Clare Foster
Jackie Free



Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.

Rob Fullalove

Jackie Free

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Interview date 1st January 2016
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Forename Jackie
Surname Free

Interview Transcription

So you say you are 81 at the time of this interview Jackie, in 2013?




A very young looking 81. So that would be 1932. So what got you interested in music in the first place in order to take up an instrument?


Well, it was during the war actually. I was 8 years old and we had a very good brass band at Boys Brigade in the next road to where I lived, in Pearcroft Road in Leytonstone and I was in the Life Boys, and what was happening was that the older chaps in the brass band were getting called up so the Band Master asked the leader of the Life Boys if they could let some of them start earlier. I should have been 11, to cover for those that were leaving and there was four of us, one got a cornet, one a trombone, one an e-flat bass and I got a euphonium.


Did you just have to play what you were given?


More or less, yes. I actually started off on a baritone and then you progress to a euphonium. It was a very good band and the Band Master was a knock out and he taught me how to blow properly. People say that I have got quite a reasonable tone, and it is all due to playing and learning in the first place, and I progressed from there. We formed a little Jazz band, the funny thing is the guy who played the cornet, of the four of us, his brother was a Jazz fan and we would go round his brother’s house and the first Jazz tune record I heard was Tommy Ladnier, the Mezzrow Ladnier Quintet. There wasn’t even a trombone, they were playing The Royal Garden Blues and that got me really in to Jazz really, that record.


Was it an American Jazz record?


Yes, Tommy Ladnier and Mezz Mezzrow, and so we formed a little Jazz band from the boys brigade but unfortunately the euphonium doesn’t play in a Jazz band so we needed a trombone, so I bought a trombone and started playing the trombone and to be honest, on the trombone I am more of less self-taught.


Are you? That is one of the hardest instrument’s to play.


But anyway, then I got called up and went in to the forces and I played quite a lot, as you see from the photographs in the bands doing the square bashing, and then I went into a regional band but to have got into the central band of the Royal Air Force I would have had to sign on, they wouldn’t take National Service Men. I would have had to have signed on and I didn’t want to sign on, I just wanted to get out and do Jazz. So anyway, I came out and I joined the Youth Centre at Leyton High Road, it was the Essex County Cricket ground actually in Leyton High Road.


Because Leyton was Essex in those days wasn’t it? East Ham was Essex in those days, very strange!


Anyway, we had this band and previous to me going there, Dave Shepherd had been there and there was another guy, Rags Russell.


Alan Wickham -Wickham Russell


Yes, Alan Wickham, and there was Johnny Rowden, who was a mentor of mine, and Dave Jones who went on, actually I’ll tell you what happened: We played in the Leyton Youth Jazz Band and John Rowden got into Harry Walton’s Jazz band and eventually, oh – I will just mention this, previous to us playing there, there was Chapit Tomasso and a relation, there were two Tomasso brothers I think they were brothers, who was the uncles of Enrico Tomasso.


And they were in the group as well?


No, they had gone. We replaced them and because I did want some information on Lord Donegal and Enrico asked his Mum and she gave his some information. Anyway, yes so we all joined Harry Walton.


What you joined Harry Walton from the Youth Orchestra?


Yes, we found it was sponsored by Lord and Lady Donegal and they were nice. We used to play for the Debutante Balls and that kind of thing, but he had a Jazz club for Debutante’s and I remember we did a recording and on the cover of the recording was Susan Hampshire, she used to dance there, she was a Deb, and Samantha Eggar. I’m talking many years ago.


How old were you then, more or less?


Early 20’s.


So you went from the youth band in to there. There wasn’t anything in between?


Well, there was, but nothing really of importance if you get my meaning. That was the first. We had little bands we got together and we played in pubs and things like that but it was nothing really to talk about. This Jazz club that Lord and Lady Donegal used to run was...... by the way we used to do a lot of broadcasts with Harry’s band, and overseas broadcasts. We used to do overseas transcriptions in Poplar Town Hall; that’s where they used to do the overseas broadcasts and we was on Six Five Special. Do you remember that?




And them sorts of things.


Because it wasn’t all Rock and Roll was it, 'Six Five Special'?


No they had Jazz bands as well. Anyway, we did that.


Where was the Jazz club?


It was in Kensington at that time, it was a Chinese sort of restaurant actually and he shifted it. We finished up at a place on the embankment called Crosby Hall. I remember it had a big bayeux tapestry sort of thing on the wall. It was very old building, quite impressive and all the posh people used to come to these Jazz clubs.


Was it a ballroom or something?


More or less, yes. I suppose you would call it a ballroom. It was like that in this big hall, Crosby Hall, Chelsea. Anyway, when any of the stars from America used to come over, because they used to like Royalty, I think actually he was called the Marchioness or something like that “Donegal”, so they all used to say “Let’s go down to The Lawns” as if they were going to a cricket match but we played. They came and sang with us........ Judy Garland, Sophie Tucker.


Oh my goodness me.


George Lewis came too, Louis Armstrong and Mezz Mezzrow believe it or not. And as I say, I had this phone call in the morning, we didn’t know anything that was going to happen, we never used to know when they were coming down or anything like that, they used to just drop in and I had this phone call, we lived in Walthamstow at this time, and Lord Donegal said “Can you make it this afternoon to the Jazz club because Louis Armstrong is coming down to play with the band?” So off I went and funnily enough the following Sunday he came again so it was two Sunday’s running he came. He must have enjoyed it I suppose, and that was really the highlight of my career playing with that man because he was such a nice guy and his playing was superb. I was in awe.


That is living history, right there!


In the meantime I was still keeping up with Dave Shepherd because Dave was another Leyton boy and we used to play as well, and Dave at that time was playing with Freddie Randall and oh yes, I was also playing at the Ironbridge Tavern


Queenie Watt’s pub – had a great voice didn’t she? She could really belt it out!


Yes, it was quite a nice pub actually and the bass player and I were both invited to go for an audition. We used to have to audition in those days to go into a band and we went up to audition with Freddie, and unfortunately the bass player didn’t get the job but I did.


Oh ok, ha ha.


So that was quite good and I remember, which I should have mentioned earlier, that if you was doing a broadcast in those days you had to belong to the Musicians Union, which I joined then, and I have been in ever since and I am a Honorary Member now because after so many years they make you an Honorary Member. So I don’t have to pay now, but any rate, then I went from Harry Walton’s Band to Freddie’s band and that was quite an experience


Well yes, flipping heck, Freddie Randall, you are talking about British Jazz history there – one big group to another!


Yes, I mean he was our idol. He was a Leyton boy and to think I was going to play with him! It never occurred to me that I would ever be able to play with someone like that. Anyway we had a nice time but after three years Freddie, he sort of didn’t have a regular band after that really, he had different players playing with him. Dave Shepherd formed a band and we did another three years with Dave and then after that I was playing with all different bands, I wasn’t playing with any one band, in fact at one time I joined the Joe Loss Ambassador’s Band, which was not the Joe Loss First Band, it was called just the Ambassadors because there was only 7-8 of us with a girl vocalist and we used to do, well it was quite good financially, because we was doing a lot of work up the West End in all the hotels and all that. I mean, I did…..


So it was a smaller band then, that was the idea?


Oh yes.


And Joe Loss did it as well, did he?


Joe Loss came and made a show quite often. We played up at Lord Spencer, Allthorp House – you know Diana who married Charles – it was her Dad, it was his 50th birthday, we played up there for him. You know, there was all Kings and Queens and Princesses, and I remember another time I was playing at the Dorchester and it was King Constantine of Greece there and all of a sudden they started chucking these plates on the floor. I never knew anything about this and I wondered what was going on. It's some Greek tradition. The hotel had supplied these plates, I don’t think they were proper but they sounded like it when they all broke when they fell, and there was Edmundo Ros who had the Cocoanut Grove, well he used to do a certain time and then we used to do a certain time and it had a revolving sort of a stage thing.


Oh yes, I heard about that!


And we used to have to play his signature tune when he came on. Whilst we were on he would take his band back to the Cocoanut Grove. We got to know the guys in his band very well.


What music were you playing at that point? Was it all Jazz?


No, there were a lot of standards and even dare I say it, in the early stages of The Beatles, that sort of stuff as well because that was creeping in at the time.


Sorry I must just back track just for one second: Harry Walton’s band was that all New Orleans Jazz?


It wasn’t necessarily New Orleans.


Because Trad was really a mixture wasn’t it?


In fact I used to put it that South of London and the North of London used to have a different sort of style. We played the Chicago-style of Eddie Condon and Jack Teagarden and all that mob, whereas the Southern, Crane River and all those sorts of bands


Strictly New Orleans.


Yes, they had banjos whereas we had pianos.


Right, ok, how interesting. And of course, George Webb was West London wasn’t he and that was…


That was sort of a bit of in between. I remember I played with George Webb a few times and first time I ever played with Digby Fairweather was with George Webb’s band when he was quite a young man.


So all this time, we have gone from Harry’s Band then you have gone in to Freddie Randall’s and from Freddie Randall you have gone to Dave Shepherd and when you were playing in the West End, were you with Dave at the same time?


No, when I left Dave’s I sort of went with a function band and eventually I drifted into the Ambassador’s and I did that because I had got four kids and I needed to earn some money.


I know, I’ve got two I know how expensive it is.


So that was that and then about, ooh I played with John Petters, because that is where I played with Billy Butterfield, because I recorded with Yank Lawson and Wild Bill but that was with John Petters.


Because John is from Harlow isn’t he? 


Yes. John is a good lad because I still play with him occasionally, he gives a lot of musicians work. I play with him at Bracklesham Bay and Mundersley and Harlow. He has got a nice place there in Harlow. We did it with my band in February or March a couple of months ago.


Yes that is at the Rugby Club isn’t it?


No, it is in an old church – St. John’s Art Centre in Old Harlow.


Ok, I didn’t know that, because the other one is called the Marigold or something?


The Marigold is a cricket club and bowls club but my drummer he plays down there quite a bit, Martin Guy.


So, were you playing with John Petters in the 1960’s then? Because John is a relatively young lad.


Hmm, I suppose I was. It is very difficult for me to remember dates.


But you went from Joe Loss to where?


Well, more or less free lancing. I played with most of the bands.


You certainly did.


Then round about in the 1980’s I formed my own, oh right, first of all we played at The George and Dragon in Epping and I was not well, it was before I had my first by-pass and I said to Martin Guy, because the guy got on to me to say could I put a Jazz band in and I got on to Martin Guy and I said “If you book the fellows, take the strain of me” so we formed a band called The Hearts of Essex Jazz Band and that was Mike Cotton, Julian Stringle and well everybody, do you know what, Martin Taylor came up and played.


The guitarist, yes.


And Kenny Ball, they all came up. It was only a little place.


And where were you based?


In Epping High Street at The George and Dragon, and then we moved on to the Thatched House and finished up at the Merry Fiddlers in Fiddler’s Hamlet, another small pub, and that is where I first formed the Chicagoans and that was a lovely trumpet player who died unfortunately very young, well he was in his 50’s, John Patey, there was Nick Dawson who played piano and clarinet and there was Colin Bray who played soprano sax and piano and Murray Salmon, and he still plays with me now, and that evolved over the years to like to the Chicagoans that are now.


Were you aware that Kenny Ball’s first band was called the Chicagoans or was it just a fluke you had the same name?


No, I didn’t know the name of his first band because when I first came out of the Air Force, everybody was playing. It was Forest Gate, and I used to go down there and there used to be a band called The Galleon Jazz Band and Kenny Ball was in that and Charlie Galbraith, Charlie was the trombonist and the chap you mentioned, the trumpet player – Alan Wickham. They all used to gather down there at this pub in Forest Gate, I forget what the name of it was now and I have probably forgotten a lot of things that have happened to because that was all part of the growing up – I’m talking 40-60 years ago.


Also, you said a story, before we started this interview. about when Lonnie Donegan left Chris Barber. Can you tell me about that?


Yes that is another thing, we were playing at the Lord Brook Pub, upstairs, in Churnal Street, Walthamstow, and Lonnie was living down in that road as well and he used to come past and hear the band playing up there and he came in one day.


Which band was this?


Well, I don’t really know there was a guy on the piano – Jack someone or the other, who I think I told you finished up as the band leader as the Ilford Mecca or Lyceum, and that was a dance venue, but he got this band together and we used to play there very week and there was a good crowd. You can see in that photograph that there were girls dancing.


There wasn’t a particular name of the band that you remember?


No, I don’t think so. But Lonnie came in and asked me, he was in transition, he had left Chris Burrell’s band he wanted to form a Jazz band.


This is pre-skiffle isn’t it?


Well it was just on the edge of it. He asked me to join his band and he said, can you come round and listen to some records of what I would like it to sound like. So my wife and I went round to Churnel Street, his flat , and I listened to this record and I thought I don’t know this, it was Charms Blues and I think it was played by, erm, oh who is the guy who was Louis Armstrong’s trumpet player, he was before Louis Armstrong, well anyway, I should know he was so well known but I couldn’t even hear the melody because it was such an old record and I was looking at my wife, anyway, we used to go and rehearse at different pubs and each pub we went to he had a different girlfriend because it seemed strange because I was on the point of getting married and…


Lonnie was a bit of a boy was he?


Yes, but it fizzled out because he had got this Skiffle group as well and he had done very well with that so the Jazz band fizzled out.


So had he already had his first hits when he approached you?


No, not as far as I know, anyway.


You would have known, because they were millions and million sellers.


Yes because he was playing with Chris Barber’s band and, I mean, I thought it was great that he would come in and listen to me and think I was good enough to play in his band.


It is a shame it fizzled out though wasn’t it, but you have had an amazing career though haven’t you?


I liked to think so. The present band I have now I am so proud of, I really am. We’ve hit a stage where I mean, I call it my band because it is, if we can all get together. We cannot always get together. John Crocker is always there for me, Pete Rudeforth can do it if he is not working with Chris Barber but the rest of the guys, Tim Huskisson, he is very busy, but if I ask him he usually plays for me but he is such a wonderful player. All the guys in the band are such nice fellows. There are no problems at all. Sometimes you have been in bands where you have super egos or all sorts of things, but no, they are such nice people and such good players.


Well you have got the history there haven’t you with the musicians you know, so. That is the thing.


I really think that in the twilight of my career I am still able to play with these sorts of fellows. I am hoping they don’t carry me too much.


I doubt that very much, people still rave about you behind your back I may say.


That is nice to know.


It’s incredible. So you have been depping with quite a few bands over the years?


Oh yes, I have played with most of the guys of the big bands, you know, but not as a member just depping and it’s great, I mean, even now I am playing with Brian White’s band in a couple of weeks’ time.


You do Peter Corrigan’s Band of Hope as well don’t you?


Yes, that is a good gig because it keeps you lip in and it keeps you blowing and if you haven’t got much else on that week apart from the fact that it’s a nice venue, they get a lot of people. We have just started up a thing at North Weald Village Hall with my band once a month and we started off last September, I think it was, and the first week we started, it is a Saturday lunch time, we start at 12.30 until 3pm. We got 25-30 people well for the last two or three times we have had 80 plus and it is really going and taken off. It is such a lovely atmosphere there, it really is and all the guys, it’s like when we used to be playing at The George and Dragon, all the Jazzers’ used to come in because they enjoyed playing with the band and that’s, I mean, we have had two or three girl singers come up, you know – Carol Braithwaite, nice singers they get really appreciated.


Is there anyone around these days who compares with the late Maxine Daniels?


That is a difficult question.


She did have a beautiful voice didn’t she?


Yes, she was a real character and do you know what, when I was with Freddie’s band we used to do a thing called the Saturday Club, which was a programme every Saturday afternoon, and the comperes were Dusty Springfield and Kenny Lynch, well Kenny Lynch was Maxine’s brother and Kenny was a bit of a singer as well.


That’s right, he had a few hit singles didn’t he, yes.


They were a nice family and that was quite interesting, I could tell you a thing or two about that. They used to have, what’s that Irish bloke who …


Val Doonican


Val Doonican, and all these stars and they all used to mix in with us.


So this was the 1960’s was it?


Yes. What’s the name of that girl who sang Secret Love?


Kathy Kirby.


Kathy Kirby. She was the only one that I knew that didn’t mix at all. She sat in the corner and never said a word to anybody, it was funny that was, but I mean..


What venue was that at?


That was the BBC. It was a show – The Saturday Club. I remember at one time it was broadcast live, but Dave Shepherd recorded it on his radio at home, and we did a thing like Muggsy Spanier did it in the first place, it was called A Long Way To Tipperary and when we was doing it live, Freddie used to sing it.


Not the old war song A Long Way To Tipperary?


Yes but we Jazzed it up and Freddie used to say “farewell you Leicester Squares”.


Oh yeah, ha.


But the thing was he never had his microphone turned on and this was a live broadcast so there was just me and Dave in the background farting about, backing him and there is nothing happening and when you heard it on the recording, there was no voice but I could tell you a few stories. There was another broadcast we did and we was doing a tune called “the old man in the mountains” and we used to play this quite a lot so I knew the words, because if Freddie sang it, but come the broadcast we were just going to play it, and Freddie says “I can’t sing it”, because he was quite a funny sort of a chap like that, as I said about being sabotaged and so he said, “You will have to sing it” Jack. So once again Dave recorded it at home and in the middle it said “he sleeps with the stars for a tent” and I sang “He sleeps with the tars for a stent” and every time I see Dave Shepherd now he says “He sleeps with the stars for a tent doesn’t he”! It is a running thing after all these years but I can remember another time when I was playing at Wood Green.


What Fishmongers Arms?


Yes, and there was the band, I was a bit late, and the band was up on the stage there and Bruce Turner was with us, and he called everybody Dad, “Yeah Dad”.


That was the 'in' word then.


As I’m walking through there is an old boy sweeping up in front of them and he says, “'Ere mate, you with the band?” so I said “Yeah”. He says “I think it is really great to have a father and son in the same Jazz band”.


Ha ha, that is good isn’t it!


I remember another time there was a little drummer, Freddie Fine I think his name was, Jewish fellow, he had a drum shop in Forest Road, Walthamstow and he got a good band around him, he booked these blokes and he said, “I’m going to start a Jazz thing Sunday lunch time in the Cauliflower at Ilford” so we all said, “Yeah alright then, we will come and play”, he guaranteed us the money. Anyway we turned up and played and as we are walking in the guys have all got their gear and that and there are about half a dozen old boys sitting there with the old macs on and that looking around, “What’s happening here?” sort of thing. So we started playing, nothing, no reaction what so ever. After a few tunes a few people started coming in and we started getting an applause, second half, we really cracked it, we said “This is it, we have cracked it here” and at the end of the thing, I’m putting my stuff away with Bill Thompson on trumpet and one of these old boys comes up and he says “Ere mate, you up 'ere tonight?” so I says “No, not up here tonight” he said “Thank god for that!”. Talk about bring you down.


How old were you there when Freddie Fine did that?


Oh, gawd, you’re asking me a question. I suppose I must have been in my 30’s.


So in the 1960’s then.


Yes 60’s or 70’s. I know that the pianist he booked was, I cannot remember his name now as I get older, and it’s terrible as I get older, but I knew that he had just finished a film, he was in “Oh What A Lovely War” about the First World War, Brighton Pier and he played the piano accordion in it. He was a good pianist.


Amazing. So you didn’t encounter Johnny Dankworth throughout your career?




I didn’t know if they crossed paths at some point?


Yes, well when Freddie first started playing he was with Johnny Dankworth.


Freddy Mirfield and the Garbage Man?


That’s it yes. Funny enough I did use to do a regular Saturday night at one time at Hendon Hall Hotel in Hendon on the A1, where the England football team used to go there before a match and that or after. The guy that ran it, once again, he played with Freddie’s Garbage Man is the sax player in that band and I was playing in his band at Hendon Hall.


Oh right, you was playing in the sax players band?


Yes, it will all come back to me but unfortunately I cannot remember his name. There were two bands that played at that Hendon Hall and the other band you could almost tell the time by what they were playing, because they played the same thing every night at the same time.


How long were you there for at Hendon Hall?


Months, not years, months. We used to play up there – we used to get up there and have a dinner. I used to play with Colin Bray, he is quite a character actually and he plays around now and we used to play at the Thatched Barn on the A1 near Borehamwood up that way and we used to, Julian Stringle used to do it, a lot of good guys, well known guys were doing it but we all used to take our wives up there and you could have Sunday lunch, they didn’t have to cook or anything like that. Have the pick of the thing. Get paid for it as well.


When was that?


I suppose that was in the 80’s.


It would have been if Julian was in it because he is still relatively young now. 


He was young then because I remember when we first started, or when we was up at Epping, Julian and Pete Neighbour used to be more or less together and play and I mean at first, Nick Dawson - his Dad used to bring him up, he was under age to be in a pub but I do like to see young players coming through. There is a few at Hornchurch on a Sunday where I play there is a few youngsters coming through there.


Have you seen Alex Mendham yet? The young clarinet player from Grays. He has got a group called the Alex Mendham Orchestra and they do 20’s and 30’s music as an orchestra and they did the Savoy on New Year’s Eve and he dresses the part as well.


No I haven’t.


He is only in his early 20’s. Pete Corrigan has given him a lot of encouragement and so has George Tidiman. They have both really helped him along the way.


Oh, they come up there, the youngsters.


There are not many youngsters coming through unfortunately. It is very sad to say that Tim Huskisson was saying that unfortunately within 10 years there could well be the end of Jazz.


We have talked about this quite a lot amongst ourselves and I do feel sorry for younger people because if you go to a Jazz club now, I would say that there are very few people younger than about 55, mostly over 60 or 70.


They would probably have been following that music since it came about.


Yet it is funny, there is a young lad over there who plays a guitar, one of my neighbours. He didn’t know I played but he saw my case, me getting it out of the car, and he got into conversation with me and I said to him, “Do you play or listen to Jazz at all?” and I leant him a CD which we made and I saw him a couple of days ago and I said “ Have you played that?”, he said “Yes, it’s great”. I said “Try and strum to it whilst it is playing, get an idea of what you are doing. Listen to the tunes because that is basically what we all did”. We all listened to records to get the idea.


You weren’t going to learn that at Music College in those days were you?


No, because Jazz is improvisation. The first bloke that influenced me playing was a chap called George Brunis, he played with Muggsy Spanier's band and he was a very good ensemble player and really and truly I class myself as an ensemble player. I do not class myself as a soloist, although I do solos and get away with it but I do like playing ensembles because I have got a good ear for harmonics and rhythm.


You need that as ensemble players don’t you, you have to get right in the pocket, interesting.