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So are you from Essex originally John ?
I was born in Wanstead and then lived in Woodford Green for many years of my life.
What got you interested in music in the first place?
I used to tinkle for hours on my Aunts piano when I was very young. In my late teens Skiffle was the latest music craze and I admired Lonnie Donnegan’s compassion and enthusiasm he brought to his music. I was also very fascinated by the power and drive of the Double Bass.
You had to pick a very tricky instrument there didn’t you ?
I must have brought my first double bass when I was about 18 for £15. I think every musical instrument is a challenge and the bass is no exception. I started taking lessons with a professional string bass player whose name was Sam Bass, and that lasted on and off for about 6 years. I shall never forget his words to me at my first lesson. John, always remember the bass is a big faking instrument. He was a phenomenally good teacher and taught me to play the bass accurately. I also had to use the bow but as I was only interested in Jazz, pizzicato was more important. A very fine book for beginners is Bob Haggart’s Bass Method and is still available today.
Was it mainly New Orleans Jazz you we’re interested in or did you like Modern Jazz at the time as well?
I had no interest in Modern Jazz. My first Jazz band I played in was called the Kansas City Seven, from Loughton. We use to play the pop tunes from the 1920s with a washboard instead of a drum kit. The Traditional Jazz scene in 1962 in East London was thriving. I became a member of the Woodford Valley Jazzmen which had a powerful driving rhythm section and did a lot of local gigs. It wasn’t until I met the trumpet player, Teddy Fullick, who lived in Ilford that I became aware of New Orleans Jazz. This band was called Ian Grant’s Jazzmen and was very much influenced by people such as Bunk Johnson, Kid Thomas, Sam Morgan and going to live gigs to hear Ken Coyler. But listening to these early recordings of the New Orleans Bands and there powerful slapping bass rhythms that really got me so interested.
It was a funny thing because one thing I’ve found out from doing all these interviews I’ve found people that are just into New Orleans and they don’t recognise even Chicago let alone anything else, Charlie Parker or anything. So I find it quite funny really?
There are a lot of purists out there Mark, who only listen and play in the New Orleans Style, which is a shame as there is such a wonderful rich choice of Jazz recordings from the 1920s – 1940s which incompasses so many artists. Jazz in Chicago during the 1920s must have been unbelievable place to be. Just listening to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong would be magic.
Artie Shaw of course.
I mean I like New Orleans music and when you’re in a rhythm section and you hear that early New Orleans music the bass players were slapping the pace and really really driving the band and if you had a really good bass player and you hear some of the George Lewis stuff; Pops Foster, it’s incredible the drive that those guys have but I also did enjoy and have done, listening to a lot of American dance bands, particularly the American ones actually, like the Missourians.
Did you take much notice of the British Dance Bands?
They came along a little later. I was first introduced to the ‘Hot’ American Dance Bands of the 1920s when I was playing with the Woodford Valley Jazzmen. Roy Rhodes (Clarinet) was a big collector of Fats Waller recordings but he also enjoyed listening to these 20s American Dance Bands. It was Market Street Stomp by a band called the Missourians that stopped me in my tracks. It was an amazing discovery for me. Since that day I have never looked back and I now have a big collection of Dance Band recordings for the 1920s and 1930s. With regard to British Dance Bands, I have always been a big fan of Jack Hylton and his Orchestra. Other excellent British Dance Bands included The Savoy Orpheans, Bert Ambrose, Roy Fox, Lew Stone and not forgetting Billy Cotton. I should mention that the PRO did a tribute to Jack Hylton at Lancaster University. All of Jack Hyltons complete music library is still kept at Lancaster University.
That’s interesting. Going back to you, so were in the early 60s now – when did you first actually commit to playing live in any shape or form?
How do you mean live?
My first ever gig was at the Roebuck Hotel in Buckhurst Hill with the Kansas City Seven. I do remember being sick in the Gent’s toilet before I got on to the stage. Because I was going to bass lessons and becoming increasing enthusiastic about playing, I think a lot of Jazz musicians and band leaders were really enjoying my bass playing. This led to a very busy life style, as I was only semi-pro and was playing quite often four or five times a week. During the early 60s I was playing with Eric Silk and his Southern Jazz Band, The Woodford Valley Jazzmen. Bill Brunskill’s Jazzmen, The Original East End Stompers, The Anglo American All Stars with Keith Nichols. Oh and there’s one more the New Era Jazz Band run by George Tidiman.
I know George.
Oh, you know George? We use to play at the Elm Park Hotel, in Hornchurch on a Sunday Lunch time and packed the place out. They were great days but I still had a daytime job.
What was your job?
My family were bakers in Suffolk and Essex going back over 250 years. Our branch of the family had bakeries in Manor Park, Forest Gate, and Barking.
Wow, that’s a heritage isn’t it. Is it still in the family now?
I am afraid not. When I left school I went to the National Bakery School in South London. That’s where I learnt my trade. But sadly many Master bakers went out of business when supermarkets started up in- store bakeries back in the 1970's.
So that must have kept you busy throughout the 60's then?
Well it was a very busy life style. Job by day, and gigging in the evening getting home often very late. By the mid to late 60s I was still collecting hot dance band recordings from where ever. I had a very good friend Chris McDonald (Clarinet/Sax) who had a similar interest in 1920's Dance Bands. We joined forces and started the Creole Dance Orchestra which was an eleven piece band. Chris wrote all the arrangements for the band, but we just didn’t have enough numbers to play even a couple of 45 min sets without repeating a tune. So unfortunately it disbanded much to my disappointment. I decided to put an advert in the evening national newspaper asking for any one that had a collection of old dance band music. Would you believe I got a reply to my advert from an old lady in Manchester. Her late father had collected a large library of some 1500 printed dance band stock arrangements from the 1920s and 1930's. I bought the lot for £40.
What year was that?
That was the summer of 1969. The very first rehearsal of the Pasadena Roof Orchestra took place on Monday 2nd November 1969 at my family’s disused underground bakery in Forest Gate, East London.
Having all this wonderful music to play the band started to rehearse on a regular basis and we played our first gig at the Old Bancroftians Rugby Club, Buckhurst Hill in 1970. In 1970-71, we went and played at the Brewery Tap in Barking and it was a pub and within three weeks we had absolutely packed it out and there’s a little story behind this. Because I went and asked the landlord for some more money and he said “Oh no we can’t afford any more money” and I said “Look, we packed this place out. Unless you do it we won’t be back”, and I kept to my word and we never came back. It was some 15 years later I caught up with the guy who ran the Jazz club at Elm Park, it was a big guy and I think he was in the police force, so we had a long chat and it turned out that at that time he had moved from the Elm Park and he had taken over the Brewery Tap in Barking, only two weeks after we had left because this guy had been fiddling the books and was booted out. I don’t remember the guy’s name who was at Emmerson Park, he was a big chap, but he told me that time when we sat down 15 years later and recalled all the problems that he said “We were desperate to try and get hold of you to get you back. But nobody knew where you’d come from or anything about you”. So that was that.
So where did you go from there then, from the mid 1970's ?
We continued to play as a semi – pro outfit until I met up with a friend of my brother David Curtis. At the time I was thinking of disbanding the PRO. Getting gigs for a large band was extremely difficult and it took up a lot of my time with no rewards. David came and saw the band performing at the Cauliflower Pub in Ilford. He was very interested to help me get the band some more engagements. He shortly after that became the Manager of the PRO. David was in advertising and he felt it necessary that we should produce a demo recording of the band. So we produce an EP with four numbers - Me And Jane In A Plane, Hullaballo with vocal trio, You’ve Got Me Crying Again and Nagaski. He took this demo around to a lot of record companies and eventually we were offered a record contract with Transatlantic Records. In August 1974 we recorded our first album at Chipping Norton Studios and George Melly wrote the sleeve notes. Transatlantic had a licensee deal with Metronome Records in Germany. German interest in the band was huge and so it forced me to make the decision to leave the bakery trade and become a professional musician and bandleader. That was around the summer of 1975. The band just took off with so much interest.
Didn’t it just, it was everywhere wasn’t it?
Yes we were very lucky. We played on Belgium TV for their Election night may be late 1974 which was the best advert the band could have at the time. From the mid - seventies and through the 80s the PRO had a very big market in Germany, East Germany, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Scandinavia and also in the UK.
How long was it before you started travelling outside Europe, because I think youv’e been everywhere haven’t you?
Yes I think that just came on top of popularity Mark. People started to hear this band and said they liked to go to other countries. We were certainly Holland, we didn’t do very much work in France but Holland, Germany & Scandinavia and then we did do one big tour of America in 1993 but that was very much later. and an annual engagement at the British Embassy in Dubai for Rememberance Sunday week-end. But those early years it was just a lot of gigs.
I was going to say “Did it take you by surprise?” but I guess it was a gradual thing wasn’t it?
The PRO was very flexible in so far as we could cover a great variety of engagements. Obviously TV and Radio but also, Concerts, Jazz Clubs, Dances/Galas, University Balls, and more .
Unfortunately I didn’t see your Orchrestra live until James Langton was singing.
Soon after James Langton joined the band as our singer I decided to retire from the PRO which was in April 1998.
Yes I see. I don’t suppose you really had much time to do any other playing at all did you, being as you were…
No, no, running the band, my Jazz band, all the Jazz bands, once we went professional that was it. I didn’t play any Jazz at all for about 20 years, now of course there’s the opposite, I’m playing all my Jazz again and thoroughly enjoying it.
So you did actually retire from the PRO?
Yes that was over 15 years ago now.
And so do you still have any interest in it at all?
No, I have no financial interest in the band. However I still own all the library of music up until when I retired. It amounts to something like 6500 arrangements from the 1920s -1950s plus the commissioned arrangements especially written for the PRO.
I remember playing your version of 'Caravan' over and over again off the album. That seems to have been a transcription of the original version didn’t it?
Yes, it is in fact a stock arrangement of the time when Caravan was first written by Duke Elllington and Juan Tizol. Music Publishers in the States were always sending out stock arrangement of the latest popular tune for a small orchestra, and Caravan is one of these.
It’s quite funny talking to you, because one of the main reasons for keep on playing it over and over again for me was because of the bass line on it, the bass line creates so much tension in it, there was a bit where there seems to be chord changes going on and the bass seems to remain.Amazing song, you can’t go wrong with 'Caravan' anyway. So did you actually go into retirement then when you left the Pasadena?
Yes I took early retirement. I think running and being Band Leader of a professional 12 piece orchestra for 29 years has taken its toll. However since that time I have been very fortunate to get lots of enjoyable work with local Jazz Bands and still do a fair amount of gigs.
Did you retire to Eastbourne at the time, or did you still remain in Essex for a while?
No I was still living in Essex but had moved from Woodford Green to Little Hallingbury.
So you were in Little Hallingbury when you retired?
Yes I had my Band retirement party at Little Hallingbury in April 1998.
Are you a “gun for hire” these days or are you playing with many bands regularly?
I do play with three regular bands, Brian Whites French Quarter All Stars, Dave Moorwood’s Big Bear Stompers and the Yerba Buena Celebration Band. I also occasionally play with Keith Nichol’s Hot Five. There is also an 18 piece rehearsal big band I play with usually twice a month. It keeps me in touch with my sight reading on the Double Bass, otherwise I am a gun for hire.
I am sure musicians were coming from anywhere, but initially you said Pasadena Roof Orchestra were very much an Essex band initially. Can you remember who many of the original members were?
Oh Yes of course. Trumpets were Tony Cook and David Manning both sadly have passed away. Bob Renvoize Trombone, Reeds were Andy Pummell lead Alto and Clarinet, Ken Huges also no longer with us and my good friend Chris MacDonald, Tenor Sax and Clarinet. Chris now plays with Harry Strutter’s Orchestra in Sussex. In the rhythm section was Barry Tyler drums, with Stan Ivison piano. We had an amazing guy called Bill Triggs on the banjo and he had, his Uncle was Joe Davis, the snooker player, and his Aunt sang with the Jack Hylton orchestra, only I think briefly before the Jack Hylton band disbanded, and he was a phenomenal banjo player because he actually read the dots, because in the early days with banjo parts it was just the chord you didn’t actually have the chord printed. It was actually in dot form and he just read it. So he was on the banjo and then Stan Iveson on the piano, no longer with us and then I would say without any question of doubt the best singer that the band has ever had, likely to ever have and no disrespect to Robin Merrell, James Langton or to Duncan but John Parry was really the singer who has still got that wonderful….
Yes John was in the band from 1969 -1979 and then Robin Merrell took over.
How did you find so many like-minded people in Essex to do that Orchestra because as you say you were unique?
When I found the library of music I was well acquainted with a lot of Jazz and dance band musicians in and around East London. If they could read music and had an interest in 20s style music I asked them to come to rehearsals.
One thing I forgot to ask you, where did the name come from? Pasadena Roof Orchestra, it’s a very evocative name.
I was a big fan of the Temperance Seven, and in fact that is how I became interested in playing the Sousaphone. They had a big hit with Home In Pasadena around 1960 which I thought was tremendous. In the summer of 1969 having brought the library of music, ‘Home in Pasadena’ was almost the first arrangement I came across. I was determined use the name of Pasadena. Back in the 20's many bands had bizarre names such as’ Devine’s Wisconsin Roof Orchestra’. I had the idea of the Pasadena Roof Garden Orchestra, but in the end I settled for the title of Pasadena Roof Orchestra.
Yes of course, named after the ballrooms they were playing or the owner of the club.
Yes that’s correct. When we signed up with Transatlantic Records they weren’t very happy with the name and wanted to change it. I refused to budge on that one and it remained as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra.
Yes and you could put it next to LSO and those types of things. So you must have had some incredible highlights during those times throughout your career.
Looking back there were many highlights, but I suppose concert tours in East Germany were quite special. The East Germans loved our music and every concert hall was a full house. We got paid about a quarter in Deutschemarks and the rest were in East German marks. It was confetti money really with loads of it to spend on what you could find. I decided to collect small amounts of porcelain, which I still have. We were regular performers at the Bayerischer Rundfunk for ‘fasching’ (carnival). This was a five day event every evening from 8pm -4am with radio broadcasts. There were at least 10 house bands and probably around 1500 people every night dancing to the bands in fancy dress. I also remember we were one of the first orchestras to perform live in Spain. It was actually in San Sebastian very soon after Franco passed away.
That’s an incredible honour isn’t it?
Yes I suppose it was.
What did they make of it in Spain because they wouldn’t have heard anything like it before?
It was always fun to go to Spain and they were mostly open air concerts with very late performances. We also did a lot of TV in Spain and that’s how our popularity grew and it certainly appealed to the younger audiences with great success.
That’s incredible isn’t it? Another funny thing about the 70s,especially the mid 70s, you may remember,there was a swing revival and it was everywhere and the Glenn Miller was getting re-introduced. Your music is a lot earlier than that obviously but nostalgia was very big in the mid 70’s wasn’t it? Because I used to see the Pasadena Roof Orchestra around, but then of course your Manhattan Transfer doing older tinged music and even Bette Midler had a hit with ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, they re-issued Laurel and Hardy ‘Trail of theLonesome Pine’, that was a big hit wasn’t it, Busy Berkeley stuff ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. That got re-issued as a single and was a hit again and it was very unusual that mid 70s, for some reason everyone was into that nostalgia and I always saw you in amongst that.
I understand where you are coming from. Actually Mark we were very unfortunate at that time. My business partner and manager David Curtis had almost secured both a Two Ronnies and a Morecambe and Wise show. Manhattan Transfer had a big hit with Chanson D’Amour and at the last minute the BBC decided to go with them. It was a big disappointment.
It sounds like you already had enormous success as it was anyway. I suppose it’s going on to that next level isn’t it.
The PRO had terrific success for playing live music. I suppose our record sales were never very big. We have always sold a very high proportion of our records, CD’s etc at concerts, but through the shops it was quite minimal. That’s how it’s always been.
We’ve all done that haven’t we?
One thing I really loved about the orchestra as well was the care that each of the musicians took, they would really make the effort to solo in the period as well.
A very important point. It’s become a bit of a lost art to play hot Jazz solo’s in the style of the 1920's. However musicians that join the orchestra our fully aware of our style and in most cases are extremely good. Enrico Tomasso, Mike Henry and Robert Fowler were and still are, the best jazz soloists around in that style. When you have an 11 piece orchestra on stage seated behind music stands you need to become showman as well as good musicians. Both the reed and brass sections would learn the music to certain tunes enabling them to come to front of stage. We would also have a vocal trio and band instrumentals. It was most definitely and still is a great show band. Playing for dances and gala evenings would be no exception. However it is always very important to play tunes that people recognise. It’s always been my aim to play the popular tunes of the 1920's and 1930s' rather than obscure titles. You can’t beat tunes such as Stardust, Lullaby Of Broadway, Button Up Your Overcoat, Georgia On My Mind, If I Had A Talking Picture Of Me, You're Driving Me Crazy......the list is endless.
People like to sing along to the chorus don’t they?
Yes they do. Minnie The Moocher and Pennies From Heaven always come to mind. One must not forget the verses to all these popular tunes. A very integral part of the tune which was so common back in the 20's. The other thing with modern musicians and big bands is that you never hear the clarinet other than with the Glenn Miller band where it’s lead clarinet and four or five saxes. But clarinet trios were very important in the early dance bands and they give such lovely colour to a band.
That was the popular sound.
Yes, we always played each arrangement in the style but not copying recordings from old 78rpm records.
And it’s only right as well. What was the reaction like in America when you toured out there?
I seem to remember it was met with great success. Don’t forget, that’s where it all started ! They were all concerts from Washington State down through California, to the Mexican border with San Antonio. Then up through St Louis and on to Chicago, across to Washington DC. In New York we didn’t play as there was a huge blizzard., We finished up down the east coast to Florida. It was quite an experience, 8/9 weeks in a big bus and one night stands.
And also to keep the morale up for so many musicians.
Yes very much so.
And an education in a sense? Because you were absolutely unique, no doubt.
Yes at that time during the 70's and 80's we were the only 11 piece Orchestra playing the authentic hot dance music of the 1920's and early 1930's in Europe and may be in America as well. Unfortunately now there are so many other bands, you’ve got the Cotton Club Orchestra, the Charleston Chasers, you’ve got the Piccadilly Dance Orchestra, you’ve got all these different bands who have all copied us, but we were the initial people that went out and really got the enthusiasm and got the gigs.
Presentation is everything Mark. The 1920's had style with Jazz and Dance Bands very much part of the scene. So when I first started the PRO it was so important to wear wing collars and a black bow tie with your tuxedo. Once we turned professional we also had to become entertainers and that’s why the PRO had to be a show band as well.
I don’t know if this is an urban myth, but were there, someone told me that the Pasadena Roof Orchestra were so busy that there was a second band.
I thought that might have been an urban myth.
It first came about when we had a contract to play on the Silja line from Stockholm to Helsinki. However there were two ferries involved. So we set about making copies of all the band arrangements and a second set of music stands. Recruited a second lot of musicians that could play in the style and a singer. Some months later we had a big contract for Glow Worm. They were central heating engineers. They required us to play some 20 engagements up and down the country as part of a big advertising campaign. Some of these gigs clashed with engagements already in the book for Germany and other places. So some Glow Worm gigs were performed with our second band. It did work very successfully, so the answer to that was “Yes” Mark we did, and it was bloody good