, I said “Oh did you?” And then she said: “You didn’t half sound nervous, dear!”! Thanks very much! But anyway in l992 Jazz FM opened up the first-ever jazz station in Britain, and the director – a marvellous Jazz pianist called Dave Lee who played for John Dankworth’s orchestra, led his own broadcasting trio and was the musical director of ‘That Was The Week That Was’ amongst dozens of other achievements - gave me a two hour live show every Sunday called ‘Digby’s Sunday Joint’. Ahem! I got reasonably decent listening figures and soon after got pulled in by the BBC to present for Peter Clayton who was becoming ill on his show called ‘Jazz Parade’. So at one stage in about 1993 I suppose I was actually doing 7 shows a week – one for Jazz FM before the station came to grief for the first time, plus the World Service’s, ‘Jazz for the Asking’ which was a listeners’ request show, and five Jazz Parade’s a week. In the end I actually had to drop a couple – tho’ in fact Jazz FM dropped me when they went over to a non-jazz policy which was a tragedy of course. But I was doing so much scripting – as you know because you've been a DJ, you know; you have to get things right, and you've got to have something to say as well!.
That’s right, I work on a BBC6 show.
Yes, I script it and find the music, so I know exactly what you have to go through, yeah.
So you know as well as I do that if you say “such and such was on percussion” and it wasn’t you get 16 letters of complaint! If you do a good show nobody says anything of course. But anyway I kept on broadcasting regularly until 1998 when I was bumped off the BBC quite abruptly and went back to just being a trumpet player. In the meantime I’d carried on with gigs of course - and had one or two very bad reviews early on. But gradually I was beginning to play more respectably – very, very slowly – because I really had to re-build the embouchure practically from scratch. And by l998 I was able to play reasonably respectably again.
Still playing on the side?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t move it anywhere else, although I had valiantly tried from l966-70 – mainly on the advice of a local musician who really didn’t know anything about it anyhow! What actually had happened in l987 I think, was that I’d paralysed my diaphragm when I hit that big high note back at Southport with Stan Barker in ‘T’other Bar’. Strangely that was only diagnosed a year or two ago – but one side of my diaphragm is paralyzed now, and pokes up into my left lung. So that could have been what happened that awful night – I’ll never know for sure. But anyway, by about 1994 I was playing a little bit better and along came a tour which was a Jack Higgins creation. Jack was a wonderful Jazz agent for years in this country; he could get anybody! And in his hey-day he brought into England people like Count Basie, the Supremes, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and lots more. But after the Beatles crashed in and altered the popular music scene for ever he went into promoting anything from classic to modern Jazz in Britain. You could get anyone from Alex Welsh and Humphrey Lyttelton to John Dankworth and Cleo Laine through Jack who was a very tough operator but a wonderful man to have on your side. Anyway, with me as leader, he put together a tour called ‘Salute to Satchmo’ with the Alex Welsh Reunion Band and blues singer Beryl Bryden. And that really wasn’t too successful; I certainly wasn’t playing like Louis Armstrong at the time in any case; not everyone in the band liked what we were doing anyhow, and I even had a row with one member. So I thought maybe it's time for a big change. So in 1995 I thought I would get myself a new band; younger players than me, rather than elders, because in any case I felt it was impossible to lord it musically over masters of their craft like Brian Lemon, Dave Shepherd and Roy Williams. They were my dear friends of course anyhow, but I felt that the kind of music I wanted to try out – including close harmony singing and even a bit of RnB – really wasn’t what they liked to do anyhow and might not be able to do anyway. In short they were securely rooted in their own preferred areas of jazz and I wanted to do a wider range of music than they would enjoy. Of course that was a difficult decision. But I thought if I went with younger musicians I could try something new musically – and also within reason call the shots too. So I gradually assembled a band which turned into the second incarnation of ‘Digby’s Half Dozen’. The first group with that title had been back in 1971 for a year with Essex based semi-pro players, but in 1995 we started again and I had the beginnings of a new band with younger ones whose ears were perhaps a bit more open to different areas of our music. I was lucky enough to get my very dear friend Julian Marc Stringle on clarinet and saxophones who’s now pretty much first call for clarinet in Britain as we're speaking in 2013. And he also plays wonderfult alto and tenor saxphones. We had a couple of trombone players including to begin with Malcolm Earle Smith who now teaches at Trinity College of Music and runs his own group. So by the end of about 1995 I'd assembled a 6-piece band which could begin to sing just a little of the 4-part harmony which I still love - the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Los, Manhattan Transfer and groups like that. And we started to cover a wider area of the music as well. We played hard Bop, Dixieland and pretty much most other things too.
That was a bit of a jump!
It was, yes! But I had the guys around me who could do that you see and I had all those years of playing that sort of music myself. So I thought ‘it's nice to let myself off the leash now’ because I’d got a little tired of playing Muskrat Ramble and Royal Garden Blues with the drum solo on the last number, you know - all the tricks? We played a lot of clubs and some festivals for three years or so and by that time we had Craig Milverton on piano and keyboards and Dominic Ashworth on guitars – both fantastic players and very open to all the different styles as well as Traditional Jazz.
You were different from me I think Mark, because you came along at the right time and your band became a big success very quickly.But my band didn't really do that; that is until we joined George Melly in 2003 and now we tour with Paul Jones from the Manfreds who’s really a jazz musician and singer at heart. Working in a lot of different styles with one band is something some people find harder to accept;they like to say ‘oh he’s Trad’ or ‘he’s Modern’ or ‘he’s Fusion’, they like to bag you and this band was very difficult to bag! But we did well enough with clubs and festivals and we had a very nice promoter called John Wolfe who put us on at the South Bank a couple of times a year – at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room. But it’s very hard to get a jazz band of my sort fully established these days you know? We’re still going after 17 years though and amazingly we’ve won the British Jazz Award for ‘Top Small Group’ for eight out of the last nine years. Which I suppose goes to show how polarized the jazz scene is in Britain – it has almost nothing in terms of major media support. The BBC has a lot to answer for I think……..
It’s funny you know because from my perspective I've always looked at – well I mean you say you do Hard Bop to Dixieland but even though people criticise Trad Jazz these days and saying “Oh it's just full of old people” or whatever, I still see that when you actually look at all the Jazz festivals there are in the UK – and I have done, I've gone down the list with my agent, potential places to play – and you know the majority still are Trad Jazz if you like, the same as most Jazz gigs are still more Trad than Modern Jazz, in Essex you could probably – not necessarily count them on one hand – but there’s certainly a handful of Modern Jazz gigs in Essex, there’s probably a lot more for Trad I would imagine. It’s still the dominant style of Jazz as far as popularity to the general public.
I think you're absolutely right. It's a strange anomaly because Jazz is still governed to some degree by fashion and some critics consistently talk about the ‘cutting edge’ of Jazz – whatever that’s supposed to mean. Because to me the cutting edge of any jazz performance – traditional or modern – is really the act of spontaneous creation and the urgency of that process which is conveyed. And there’s nothing wrong with the music being accessible as well! Your kind of music is very accessible as well as great fun and very skilled and I think that all my musicians are very good players indeed. But as we don’t do anything that might be called ‘challenging’ or at the so-called ‘cutting edge’ getting on TV or radio is virtually impossible in 2013. That’s true for almost all real Jazz musicians anyhow. And if this was a ranting interview I would say that is the direct result of 60 years of cultural censorship in this country by the BBC. They’ve actually decided what we're supposed to want; it’s an industry rather than an artistically-based arena. And it's only very recently, as we both know, that iTunes has come in and young people – or people of any age – are actually able to make their own choices about what they actually want to listen to. So if they hear a Snowboy track they can go on iTunes and download it and that’s their choice - they’re not going to be told any longer that what they're supposed to be listening to. We both know the problem.
The BBC is meant to be, it's meant to have no political affiliation but we all know it's got this Gramsci-ist agenda which is…
Absolutely! I've had my moments of sheer artistic horror in this area. I remember about 20 years ago the minister for the arts, whoever he or she may have been, was on the radio and was asked who was the greatest song writer of the 20th Century and said “Bob Dylan”. I said “Bob Dylan?” - excuse me he's got one tune! That’s idiotic!” I'm not against Bob Dylan for what he was; he was an icon in his sphere but to call him the greatest song writer is total nonsense, rubbish. I mean the whole cultural history of the Twentieth century was skewed out of proportion after the Beatle. Whoever talks about Gershwin, Kern, Rogers these days? – they were all from the twentieth century too, but you wouldn’t know it. The cultural takeover of the Beatles was absolute. Anyway, let’s not ramble. The Half Dozen worked very nicely, we did Millennium night on Pizza on the Park I remember which was great fun, and we won the first British Jazz Award for top small group in 2005. Anyway that’s jumping ahead…….
No not really because you said your band have existed for 17 years.
It has – with scarcely a line-up change.
And plus you guesting with other people as well.
Yes I still do that, if anybody wants me and they call me up. I love playing with different people. It's a challenge you know, it's also great fun and as we both know playing is why we're on the planet. Our big break as I said came along in 2002. We were asked by Jack Higgins to tour and record with George Melly. John Chilton’s Feetwarmers had toured with him for thirty years but John had finally got tired of the travelling, and things weren’t going so well. So Jack got in touch and said “Well you’ve got a band that we like and you're just doing freelance gigs here and there. So do you want to join George Melly?”. Of course George was one of my heroes when I was young. I'd got all his books, and lots of his records and I admired him. I thought he was a very hip singer, and so did people like Annie Ross! And of course he was ‘Mr Melly the man on the Telly’ too - a cultural icon. So I went round to meet him in Shepherds Bush where he lived. We had a very nice lunch together and talked about plans, and started touring with the Half Dozen from January 2003. I wrote a bookful of charts and was George’s MD. That went on until George died in 2007, and believe me we were busy. We were regularly working 3-4 nights a week and rubbed shoulders with quite a lot of the superstars at the time! George would say “Oh yes, I’ll see if old Paul will do the liner note for our next album” and I'd say “Paul who?” and he'd say “Paul McCartney of course”! And then one day he said “I think Van is going to do a track on the next album” and I said “Who’s that?” and he said “Van Morrison!”. I said “are you serious?' and George said “Oh Van comes to a lot of my gigs. And if I'm with him at one of his gigs he asks me to sing with him too you see”. So all of a sudden we were moving in this royalty circle of pop stars, which was amazing. We made three albums in all. The second one for Candid ‘The Ultimate Melly’, which George told me was his favourite album of all, had some great guests on it too; Van, Jacqui Dankworth, John Chilton and the Swingle Singers. And that all went on until 2007 when George began to deteriorate very seriously – he had dementia by that time and then cancer was diagnosed. We knew he'd been getting older for a long time of course and 2007 was the first time he collapsed on stage. We were down in Brighton I think, and he actually passed out on the stand and had to be taken to the hospital for an overnight stay. Anyhow we did our very last gig with George three weeks before he died at the Hundred Club. It was actually somewhere quite close to the 60th anniversary of his first appearance as a singer at 100 Oxford Street, London’s one time ‘home of Traditional Jazz’. George used to tell the story of how in he’d gone up to Humphrey Lyttelton who was playing up there in l947 and said “Can I sing Humph?”. Humph said a very clipped “No’”, but George said “Well I noticed that he shut his eyes during his trumpet solos so while he was playing Dr Jazz I leapt up on the stand and grabbed the microphone and sang!’ And at the end of it Humphrey said to George ‘George if you want to sing, just ask’” - and that was the start of his career.
I wrote a book about our years with George years called ‘On the road with George Melly; the last bows of a legend’ . But on that particular last night the MC for what they called ‘George’s Testimonial Concert’ was Paul Jones, he of the Manfreds, the Blues Band, Dave Kelly Blues Duo and much more besides. Paul is also a great actor incidentally; he’s played the lead in musicals at the National Theatre – ‘Guys and Dolls’ ‘Kiss me Kate’ ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ ‘Cats’ - in fact he told me the other day he once played Hamlet! He’d been an idol of mine since the 60’s when he was in the Manfreds and having loads of big hit records of his own too. So when I knew that he was going to MC for the evening I thought “I wonder if I can write a couple of little charts and persuade him to sing with us”? So I wrote one for Well, Alright, Ok, You Win and put in some band quotes from his other hit records. So up he came and seemed to work well. And of course, very sadly, I was about to lose my creative partner of five years. So I rang Paul and said “would you consider doing some work with the Half-Dozen?” and to my delight he said yes! And that’s gone on ever since. He’s a busy man, but as we speak in 2013 we're talking about a more extensive collaboration which is good news. Paul’s a seriously good jazz harmonica player, a terrific singer - and he once told me that when the Manfreds started back in the early 60's they really wanted to be a Jazz band. Manfred Mann actually used to advertise ‘method Jazz piano’ lessons in ‘Jazz News’ at the time. But when the R&B boom exploded you know he said “Well we’d better be an R&B band then” and lo-and-behold they turned into Manfred Mann! The only reason Paul left, so he told me was because “everytime I went on stage people used to say “Hello Manfred”!”, - and of course Manfred was the piano player! And it goes without saying that Paul was so handsome and talented he was getting lots of offers to go solo – and it really had to happen. He made a cult rock-movie called ‘Privilege’ and by then he was a solo star in his own right. And he’s very diverse character performer as we said…….
So that’s where we are!
So that’s Digby up to 2013. What’s the state of play in Essex would you say in 2013? Good? Bad?
I would say it's probably as exciting as it's ever been. To begin with there are a lot of young musicians coming up. Until recently one of the pupils at Southend High School for Boys (where I’m privileged to be school a governor) was Robin Porter, who’s actually one of the very best alto players I've ever heard. He’s just finished at Leeds College and I think he has the makings of a very good player in international terms. Then just before Christmas I went along to a club in Leigh and there were 5 or 6 excellent Jazz singers, including two young sisters; one was 17 and one was 19 I think – and they sang together quite wonderfully. I asked “Who are your favourite singers?” and they said “We like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Blossom Dearie”. I don’t think you would have heard that 50 years ago - it would have been The Supremes or even Cilla Black maybe. But – and I don’t know how you find it Mark, I'd be interested to know – in my experience Jazz is no longer a dirty word – especially for young people. 30 years ago things were very different I think; rock music reigned supreme. But nowadays – even though it’s set in concrete in our popular culture – rock music may have had its greatest days. I went up to the Paul McCartney school about a year ago to do a ‘master class’ - really just to play and talk about the music - and when I got up there I introduced myself by saying “I'm so pleased to be here because they probably wouldn’t have let me through the doors 25 years ago simply because I'm a Jazz trumpeter. There’s even a group called ‘Johnny Hates Jazz’ which I think was based on John Lennon’s remark about when he was playing at the Cavern The Jazz bands looked down on him and used to snub the rock & roll bands who played in the intermission. And John said ‘We always hated the Jazz bands because they were far too uppity and we thought they were rubbish’! So later on along comes this group called ‘Johnny Hates Jazz’!” And then I said:” so here I am back in Liverpool where the Cavern is still - and where John Lennon lived - and I'm talking about the music I love to a full classroom. So I guess ‘Johnny Hates Jazz’ doesn’t apply any more”. And a hand went up at the back and one of the lecturers said:“I'm terribly sorry but I was in that band!” I said “Oh never mind! I’ll let you off!” because plainly he was there and loved the music anyhow! How do you find the openings for Jazz in Essex these days Mark?
The funny thing is I've never really played locally that much you know, so I kind of crossed over into clubs that would have Rock on one night and Jazz on another, a Pop group on another night, you know, I suppose from being a recording artist from quite an early age, so my judgment really is frankly from my reading the papers and see locally with Kenny Baxter still carrying on doing the great events.
Yes, the Godfather, and there's the various Spike’s Place events all over Essex. I think she's doing about 5 or 6 different events from what I…
We’re talking about Susan May (Robinson) aren’t we? A great worker for the cause – and Spike’s widow too. A marvellous musician……….
Yes that’s right.
And of course we have the Southend Jazz Festival which is starting up. So yes I think Jazz is back – and in fact young people are very open-minded to lots of different sorts of music anyhow. I remember some years ago going to one of the classes that my very old friend and onetime partner Liz Lincoln was teaching. There was a very good young singer there and I asked him “Who are your favourites?” and he said “Well I like John Lennon, Frank Sinatra and Pavarotti!”. I thought that was remarkable because in the 60’s you would never have got such an extraordinary diversity of choice. You’d most probably hear: ‘Well I like the lead singer of The Eagles’ or ‘I'm a Mick Jagger or a John Lennon person”. But now it seems like the whole music scene has opened up again, which is interesting. I don’t know how much it has to do with the failure of what I suppose we could call ‘approved demographics’ in the national media and the the download situation with iTunes, Spotify and the rest. But I suspect that has quite a bit to do with it. Because young people are not fools and just as capable of making their own choices as you did when you started your career Mark - and I did too. I grew up with The Beatles of course but by the time they were popular I’d been into Duke, Louis, Basie, Miles Davis, Dizzy and all the giants for years beforehand. But I often tell people that when Georgie Fame and the Blue Flame arrived on the scene they made a good record called Fame At Last and I really did have a protracted emotional struggle with myself in 1964 as to whether I should buy this record at all! Because on the shelf I had Duke, Basie, Louis, Ella and I knew their repertoire pretty much back to front even then when I was only 18 or 19, I thought “I can't buy a pop record - that’s infra dig!” (no pun intended!). But I did anyhow. And if you look on my shelves now all the Beatles albums are there as well! But at the time there was a definite dichotomy, you know. The Beatles came along and it was like Sinatra in the 40’s, or Benny Goodman in the 30’s – a total musical takeover for a very long time……………. and only now beginning to break its hold……
The Beatles and the beat boom itself, with all the bands that followed in their wake, the Searchers etc.
Yeah, The Hollies and all those. Wonderful groups, many of them too,, but they took over the generation as we know. Within a year you couldn’t sell a Jazz band with a $100 note except among the people who had grown up with the music.
Not trying to put words in your mouth…it's impossible to interview Johnny Dankworth of course because we’ve lost him, Johnny Dankworth obviously born in Essex, but to your knowledge was Johnny Dankworth ever really involved in any Essex scene or did he just…
John was born in the Chingford area – 16 Hollywood Way – but so far as I remember his sister Avril, who’s only just died, was actually born in Western Chambers near Southend sea-front. And John who was a very great friend of mine,a quite wonderful man, would most probably have played with his legendary ‘Seven’ in or around Southend in the early l950s and most certainly with his orchestra later on when the Kursaal was going strong and big bands were the big thing. Week by week you could hear John Dankworth’s orchestra, Ted Heath’s , Jack Parnell’s . Then after the big band boom petered out completely he was on the road with Cleo Laine and his quartet as her M/D. I remember seeing them for the very first time in the theatre at Basildon.
The Towngate Theatre at Basildon in about 1973. John was playing like an angel and Cleo was just sensational. And within a very few years they had become probably the only truly international British act to spend 30 years touring America and the world. I don’t know another British Jazz act that did that. They were fantastic – and Cleo is still a very big friend of mine and a great supporter of the National Jazz Archive which I founded in l987.
I wonder if…I guess what I'm trying to say is, in the really early days of Johnny Dankworth, wondering whether or not he was involved on more of a grass-roots level to do with the Jazz scene in Essex because that would have been the 40’s then wouldn’t it rather than the 50’s?
The Club 11 - the Bauhaus where be bop was born in Britain - was in Great Newport Street in London, but almost all the players came into Essex later, oh yes. People like Don Rendell, the great tenor player, John himself of course, Bernie Fenton, Ronnie Scott, Bill Le Sage the vibes player would come all down to Essex in the l950s and quite definitely to Southend, as the special guests of the local groups – and often with groups of their own too. Have a look in the pages of the old ‘Southend Standard’ and they’re all there! Kenny Baxter, who’s still a great champion of the new younger players, invited people like Kathy Stobart, Ber Courtley, Les Condon, Danny Moss, Don Rendell as I said, Ronnie Ross, Art Ellefson, Tubby Don…and of course Jimmy Skidmore, and his son Alan.
Yes, in the same way that Kenny Ball would try and get up and jam at established Jazz nights in Essex, that’s what I was getting at with Johnny Dankworth, wondering whether or not he was active, you know, before he was enormous as a band leader.
I feel sure you’re right Mark! Several books have been written about or by John, who was an incredible man and the stories should be there. I used to call him ‘Sir John’ for years because we were friends from the 80’s onwards and started the ‘Jazz Development Trust’ together. That was a very well intentioned idea but didn’t actually do much in the end sadly as basically we ran out of money. I played at Wavendon on many occasions and John would come down to Southend for a day out and we used to have fish and chips together down on the sea front. John was a remarkable activist for Jazz in all its forms. We mentioned Essex and east London a while ago, and that whole territory was filled with a cadre of wonderful musicians from the 40's right into the late l970s. It really was a Dixieland haven; a movement quite separate from the New Orleans Revivalist movement that went on in and around South East London. There were great players like Dave Shepherd, Bill Thompson, Jackie Free and Freddy Randall of course.In the late 70’s Freddy who was the undisputed cornet hero of East London and Essex after the war and into the l950s, would come and sit in with me at the Prince of Wales at Buckhurst Hill and so did Kenny Ball. It was great for me of course because both these men were very big stars. And I think perhaps Kenny enjoyed playing informally, in a pub - a change I suppose from his usual show.