Zak Barrett
Kenny Baxter

Saxophonist and the UK's longest-serving jazz promoter.


Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.

Pete Corrigan

Kenny Baxter

Image Details

Interview date
Interview source
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Keith
Surname Baxter

Interview Transcription

What got you interested in music in the first place?


Listening to the old 78 records: Artie Shaw, Bob Crosby and Bob Cats, The Andrew Sisters....... I liked anything to do with the traditional jazz side, and later I went to the modern side.


Were you a kid when you first got interested in music?


I would say about 14/15 years old. I used to play in my aunties bedroom and played on her wind-up gramophone. I was born in 1934 so a lot of the music I was hearing at that time was pre-war and what the Americans were brining over. There were one or two British records, British Dance Bands - Ambrose, Nat Gonella, the Squadronaires..... all those type of bands. I wasn’t a big band fan. I did play for Howard Baker for a little while but I was never into big bands, always a small group. I always liked the quintets, sextets right through my musical career really, that’s the sort of bands I liked. I loved Charlie Ventura, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Because you see, years ago, the Bungalow Tea Rooms opposite Priory Park entrance at the bottom of the hill, George Shearing used to play there regularly. That was the Southend Rhythm Club. That was the oldest jazz club in the country at that time. Also there was a rumour that Coleman Hawkins played there and the Americans were not allowed to play there. Also Ralph Sharon, who is Tony Bennett’s pianist, played there. And then of course it moved up to the Arlington Rooms, which was Sunday afternoons.


When did that start?


Late 50’s.


Did you run that?


No I didn’t. I was on the Committee later on, but that was the first time I saw Tubby Hays at 15 years old. He did the four brothers - Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, I think it was Art Ellefson but can’t remember the baritone player. It was a Jewish Guy, and he died a few years ago.


Not Ronnie Ross?


No. Ronnie Ross was a great friend of mine. He used to stay with me. A lovely guy, lovely player. That is why I think Mick Foster is probably the best baritone since Ronnie.


Was the Sax was that your first instrument?


Yes. I had learnt to play a bugle and someone said to me that a guy called Al Saxon used to play a piano for Stars and Garters. He was also the first pianist I used on my first jazz night. He said if you learn bugle you get an 'extra 48' a month; which meant you get a couple of extra day’s home leave. So I took it up and he taught me, and within about six weeks I was in the Station band and that was great for me. I used to go around, play the flag up, flag down, reveille in the morning. An officer died a few miles away and I used to play the Last Post there and used to be away for a couple of days. I borrowed a Saxophone on the last six weeks of my time. I found one on the station. It wasn’t very good. I started to play but I was terrible, and I came back one weekend and I bloody took it out from under my bed and this bloody Scotsman got pissed over the weekend and pee’d in it. That’s serious, it stopped me practising. So I came out of the Air Force and I did another year for my apprenticeship at the Southend Standard. I changed jobs at the end of the apprenticeship and with that money, holiday money, I bought my first Saxophone from old Hamilton’s; do you remember Hamilton’s next to the Post Office? He used to get all the Jazz records.


The Post Office where?


Just off Clifftown Road, where the Last Post is now, yes. He used to have a little record shop there and he got me my first Boosey and Hawkes Saxophone. I paid I think £50 for it. It wasn’t a great Saxophone, but the thing is I took to it. I was 21 and had started presenting Jazz.


Were you having lessons on the Saxophone at the time?


No, I took it up at 21 and funny enough, that was in 1955 and I started my first Jazz club in 1955. It was at the Victoria Hotel, which is not there anymore. It was right on the corner opposite Dixons at that time. It’s called The Vic now. I had Kathy Stobart, Bill Eyden - who incidentally was the drummer on 'Lighter Shade Of Pale'. He did the actual recording. Lovely guy Bill. Spike Heatley on Bass. I was in the Air Force with Spike, and Al Saxon who was a very good Jazz Pianist actually. I was in the same billet as him too.


Is that the famous Al Saxon who went on to be the famous singer? 


Yes. He was excellent. A great entertainer, a great pianist. The first night was packed. Then I started running a Sunday records, I used to put the record player under my arm, never had a car then, and people bought their albums to play. I walked down from North Road, near the Nelson Hotel, down Victoria Avenue into the Hotel and they used to charge 2 shillings and we used to be jiving to the record player. All the girls were very smart, the guys were smart and they all jived. Then the next group I had was one of the finest groups I have ever booked. It was Jimmy Deucher on Trumpet, Tubby Hayes, Major Holly over from America, Phil Steven and Johnny Wee on Piano who went to the States. I have become great friends with Major and he used to write to me when he went back. I gave him his going away party in Eastwood with a guy called Bill Hague. He was quite a big name for Jazz in this town. His real name was Hague-Joyce and he was a Captain in the Army. He used to have a little bungalow out in Bosworth Road in Eastwood and he used to do the Jazz sessions on a Friday night and we would get the drink and a few girls and we would go back to his bungalow. There would be….


We don’t need any more detail!


No it wasn’t like that really.


And this was the second one?


Yes, the first one in November 1955 with Kathy and then I think a couple months into 1956 when I started to get the book together at the club. The second band was Tubby and Jimmy Deucher.


So that’s pre-Jazz Couriers?


I suppose it was really. 


How long did you last at the Vic?


Not long. I have never had problems with violence in any of our Jazz club but one night we had a fight at the Vic. It was packed and they were all downstairs and I think it was too much for the Guvnor there at the time so he said can’t have this anymore. He was nice about it.


You were not having Trad at this Jazz Club?


No, no. Tubby Hayes, we had his music and what Jimmy and he could do; they were the finest. And then after that I had Joe Harriott. That’s where I met Joe. He came down with Major Holly again at the Vic. That’s where Joe stayed down with us and we became very good friends. He became very ill in his life and I went up one Saturday and did his shopping for him. He was a great friend, “a strange guy” a lot of people said but I got on brilliant with him. He slept at my house; he did a lot of his writing on my piano. He was a lovely guy. Dizzy Reese I had down at the RAFA Hall in Prittlewell. That became a gym, next to the Blue Boar.


When was the RAFA Hall? 


That would have been about 1957/58. It only lasted a few sessions. It was Sunday afternoons. I wasn't playing, just promoting. The resident trio was Bill Haigh-Joyce on Piano, Billy Bond on Drums and Bill Foreman on Bass. There was no bar there so you had to go next door to the Blue Boar. It wasn't well supported. 


Then you formed a new one?


From there we went to Middleton on a Sunday lunchtime, I had a group with Pat Green on drums, John Baker on Piano....... John’s dead now but he was one of the originators of Dr Who music at BBC Radiophonic Work Shop, and Kenny Bassett a local lad from Canvey was on Bass. We played there on Sunday lunchtime for free beer.


But you were playing there yourself?


Yes. Just a quartet. It used to get packed because it was free you know. They got a new guvnor in and I went over and asked for three pints and a gin and tonic. He put it on the tray and said that will be 'so and so. I said, “No we are the band, we don’t pay for it” and he said “You will while I’ve bloody got the pump”. I said “This is what we do it for. We don’t get paid” but he said “You aren’t getting free drinks from me”. So anyway, I finished the session and went over to him. I said “This is what we do, we do it for free”, I said “Alright we won’t play anymore and if you change your mind give us a ring”. I gave him two weeks and he never rang me so I went to the Cricketers and I have got a picture here of a session with Jimmy Skidmore, Art Ellefson, Digby Fairweather, Vic Wood , myself and the rhythm section.


That was in the 50’s?


Yes. The first Jazz that ever started in this town that I associated with was a Sunday lunchtime at the Cricketers by a guy called Freddy Brough, a little guy who used to play a vibraphone; very badly but great character. He played drums. He used to get the musicians to come up and have a blow and that’s where I started to get into Sunday lunchtime Jazz. I could see the potential. So Fred Spring, who is still there, senior not young Fred Spring who’s got it but his Dad that lives upstairs, I asked him if I could do a week day now and again. I forget what nights we used to have that on; we used to have a gig there about once a month in the evening and had some good names there.


How long did that last for at the Cricketers?


Quite a while, couple of years, once a month session. We used to do the interval with a very good trumpet player from this town Norman Baron, have you hear of him?




He went with Basil Kirchin as lead trumpeter. He was a local lad, died now. But I did a little quintet with him; we used to do the interval at the Arlington, in the 50’s, weekly. You couldn’t get a beer, you had a cup of tea or coffee and cake in there. But everyone was jiving as soon as you like. They started the jazz and everyone was up jiving, and I was up every bloody wee. We were all in our suits, all the girls looked fantastic. They used to come round my house to learn new steps and then go there in the afternoon performing.


Were you Jiving to Bebop?


Bebop. I did not follow Trad at all. I did earlier on with Humphrey Lyttelton because he used to come to the Middleton quite often, but I changed. I tell you who changed me, George Shearing. I started to hear him, and then I heard 'Nights At The Turntable' by Gerry Mulligan, that’s when I was in the Airforce. That's when I changed, then Stan Getz of course, he was a bit later although he did start very early you know.


One thing we haven’t established is that we know you bought a Sax when you were 21 and we know you were doing Jazz Clubs and at these Jazz Clubs you were playing there but at what point were you ready.


The first gig I ever did was the Arlington on a Sunday afternoon when I was about 24.


So it took you three years before you starting to perform.


When you start that late it’s more difficult. I have never reached top but I have tried and I still practice. I have enjoyed my music so much I have met so many guys and played with great guys you know. Pete King gave me the greatest compliment I have ever had when he did my birthday down at Churchill’s. He said, “I'd like to thank you Ken for all that you have done for British Jazz. We needed people like you”. That was a great compliment.


True of course. He was only saying what everyone else already knows. So while you were running these sessions in Southend in the 50’s what else was going on the area to do with Jazz that you weren’t connected with?


The Arlington, but then I became connected with that because I was put on the Committee, as I said earlier.


Who ran the Arlington Jazz Committee?


It was the Southend Rhythm Club, a Chairman and so forth, two guys I was with, Terry Jarvis and Dennis Shean. Terry Jarvis is still alive but I don’t know about Dennis. It was very well run, the Arlington, Sunday afternoon.


And what else was going on round the town?


There wasn’t much going on around the Town at all. The Palace Hotel, along the seafront, they used to have a bit of Jazz. There was not many places you could Jive in this Town. We went to Kursaal in the old days, but you were only allowed to Jive in the corner and you had a guy with a bow tie walked around and if you Jived on the other side you were tapped on the shoulder to move over, it was silly really, when you have bands like Ted Heath, Eric Delaney and all these guys. The Palace Hotel started to do a little Jazz night on a Friday night.




Weekly or fortnightly, not sure. I can’t remember the musician that did that really. It wasn’t the best but now and then they had a guest, but at the time I used to go to the Florida in Leicester Square that proceeded The Flamingo, and that was a great club. I used to go there every Saturday night and sometimes I would go in the week. When The Flamingo opened I went on a Wednesday night and I would come back into work the next morning. I used to go to The Florida every Saturday and that’s where Tony Kinsey and those boys were then. The Jazz there was unbelievable. Another club that was very good in Essex but came very late though was the Club Cabana at Ilford.


When did that start?


1968. It had a real good trio there and they used to get guests. Do you know Eileen Webber? They had a nice trio and it was always packed, an English singer, Cliff Lawrence, he was a singer there. Vic Woods and I used to go there and have a play up there.


Ilford probably seemed like the end of the world in those days.


There wasn’t much else going on at that time really.


For modern Jazz.


No. The strange thing is if you ran a Modern Jazz club it was packed.


And also you had the 'Modern versus Trad' thing happening as well.


Yes. I used to go to some of the Trad things, Humphrey Lyttelton at the Middleton, a few other people. I went up to a few Trad bands clubs in London in the early days. I went to Humphrey Lyttelton’s club, the 100 Club. I played there twice. I took my Jazz Funk group 'Turntable' there once and had an absolute storm. There was about 4/5 bands on. Bix Curtiss died and we did a bit of the tribute. Also, I went up with Will Gaines.


Didn’t Bix used to host your nights down here in Southend?


Yes. He was one of the finest comperes in British Jazz ever. He was brilliant. He always wrote everything down and found out about musicians and he would find out where they done and so forth. So he always had something to add and something to tell which was nice. He had a great sense of humour as well. But he was a failed trumpet player but that was why he was called Bix. He always wanted to be a trumpet player but his knowledge of Jazz was great.


Was he from Essex?


No. I don’t really know. He spent a lot of time down here, he lived in Thorpe Bay and he ran an electrical firm down here. He ran the 'Jazz From London' unit.


What was the Jazz From London unit?


It was all the London musicians who used to get bands together and they used to tour around. He would run that and compere. Different bands were put together who were available for those gigs. There were so many in the Jazz world. Stan Wasser and all these people, great players, used to put the bands together and they went down well. In the early days the British Jazz was lovely.


It was like a whole brand new thing, and all young.


Sometimes British Jazz was knocked against the Americans but that was just ridiculous in my opinion. You got such great stars in America and it was their music but Tubby Hayes went into Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Ronnie Ross told me the story that Duke's Sax player had an overdose - I think he died actually - and they drove Tubby Hayes up to Scotland into the Orchestra. He hardly had a chance to read the part and they reckon he was unbelievable and the band all got up and clapped him. That’s the story Ronnie Ross told me, and he did put that over the radio so I am sure that was right. 


So you were playing more locally, and were you getting a chance to get out of the area and play at all by the late 50’s?


No, we had the SMJQ which I formed - The Southend Modern Jazz Quintet.


When did that start?


That started in about 1958/59.


What was the lay out?


It was Pat Green who I think, Joe Harrott's favourite drummer he always said, Pete Holder - Bass, Norman Coker on Piano, Vic Wood and myself. We had a few changes through the time, but Vic and I were in the front there. It lasted quite a long while. We did these festivals. On a Friday night at The Elms they would open the doors and by 8.30 you couldn’t get in, packed. The Friday night at The Elms at Leigh started 1958/59 and we did a couple of Sunday afternoons in different places.


Was The Elms weekly or monthly event?


It was weekly. A couple of times we did The Shades; we did a double night with The Paramount’s. Shades coffee bar along the seafront. Also we did The Studios in Westcliff; a wonderful place. I ran the Jazz there that went on till 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes. That’s where Digby Fairweather first heard us. He couldn’t believe it. When I first went into Top Alex I went with Digby as the Kenny Baxter Five. Because Vic had family commitments he couldn’t do Sunday lunchtimes so I used to do it with Digby with Jeff Martnew, Pat Green and, I think, Eddy Johnson on Bass. We used to do that then Dig pulled out because he was getting a lot more gigs as a pro. So I started listening to Robby Vincent Jazz Funk show every Saturday morning on BBC Radio London and listening to his music and we got into US Jazz Funk Trumpeter Chuck Mangione, and that changed the whole style of the band. We changed the guitarist.


You were probably the only Jazz Funk band in the area in the late 1970’s.


It wasn’t only Funk, we did the Latin side of it. We got these Japanese Jazz Funk records by Sadao Watanabe and Hiroshi Fukumara. I have still got those. 


So you were at Top Alex from the late 60’s then?


Yes. I was there 25 years. I had a couple of breaks from it because we had couple of governors that did not quite get along with that scene. We did not charge on the door and it was the publican that paid the money. We didn’t get a lot but we used to run a raffle. But we were enjoying the music. We were all keen. Think of the names that went through that band - Peter Jacobson, Dave Bronze, a lot of guys, Lee Hodgson, the guitarist, he was brilliant.


Alan Clarke on drums.


Bobby Armstrong, Harold Fisher... Good guys came through that band.


Blimey yea. You have been a promoter of Jazz almost as long as you have been a Saxophonist.


I did it because I used to love going out listening to live music and I didn’t think there was enough in town at that time. I’ll be quite honest, when I first started I was so nervous about the whole thing. Getting things printed, trying to get things in the newspaper.... Because there used to be a good writer in the Southend Standard called Joplin’s Band Box and he used to go round to all the bands and find out 'who left this band and joined this band' and so forth. He used to write lovely little articles in the Southend Standard every week. I will always remember, he gave us a lot of space in his article.


Were you getting a chance to travel out to any other parts of Essex in those days?


Chelmsford, a pub in Chelmsford used to have regular Jazz, around 1950/60’s. Reg Webb used to have the regular trio there with Allen Morgan on Bass and I went up there and did some things. I put in Kathy Stobart, quite a few jazz guys. I used to go up and play now and again but at that time I was behind these guys. I think the venue was The Kings Arms in Moulsham Street. A guy called Eddy had it. It was always packed there. A good venue. He liked his Jazz, the Guvnor, which makes a difference. If the Guvnor liked the jazz and you bought in a few people it was alright. You used to go in and talk to the Guvnor and have a beer and do it free and two week’s you haven’t got any or a lot of people in and then he’d say “Bloody row, I not having you anymore”. Complete attitude towards you. There weren’t many venues that we could play at really.


I understand it would have seemed a 100 miles away in those days, but I understood there was a strong thing in Colchester.


Yes I played Colchester a few a times. Steve Wright ran that. A good scene in Colchester. One gig we went up to Hull one night, with Turntable. We drove up there and drove back the same night. I never knew it was so far, couldn’t believe it. What a journey: we ran out of petrol and police wanted to lock me in the can. I was with old Dave Mascall.


Didn’t they run events on the Pier?


Not really, I can’t remember that. That came later I’m sure. In the 70’s they had a good Jazz scene at the Esplanade. They had a Trad night on Thursday night there, well supported.


Trad appeals to the more everyman kind of person. I did a thing with Chris Barber many years ago in a barn in Rochford, great night actually, a really good band Chris Barber and his wife. I done a lot of double with other bands. Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and all these people.


At the same time you were carrying on with the Top Alex all the way through the 70’s as we know and 80’s. But as that Jazz Fusion thing started to happen in late 70’s turn of the 80’s there started to be a lot more gigs starting to appear for that type of music because of the Jazz Funk explosion.


I think a lot more young people were attracted to it.


The disco, Crocs, in Rayleigh, which is the Pink Toothbrush now, they used to put on a live Jazz Funk night called the Blue Note Jazz Club. It was run by Colin and Tricia Snow, Record Man Imports.


I used to buy my records from there.


For a while they did that at Crocs, didn’t they, which was great. I can remember seeing Gary Plumley’s first band probably, Ariel Beagles, there in 1981/82, and all the other local Jazz Funk Bands, and they moved it to TOTS of all places. Probably, on any other night, the most commercial and cavernous disco in the UK. It was odd to see that session there on a Wednesday. I saw Level 42 there.


Yes I played there. Level 42 - Do you know Pete Jackson played for Level 42 for a very short time? Jazz Funk really moved into Basildon then. There is a nightclub, Sweeney’s. Also a place in Shoebury. One of the pubs tried it. I did it for about 3 weeks but it did not materialise. There were a lot of little places we tried but did not work out. This happens as you know, you give it 2/3 weeks and you know it’s not going to work.


That Jazz Funk thing was all over Essex. The scene was so strong. 


Well Trevor Taylor and Mick Sexton used to run a thing in Basildon. 


They used to have Jazz in the foyer at the Towngate Theatre. I remember seeing Gary Plumley there.


That’s it. That’s another thing they used to do. I used to go there a couple of times.


Turntable was a brilliant band.


I thought so. It was well before its time. It’s a shame they did not get to record but the thing is they mainly did covers. Vic Wood was outstanding trumpet player, flugel horn player. He died in 1999 which is 14 years ago and I can still see him sitting on my couch. My wife would always give him a wine. We would talk for hours.


He was around all the way through the 60’s but I don’t know his background. He was a world class trumpet player.


He studied under Eileen Joyce, piano. He could play Cello for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, something like that. He had letters after his name and he was brilliant because he would listen to a record and all of a sudden he would play it by ear. He had perfect pitch. Him and I together for nearly 14 years, we used to do commercial gigs. We did top hotels in London, Albert Hall twice. We went so many places. Jewish Barmitzvahs, Jewish weddings, ladies nights, it went on and on. That was aside to the other Jazz projects. We did that to keep the Jazz musicians happy we then did commercial gigs. Put some money in the pockets. This was what bought this house really. With my wife singing as well. We have been blessed in this town; we have had the finest musicians around, not only Essex but all over the country. Liverpool had bands but look at the bands which came out of Essex, not only on the Jazz but all sorts. I took a couple of guys who had never played Jazz into Turntable and they changed straight away. Ian Pierce, he was just a… Dave Bronze I got him, he was playing waltzes!


I like to think though Kenny, because of all you have organised over the years, all the different residences and events you have done and it’s been such a massive long time that its almost created a breeding crowd for these players. Bands were formed because people talking and meeting at the bar. You created that environment really Kenny because of your dedication.


I think I have really. I tell you, we had such a great social life from it. People met there, they got married and people got divorced through coming to my events. But the following that Turntable had at Top Alex and Churchill’s. Even the last gig I did with Turntable which was 2/3 years ago, now at Churchill’s, we were packed. I had so many different musicians; Tony Simon was my first guitarist in the band. I think Tony is a great guitarist and Lee Hodgson, Ian Pierce and Dave Mascell they have all done time with Turntable.


A rite of passage Kenny, (laughing).


I wasn’t really the modern Sax player that perhaps you needed in the front side. But I enjoyed the music and played a lot of Alto in that band and Soprano.


It felt very hip at Turntable at that time. I stood there Sunday lunchtimes watching Turntable and I had only just started playing percussion, but when I started playing my ambition was nothing more than that I would love to play with this band. The room was rammed stupid every week and the atmosphere was incredible. As a Jazz promoter, there has probably not been anyone else promoting Jazz since 1955.


I have been very lucky with the venues I have had. The Top Alex, apart from one Guvnor there, the Guvnors were brilliant with me and they always paid for musicians, and Churchill’s. Top Alex was brilliant, I did have one period of time off there where I did not get on with one particular Guvnor but he did not last there long and I went back. Then I went to Churchill’s; the Samuel Brothers. I went in there and said I wanted to put Jazz in there, they backed me. Of course they sold up and it wasn’t quite the same after but I handed it over to a Committee and did not carry on I’m afraid. I looked around for a time to do Sunday lunchtime Jazz again but could not find the right venue. As you get older it becomes a little difficult. I've still got my little club down once a month at the Naval Club in Prittlewell. We get 40/45 people but not enough. Steve Waterman does it for me. Mike, Mick Foster, a few people like that but you have to pay these guys and it’s a little difficult. I am lucky now that I don’t need money. We did the last couple of years over at Paglesham. I've done that gig there for about 25/30 years now at the Plough And Sail for Kenny Oliver. August Bank Holiday Monday afternoons, we get 250/300 people there. We play in the car park. It’s so well supported. I still do that. I did it last year with Organist Martin Johnson, and the year before. We were doing all the Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Smith stuff that I really got to enjoy. 


Do you wonder where all the time has gone Kenny since 1954/55?


Well having six kids and fifteen grandchildren takes out a lot of you.


So you said you had Tubby Hayes down here quite often.


I had him at the Middleton a couple of times, Top Alex about three times and also once at the London Hotel, where Churchill’s is now. Ronnie Ross was there. That would be in the 60’s at the London Hotel. I tried to run a Jazz club there but it didn’t really work. That’s also where the Barracudas used to be. Then in the 70’s I had a little club at the Airport, it was the rooms where they had all the functions opposite the Zero 6 disco. That would be 'Flights' now. Where the Skating rink was. I remember having Tommy Whittle. My mind is going; I have played with so many names. I used to love playing with Kathy Stobart, and of course Barbara Thompson. She loved to play at the Top Alex. Les Condon a couple of times, practically every Jazz frontline man I have booked sometime. Always a Sax or Trumpet.