Long-time banjo player for North Essex jazz legend, Tom Collins.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
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I'm talking to Mac Cox and his wife Jenny. Mac what got you interested in New Orleans? You're a banjo player?
I started to want to play drums, I was a drummer to start with, but the thing that got me interested in Jazz in the first place was Williers Music Shop in Ipswich. Used to be in Carr Street I think it was, opposite the Co Op. I'd gone out to buy a record, I didn’t know what, and I sat waiting outside the booths where they played the records to listen to them before they bought them, and I could hear this noise that I liked the sound of and I didn’t know what it was, and when the chap came out I said “What’ve you got there?” and he said “That’s Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band”. So I thought I’ll have some of that, so I went and bought one of them, and from then on I listened to other bands playing that sort of Jazz and went on from there.
How old were you then?
I'd have been about 16 or something like that.
Because this interview is in 2013 and how old are you at this point?
So you were 16 when you bought this record, the discovery of this music for you. So when did you…?
And I thought I could play drums but there was a chap called Tucker Smith, you might have heard of him, he was in Tom’s band. He was starting up a band and he wanted a banjo player so I went out and bought a banjo for a quid and I bought a book on how to play a banjo, learned 4 chords and joined his band!
What year was that and what was the band called?
Oh I think that was called the Concorde Jazz Band. And that would be ’57 or something like that.
So the Trad movement had already started then? So you didn’t get involved in Skiffle first?
Yep I did, I joined…we had a Skiffle group, I'd started to learn to play a few chords on the guitar and we had a group called The McClan Skiffle Group or Half-Bearded Arthur and his Scruffy Skifflers!
J - That was in the days of doing silly things. I mean he’d started to shave and he shaved half his face and he left the other half to grow the full beard and shaved the other half clean off, so half-bearded, half not.
I see and where were the band based?
Ipswich and…mostly Ipswich I think.
There were no musicians from this side of the border?
No Essex people.
And was there much going on around at that time, club wise?
Yes Ipswich had a Jazz club at the Gardeners Arms in Ipswich. And there was also one before that in the Castle Pub in Ipswich, and they had a band called the Castle Jazz Band. Cutler Smith had a band in the Golf Hotel, Tuddenham Road, Ipswich and we used to go along and listen to them.
How long did that band last for?
I don't know, it must have been from about ’57 or ’58 or something like that because I joined Tom in late ’58, early ’59. So I'd been playing before then, not a fantastic standard I mean I didn’t know much.
J - He made a noise!
I interviewed Alex Revell yesterday who was in Chris Barber’s original band, and as you said, they were all serious about it but they weren’t the sort of standard…but you improved as you went along.
J - Oh yeah.
So Tom was already established then was he?
By the time I joined him yes. But he joined our Concorde Jazz Band for a short while, about 6 months I suppose, and then that sort of folded up when he wanted a banjo player in his band in Colchester and a clarinet player, I think that was when…I can't think what his name was now, someone left…Bernard Watson I think it was, left and Tucker Smith joined him, I joined him on the banjo and Jimmy Mole joined him on the drums, and Stan.
So it was all these Ipswich boys in it really wasn’t there?
Yeah, sort of half-Essex, half-Suffolk band.
What in Tom’s band?
J - Yeah because there was Tom and Lu were the Essex people weren’t they, and Don, Don who was sort of on the…
Terry Lewis, Don Nevard, Tom Collins and then there was Tucker Smith on clarinet, myself on banjo from Suffolk, and at the time there was Terry Jones I think his name was, he was playing drums.
So you're saying that Tom already had a reputation before you played with him. And I'm imagining Don Nevard also did?
Did it feel like you were playing with some heavyweights there then when you were in their company or didn’t it occur to you at the time?
No. It didn’t bother me that much.
So when did you two meet then?
J - I think we met at The Black Boy.
Where was The Black Boy?
J - Black Boy is in Wivenhoe and I lived in Wivenhoe, because I'm an Essex girl really, and I'd been away on holiday and I came back and a friend of mine said “I've found this pub that’s full of men”!, we were about 16, so what more do you want?! And so we went down there and I think we met there but we probably met at The Albert when I was dressed – as you were in those days – in very high heels and a very short skirt and I was helped on to a chair by Mac to see a drummer, it was the Collegians from Norwich, and he disappeared and left me stood on this chair and I couldn’t get down again!
Not any good for dignity!
J - No, no, it was all good fun. So yes I think that’s where we met originally wasn’t it?
And the Black Boy was a Jazz club in those days?
J - Well it wasn’t so much a Jazz club, but because the chap who ran it was a Jazz trumpeter he encouraged people to come and it attracted musicians and on a Saturday night people would come down. It was just a jam session really, it wasn’t a proper gig and I think…
Yes we used to meet up, talk a load of rubbish, put the world to rights!
J - Yeah and I suspect we may have put a bit of money in a pot for the musicians beer, but I don’t remember that particularly.
What was his name the Jazz trumpeter?
J - Roy Cabuche. He's dead now but a lovely man. And his wife Rose who moaned a lot because she didn’t like all these people! It was a lot of work, but she was a good cook and then on Wednesday nights what became the nucleus really of the Jazz club’s committee used to meet there on a Wednesday night and chat and whatever and go to that. It was very much an attractive pub for us. We had our wedding reception there.
Which Jazz club’s committee?
J - The Colchester Jazz Club, they all came. It was where they all came on a Saturday night, it was their place.
Was there much else going on around here for Jazz that you remember?
Ipswich had a Jazz club, Chelmsford did.
Where was the one in Chelmsford?
There used to be one in Moulsham Street. I think there was another one later on in some centre there, right in the middle. Norwich had a Jazz club, there was other bands up that way, the Savoy Jazz Band and the Collegians and the Cambridge City Band, that was the name of two.
Were there? Ah, a bit confusing. There must have been a split in the band and someone took the name.
That’s right, the other one split away.
So when you started with Tom, how many nights a week were you working?
Practically every night when we first started. It was when the Jazz boom, so we were going out…we did three weeks non-stop we were out every single night. And the majority of the band broke out in spots from the stress.
Yes because it wasn’t so easy to get about in those days was it?
We were all working as well you see, in the day. So we’d get back about 2 or 3 in the morning and jump into bed and have a couple of hours sleep and then get off to work in the morning.
Were you playing much outside of this area?
At that time it was mostly Essex, Suffolk and into Norfolk a bit.
J - You did a regular thing at Norwich didn’t you, there was a regular Jazz club at Norwich he used to go to.
We used to go down to London, you know, we did the 100 Club with Don. We used to do Watford Pump House and places like that. We seemed to go miles and miles around the M25 before we got anywhere.
So were you strictly with Tom or did you play with other bands?
I used to play occasionally with other bands but it was mostly with Tom. He was the main band. If I had a gig with Tom then it took precedence over anything else. I used to take other gigs, but if a gig came in with Tom I had to cancel. It was my bread and butter band.
That's right. Did he remain busy throughout his whole career?
Yeah, doing all sorts of things. It could be funerals, weddings, all sorts.
You said to me earlier on that he won an award. What was that for?
J - He won several.
Yeah, we won the Dunkirk Jazz Festival, we won the Melody Maker award one year, forget when it was.
J - And you were on the television, that was the first time you went on television wasn’t it, the Melody Maker thing, on Anglia or About Anglia or whatever it was called.
What kind of year would that have been?
J - I can't remember, I think early 60's?
There used to be one called Rehearsal Room which we were on and there was another one About Anglia we were on that, we were the first band to go out live on About Anglia, or so they said, and we were the first band to wear striped shirts. So they gave us these mohair things to wear and it was hot in there, all sweating and itching with this thing, we thought “This is ridiculous, we can't wear these bloody things”, so they said “Well, we’ve give it a go with these candy-striped shirts they wore, and found it worked alright”, I think they'd just upgraded to a few more lines on the television screens and it coped with it, so we were the first band to go out with candy-striped shirts and the first one to go out live! The thing was we’d originally been told to start at 9 o’clock in the morning I think, and we go there for then and another band were there, a pop group, and I think they couldn’t get…everything was recorded then, it wasn’t done live and they'd recorded the number and they'd got the sync in there miming to it and they just couldn’t get it right, it kept going wrong. They kept counting them down and it kept going wrong so the sync was all out and it went on and on and on and they told us we'd have to come back another day, I said “Well we can't do that. We’ve taken days off for this, we’ve got to work”, you know, so he said “Well the only other alternative is to go out live. Would you do that?”, so we said “Yeah” and went out live that night, 6 o’clock news I think that was.
I bet that was 'beers all around' in the pub after that, local heroes for that! Everyone would have watched that wouldn’t they, because that was only 2 or 3 stations then. What other awards have you been given then?
We won another one in Canada, it was on the Canadian radio. I forget what that was now.
J - Because they went to Vancouver and played.
That was from Moulsham Street that was. Someone came along to Moulsham Street in Chelmsford and we thought he was pulling the wool, he sounded American you know, “I can get you guys on at our Jazz club in Vancouver” and we thought “Oh yeah, heard all that before”, and didn’t think any more about it, and then Tom had a message come through, “Well it's all booked, tickets are on the way, everything is paid for, you can…”
J - Lovely, Silver Jubilee year it was. I remember it quite clearly that it was Silver Jubilee year.
Yeah so we went over there and played at the Hot Jazz High Society Jazz Club in Vancouver.
J - He had an absolute ball!
Which is still running I think.
How long did you stay out there for?
We were out there for a fortnight I think. A fortnight and we only had to play about 6 times in the fortnight.
There wouldn’t have been those discounted flights in those days either would there, everything was still quite expensive then.
J - Quite different, yeah. That was with Colin Bowden on drums of course wasn’t it? And Jack on clarinet.
Going from the beginning of the Tom Collins Band, what have the highlights been along the way?
Well Vancouver was definitely a highlight.
I notice you played in Paris didn’t you?
We played in France yes, Dunkirk. We played Tunisia, Iraq before the war, 1988, that was a World Trade Fair and we were the band at this trade fair.
J - You were there for a fortnight as well weren’t you? You played in Morocco.
J - Everywhere I want to go on holiday he says “I've been there”! And Germany of course, you haven’t talked about Germany.
Oh yeah, we did a tour of Germany, in ’62 I think it was. That was set up by my cousin who was in the forces in Germany and he'd got a friend called Reinhold Stott and he liked Jazz and he wanted to get a band over, so my cousin John arranged it that we could go over there and this Reinhold set up all the different places. Mostly universities and places like that, so we’d…that was a week or so over there. British Army bases were near so that was why we got over there.
How did you find it in Tom's band with the Beatles boom? Because I did hear – it may not have affected you – but I know that you speak to someone like Digby Fairweather or someone and he said that things dried up for a time.
It did yes, for a bit, but there was still a nucleus there. And we were able to keep going in this area. I think the thing was a lot of bands jumped ship, if you know what I mean, they thought “Oh there's an opportunity here. We’ll play that instead of this”, sort of thing, and off they went. Regardless of whether it was Traditional or Modern or whatever, they went where the money was, and I couldn’t blame them.
J - I think you always just stuck, because you said at the beginning, to the things that you liked and things that they liked to play, and you would hear them at gigs saying “Has anybody listened to this, have you heard this dah de dah”, and next time you went to the gig they were all playing it because they'd listened to it and thought “Yeah we can play that”.
We listened to all sorts of music, that was the thing, the whole band did. We weren’t stuck up and pigeon-holed by anything. Don would listen to Country and Western or Modern Jazz or whatever.
And yet when one thinks of Tom Collins Band you think of the band as being kind of the pure sound, the pure New Orleans sound and yet you were much more than that.
J - Much more than that, much broader.
We put a lot of people's noses out of joint.
Yeah, by being so eclectic in our tastes, yeah. They didn’t like it that we'd turn up and they'd say…some of them would walk out you know because we were playing something by…
J - Watermelon Man!
Really? Watermelon Man?
J - They didn’t like that, too electric. I loved it, I thought it was great, one of my favourites.
Great old Blues tune. When did you start recording with Tom Collins' Band?
That would have been…I think the first one was about 1973 or something. The first, well I've got a CD of us being recorded from a microphone on a chair in 1963, that was just a microphone stuck on a chair in front of the band.
Jenny you were saying about this Bank Holiday Monday?
J - Yes we used to go to Toosey which is what Essex people call St Osyth on a Bank Holiday Monday – and whole Jazz club went – in a variety of vehicles. No drink driving of course in those days, and it was, as Mac said, in the days of Party Seven cans and the table with the most cans on at the end of the day won the raffle.
That was in the 60's I suppose.
J - Late 60's I suppose, yeah. It was huge fun and everyone went. I don’t know where you played, where did you play?
Point Clear, there used to be a pub there didn’t there.
J - They were very…too much booze consumed!
Part of the caravan camp it was.
J - Yeah it was wasn’t it, but there was a fun fair next to it wasn’t there because there was the famous occasion when somebody drove their mini on the dodgems. Well it fitted! That was always good fun, and then we'd end up back at The Black Boy in the evening. It was good fun.
So was it a jam session at Toosey?
J - I think the band played, but anybody else who was around joined in.
Anyone that came along joined in.
So it was a jam session kind of thing?
J - But the band were there to sort of lead it weren't they.
The nucleus of it, yeah.
How long did that tradition last for then?
J - Several years, several years and there was only one particular Bank Holiday, would it be the August one I suppose? I honestly can't remember which one it was, one of those that if you were there you don’t remember things!
Well I remember going down there once in June and it snowed! While we were going down there, that was an odd year that was.
Do you remember any other places that Mac might have…
J - I'm just trying to think – well Sudbury of course because you played at Sudbury, you’ve mentioned Sudbury have you? The Theatre had a Jazz club that Tucker started with other people and you played there a lot didn’t you. That was in the theatre on a…I can't remember what night.
Elite Jazz Band or something they were called?
Was that weekly or monthly?
Monthly I think.
J - Yeah and Norwich of course. Cambridge you played in on a regular basis.
What about Essex?
Essex - we played most places in Essex.
J - And you played in Billericay. It was a modern town-hall type place in the middle, in the centre somewhere you played. With that chap that used to ring up at 2 o'clock in the morning. I can never remember the names. He obviously used to get home on a Saturday night and decide he hadn’t got a banjo player and so he would ring and of course I'd be – you know in those days the phone was downstairs and you'd got three kids and he was out and you'd think “Oh.What’s happened?’. I got so cross with him. He didn’t ring again after that!
Oh and Dunmow, have you talked about Dunmow?
J - You used to play with all the big bands didn’t you? You were the backing band for all the big bands.
Kenny Ball, Barber…
J - Barber, Terry Lightfoot, all that lot.
All of them, got on well with them all. We used to try and get a game of darts in with them but the Acker Bilk Band at Dunmow, we used to go across to the pub.
J - Because the Peace Hall was dry, you couldn’t drink there, you had to go across to the pub.
The Chequers I think it was called.
J - Yeah, the Chequers was opposite.
And we used to have a game of darts in there, because they were piss artists as well!
J - It was a great place for dancing wasn’t it, and they had the seats at the front so if you wanted to really listen you could sit and listen and at the back of the hall the people used to dance. And they danced 'the Dunmow Stomp' it was called and the whole floor would go because everybody would be in time. And the number of people you meet who say “Well of course we met at Dunmow while listening to your band” don’t you, you meet a lot of people.
They used to bring along big cans of cider didn’t they.
J - The Bilk band did yeah. Have it out the back!
J - But he always listened to the band didn’t he, he would always stop and Chris Barber always listened, and Kenny Ball they would listen to the band.
Frightened old John to death, Acker Bilk did because he wanted to do a duet with him on Ice Cream I think or something like that.
J - Mac's cousin John who he talked about earlier is a clarinet player and he's really good. Poor old John, a duet!
Oh he came and sat in did he?
J - Yes he did and it was lovely.
The only one that never listened much was Terry Lightfoot wasn’t he. He was a bit more standoffish. He found us a threat I think. I think we more than outshone his band.
Yes I've heard so many amazing things about Tom Collins Band, you know the Jazz band, some amazing things and obviously I've never been fortunate enough to have seen you live, but yeah, you know I mean you're playing that often you’re going to be red hot aren’t you because you're going to be right on your game aren’t you?
J - They were good.
So did you mainly back those people at the club in Dunmow rather than the Colchester Jazz Club?
It would be Colchester Jazz Club and…
Because you were resident at Colchester weren’t you?
That’s right yeah but we backed them at Dunmow and we also backed them at…there used to be a club run at Melbourne College, near Cambridge.
J - But then the Jazz club after a bit went into this policy of having a guest band and you had a week off didn’t you? And then it sort of spread so they had a different band every week and they'd still play. The nucleus of the band is still together and still play now and again at the Jazz club, don’t you? They're always well received still.
Of course Ipswich had a Jazz club at Bard’s Hall which of course is no more.
What was the one you were talking about earlier on that was upstairs somewhere or other?
J - Oh the First Floor Club!
Where was that?
J - That was in Tacket Street in Ipswich and you had to…yeah that was run by a chap called Ken Bean wasn’t it, but there was Americans before that.
Americans before that yeah, it was a small…
J - Nightclubby kind of thing.
Nightclub, they had roulette…
J - But there’s The Affair as well in Colchester, you played there a lot, The Affair. That was…off Queen’s Street.
Yeah just by St Mary's Church.
J - Yes, the one that's now the Natural History Museum, in Colchester. It was just behind there.
I think it's still there. In the basement there.
J - Yeah used to play there a lot.
How did Tom die?
He had a stroke I think. He'd started off he had a stroke that stopped him playing more or less, which was sad, and he'd tried to start playing again but he had another mini-stroke and it just didn’t work out. And then he had another one in the bathroom and he just died in the bathroom. Someone went round who hadn’t seen him…
J - Jenny went, this is a lady I've spoken about.
Hadn't seen him so she went, let herself in and found him in the bathroom, dead.
J - Which was awful for her.
How many years ago was that then?
Three or four years now isn't it?
J - Oh longer than that I would say.
I notice from the website, the Colchester Jazz website, that you're…although it's a different name the band still continues doesn’t it?
That’s right yes, we call ourselves The East Coast Jazz Wanderers now.
J - It was quite hard to come up with a name because none of them wanted…Tom didn’t want his name used which is fair enough. And none of you really wanted it, nobody wanted it to be called – you know – the Mel Cox or the Alan Arnold or whatever, because then you take on a bit more responsibility I guess! And so nobody quite wanted that, and it seems to work and Alan gets them together.
Was it hard continuing on without Tom?
Yes because when he died all the contacts went with him so we lost all the contacts and we had to start and build up again.
J - Because he'd been ill he wasn’t…he became…he didn’t want his name used and he didn’t want to be contacted. But he wasn’t prepared to let anyone else have the contacts to say, you know, “Tom's unwell so would you like to contact Alan or Mac or whatever”. And so it sort of…
We tried to involve him you know…”Would you like to be the manager of the band?” you know?
J - Yes but he didn’t want to do that. I think because he was ill he'd just had enough really which was a shame. But I mean by then you were also playing with lots of other bands all the time anyway, so it wasn't…
Are you still a gun for hire now are you? Do you still go and play with different bands?
Yeah, oh yeah. Sell my wares anywhere!
Are there any bands, other than the East Coast Wanderers, you play with regularly?
I play with the Down Home Jazz Band, down in Essex. Bill Jenkins.
Whereabouts in Essex?
Mostly I play at the Nag’s Head at Ramsden Heath.
J - And you play at the Blue Boar in Maldon don’t you? That's with Bill Jenkins. And you played with Pete Jezzard who’s based on Mersea Island. You play with him quite a lot don’t you? He’s a bit of a tart really I think aren’t you, you play with anybody! And I think if you go through the diary, you have to go through the diary and work out for tax purposes and you think “Oh yeah, that was so-and-so” and there will be endless different bands, endless.
It's funny you mention Mersea. I'm wondering if there was ever anything much happening on Mersea?
Yeah there used to be in the Mica Centre. There used to be things on, and there still is I think in the Mica Centre.
J - But you used to play there, we used to go there quite a bit in pubs and things.
Yeah and the yacht clubs and things, Regattas and that sort of thing.
How did Pete Jezzard get known? Was he a band leader, is he a band leader himself or did he get known from playing…?
He suddenly appeared, he's a Yorkshire man. So he’s a God’s Own Country kind of man. I think he sailed down, the story went that he had to deliver a boat down here and he liked it when he got down here so he stayed down here.
Understandably, on Mersea as well.
J- I don’t know when he first started appearing really, relatively recently in the story of Jazz around here. He sort of popped up didn’t he?
I have not found too much about Jazz in Clacton. You recalled a club down there didn’t you?
Yeah it was next to the railway station, it might be called the Station Hotel or something like that. They had a Jazz club there for quite a few years I think.
Well that’s where Don Nevard played in 1953 there, so it had been running back as far as that. And that was still going…
When I joined the band because we used to go down there and play, yeah.
Was that more New Orleans style?
Yeah, Dixieland. There’s so many different types isn’t there.
I know! There’s some that don’t recognise the name ‘Trad’ you know so that’s why I don’t know what the hell to call it now!
Some people call it Traditional Jazz, some people call it English Jazz, English Traditional Jazz and New Orleans and Dixieland and….
It’s a dirty word isn’t it the Dixieland because there’s some of the New Orleans people don’t like the Chicago…
I think it was all the ‘razzmatazz’ sort of stuff with the fancy waistcoats and…yeah…big brass instruments. Which is great – I love it!