|Catalogue reference number
|Title or Caption
So how did the Frog Island Jazz Band form originally?
Well the band was originally started, very early 60’s, 1962 , but John Whitehead who like myself, I didn’t know him at that time, but we’d both been involved and became interested in music with the Skiffle craze that was on and were involved with amateur Skiffle groups, and decided that perhaps we’d like to play some Jazz and so John started, got a few people together that he knew, and through some friends I got involved with the band. In fact I started playing a couple of months after the band was started. A friend of mine was playing tuba, went back to university, and they had a gap, a missing member, and I was asked whether I’d like to try and have a go on Tuba and play in the band. So I think we’ve been inflicting misery on the public since then.
That must have been hard just picking up the tuba like that. What did you do before? Tea chest bass then if it was Skiffle?
No, I used to play bit of guitar, but obviously we are talking in a very amateur capacity, but that got lots of people into the Skiffle craze interested in music
Didn’t it just. It was short-lived really.
Yes. Then obviously Rock and Roll and modern styles of music were coming in at that time, and as Jazzers we resisted ardently, but one has to say there is some super more modern pop music and other forms of music of course developed.
But interestingly though I mean I’ve got an old film from 1956 of Chris Barber playing at the Fishmongers Arms, it’s called 'Momma Dont Allow', and it’s an amazing little 20min film, and it’s all Teddy Boys in there jiving to Trad.
That was the way you dressed in that era, lots of people did. People like Chris Barber really, as far as the UK Scene, created the interest. One has to think though, prior to that the music available to us was fairy mundane. I can remember Sunday evenings listening to Max Jaffa, Semprini and one or two other people were playing and that was it, then suddenly Jazz Club came on, I seem to remember, on the radio and new sorts of music started to appear which was a revelation as far as we’re concerned, and obviously Chris Barber, Acker Bilk and a lot of the UK bands came to prominence.
And you formed at a time when I guess, for want of a better word, Trad was at his height in the early 60’s with Acker Bilk having those enormous charts hits.
Yeah, when we formed that, but we started off and we were influenced by British bands, but we didn’t ever consider that we were particularly clever, I mean we haven’t got any stupendously clever musicians within the band, and we decided as a policy, influenced by clarinet player who was with us at that time, that we wanted to follow a path of the more classic New Orleans Jazz and we stuck to that all the time so we try, within the ability of the people in the band, to recreate the sound and music of certain specific New Orleans based bands of the early 20’s, so we’ve stuck to that and not followed the commercial path, and I think we are one of now only a very few bands who actually play what I would describe as classic New Orleans Jazz, and that’s the sort of music King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, Piron, and bands from the mid 1920’s up to the very early 30’s.
And you’re lucky as well aren’t you in a sense that that music has been very well documented hasn’t it, recording wise, so you do have a lot of reference there luckily.
Yeah I mean over the years a lot of research has been done and a lot of information available, I mean we particularly concentrated in the early years on King Oliver and his band. A lot of his recordings have been enhanced with the modern technology cleaning them up, but there’s no, that I’ve every seen, film footage of King Oliver although he was one of the giants in New Orleans, and then in Chicago, of this style of music
Was it a collective decision as a band or was it John’s decision to just follow the New Orleans path?
I think were all of one mind, as I say going back we just wanted to try and create a sound that was different that was different to the normal ones that were bashing around, not all but most of the English Traditional Jazz band during what you refer to as the 'Trad boom' were playing and English version on the new Orleans music, all to their credit they certainly influenced and got me interested, I suppose that combined with he fact that my brother at that time was out with the air force in Canada and he started sending back records that were available of the old bands, so I suppose that, on my personal thing was another influence, but I think John and the other people all felt the same they listened to the old recordings and we collectively though that’s what path we’d like to follow.
What were the kind of venues you playing at initially when you first started?
Well mainly pubs and Jazz clubs in and around Essex home counties.
What Jazz clubs do you remember in Essex at that time?
Chingford, then Southend, we used to do our own Jazz club we had in Brentwood,
What was that called?
A pub called The Essex Arms we played at for some years and other bands were playing there as well, trying to think now it’s a long while. We used to do quite a lot of work up in Birmingham, the Midlands and we’ve always as a band travelled to where the clubs are, that isn’t something a lot of bands do. We still to this day do, I mean the weekend before last we were down in Paignton (Devon) at a Jazz thing, and then we go up to Leeds and the North of England. We’ve always, as a band, travelled long distances to play.
Were you successful immediately on forming? How long would you say it took for you to get established if not?
Well were we successful? I don’t know, I mean we’ve managed to keep going 51 years, you just keep chipping away. We’ve never had, let’s be realistic, we’ve never had a mass following. We’ve created interest hopefully where we played and people have appreciated what we tried to do. I don’t think we have ever hit the glory spots on the Top Of The Pops or anything, but that’s never been our objective. I mean we enjoying playing the music and the style that we play and luckily for us we have managed to get a reasonable following in people interested in the music
One thing that has come up time and time again from interviewing people is that - this may not have been the case with yourselves- but when the Beatles came out, it was the Beatle mania and the whole Beat-boom. They said that a lot of the Jazz work dried up quite quickly around that time. Did that affect you in any way or did you sail through that?
Well it may have had some affect. I don’t think we were ever affected by that. It was a different sort of music.
It was young peoples music then wasn't it?
Yes but there was an established Jazz following which has sadly........ I think as people aged has diminished over the years, and certainly don’t find what we’re doing very many young people coming to see it. You do occasionally, and when they come they quite often find a lot of interest in it, but I mean its mainly ageing, grey haired people, who have followed the music since the early days, 50’s or whatever, and still got an interest in in. I suppose the highlight, as far as out band was concerned, was getting the invitation we had to actually go and play in New Orleans,
How did that come about?
Well Chris Marchant, the drummer, was friendly with an English guy who lived out in New Orleans, and via that contact and this guy’s wife John Simmons and Dody Simmons who were informed in the New Orleans scene we got an invite to go out to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival I think it was 1980, and we went out there and that was reasonably successful, and in fact it was quite interesting because we went there not knowing what to expect. They have the major festival and when we were in New Orleans, despite the difficulties in getting work there we managed to fill sort of about 10 days and got work by going round and asking and gigging at bars and restaurant and whatever, and we did quite a lot of playing out there and much to our amazement on that and subsequent visits we found a lot of the old musicians when we were playing sitting listening to us, a group of erks from Essex playing out there, because apparently they hadn’t heard that sort of music, which was started there but there wasn’t a live scene playing that style of music. They hadn’t heard it for years, so we were 'taking coals to Newcastle' in effect. And on a number of occasions we had these musicians coming up, one in particular I remember who used to play with Papa Celestin and standing in front of the band listening, and when we had a break we sort of said to him “Are you enjoying the music?” and he said “Yeah, I can’t believe it I’m standing listening, I used to play banjo in the Papa Celestin band and it’s as if I’m back in that era”. Whether his memory was bad I don’t know. We took it as a compliment.
That’s incredible isn’t it. Was there much press interest in you out there?
Yeah we got quite a lot of coverage on that and subsequent visits. I think the craziest thing, I believe it was the last visit we played out there as a band, was when the terrible tragedy when that space shuttle blew up with the teacher on board, and we had just played the night before on the Saturday at the Heritage Festival. Next morning we were on the front page photo, I’ve got a copy of it, of The Times Picayune newspaper we were on the front page, and page two had the pictures of the shuttle exploding, which was a bit of a culture shock. Us appearing apparently took presidence on the newspaper over that. We couldn’t believe it. We were walking round the town and cabbies were stopping us saying “We heard you guys” or “Do you know you’re on the front of the paper?”.
How many times have you been to New Orleans to play?
I think we actually, as a band, played on 4 different years
No, a sort of couple of year gaps between them, we were very very lucky. The festival has changed in nature. I think as times progress, I think in more recent years, its less emphasis on the Jazz as you were saying when we were chatting before, we started the interview on much more current styles of music, Cajun music, Pop music, I think people don’t really realise how much of modern Pop music as we all call it started from New Orleans, Fats Domino and various other people, all of which lived there and the roots of all that music; not all but lots of it came from that city,
Yes of course Congo square etc. it’s amazing, each time you’ve played in New Orleans has it always been thought the same connection or once you made the connection there was it then.........
Yeah well they had a festival committee. Having enjoyed it we said if there’s a chance to come back we’d love to. We were lucky while those connections existed and we of course having been there once you learn the ropes and we knew who to perhaps ask and see whether we could get work. One of the troubles is the people who play out there earn their livings by playing the music, and you have to be very careful, because your visiting the city every job we do potentially means perhaps one less for a musician out there trying to earn their living. We were always sensitive to that and tried not to sort of affect any one and their livelihood.
To your knowledge where the Frog Island Jazz band unique in playing that festival?
I think other bands from other country’s have also appeared there but we were the only British band that particular year the first year, and the subsequent year, as I say I can’t remember what actual year it was. But we,on a subsequent visit, out of the blue suddenly the New Orleans, one of the Jazz societies there suddenly announced that the Mayor had given us, the band, the freedom of the city apparently for our services. When they say services I suppose promoting their music, what we've done to sort of keep it going.
That is the most incredible honour isn't it. For what you do you couldn’t be bestowed anything higher?
No for us it’s a fantastic recognition of our joint enthusiasm all the band members in the music that they had created. It’s sort of really hard to digest the fact that these blokes that we now try to create the sound, they actually created it. So most of those weren't necessarily highly qualified musicians, they were playing from the heart, and what they felt. We’ve got the influence of being able to listen to what they did years ago, and sort of at least try and use that as a foundation for what we do.
Although it’s odd that WC Handy was from a very wealthy back ground. He certainly wasn’t from the ghetto that’s for sure.
Most of those musicians, as I understand it, came from very poor humble beginnings.
Playing in whore-houses basically.
Jelly Roll Morton used to play the piano in brothels basically in the Storyville, and Piron his music a lot of those in the dance halls in New Orleans were all around the red light district, most of which well, all of it has nearly been demolished.
So obviously this was the highlight of the Frog Island career, if you like. Anything we talk about from now on is going to obviously pale in comparison to the New Orleans, but going back from the early days and continuing on, has it been quite a smooth ride over the years with the band?
Membership wise yeah. One of the nice things is perhaps where we're slightly different to many other bands is the fact that we have a regular line-up, and really we find it very limited as to the people we can use as deps in the band if we have someone ill or anything, because of the types of arrangements we do and the style we play, but I mean we have all enjoyed it as friends as well as the music - sort of 40-50 years of friendships, so it’s not just the band members and the wives, the children have grown up, it’s been a fantastic thing over many many years, which is a bit unique amongst the bands. I think you’ll find a lot of the bands not, nothing wrong in that, but are in many cases telephone bands, where someone will lead the band but phone and put musicians together, so that’s fine but we’ve always had a very regular line up of musicians,
Almost like an extended family in way?
Have any of the youngsters in the family taken up any instruments?
No they all run for cover. They don’t want to do what the old boys do. My own offspring, they’ll listen. They've been out and had trips in the early days while they were young out with us into Europe and over to America but there not into the music. They like the modern styles of music.
One things I forgot to ask earlier on which was very silly, where did the band form?
Well we started playing '62. John Whitehead worked for an engineering company in Rainham in Essex near the exotic Fords factory and they had a social club that we were able to use to rehearse in. I think the firm was called Murax, but it was near Fords at Dagenham, and there is a piece of land there, Frog Island, and I’m not sure who, it might have been, my brother or someone, came up with the idea that perhaps we were trying to find a name would call it the Frog Island Jazz band. Frog Island we always imagined, I did certainly, was to do with the frog, amphibian or whatever category the frog is. In latter years, with a result of an article we've recently seen in the in-house Ford magazine and we believe it too be true, it's turned out to be named from the Napoleonic wars where French prisoners were held there, so we are now playing that as the history of Frog Island.
Although I do wonder whether the French would have been called 'frogs' in those days?
I don’t know. It sounds derogatory enough to be right doesn’t it, I just don’t know where we would have known they ate frogs legs in those day. I don’t know it needs a bit more research doesn’t it?
It’s a good story any way. I heard you say in passing there the magic word 'Europe', so you’ve obviously travelled over to Europe?
Yeah, I mean not so much nowadays, but we’ve done a lot of work; Belgium, bit in Germany and certainly a lot in Holland, we used to go over quite regularly to Holland and there were very very substantial Jazz audiences and enthusiasts out there, and we’d play and do quite a few tours through Holland, again having got some contacts then in those days, were talking probably the 70's, when you start doing one or two bookings then other contacts come up, and we were able to do quite a few tours there over the years. We’ve inflicted out misery on others other than the British.
Well I understand that there’s a Morris Dance festival in Holland once a year as well, so you'd never think you’d have Morris Dancers in Holland
Obviously we exported a Maypole as well did we, and inflicted that on them as well. No, I think there’s still a good scene in Holland now, I think our contacts over the years they get older and they drop off and I think there have been some problems out there with changes in taxation, regulations and it’s made it more difficult for clubs and it’s made it more difficult for bands to go out there because of their tax laws. I’m not sure of that now, but that certainly was a reason given to us as to why they weren’t finding it so easy to take as many British bands or invite them out there. We did the first, as far as I’m aware, the first Jazz festival in Spain following Franco’s regime. We went out there and we played in a place called Murcia, can’t remember what year that was but, anyway, a good few years ago, and we had some complications because in those days you had to fill in documentation on every nut, bolt and screw on the drum kit and every...... 'carney' it was called, to get through and I know that took me days and days to get all the paperwork finished but that was very successful and very well supported by the Spanish. It was good fun.
Carnay’s only stopped really since we became part of the EU. That was always a pain the carnay, that’s right.
I’m glad you’ve had sort of similar experiences.
Oh yeah, all the constant stops of checking the van in Europe checking stuff, making sure you didn’t take out more than you took in. Has there been much interest in you for radio sessions or television at all?
No, no. As a result of somebody putting our name forward we did do a BBC audition some years ago. We had a letter back from them to say “Thank you for attending”, full stop. That was the end of our BBC days! No, being realistic we’ve never really had any ambitions in that direction. I think one or two Essex bands have appeared on Jazz Club. I think the New Era Jazz Band, which was run by George Tidiman, who now lives at Witham. George’s band played certainly on one or more occasions on BBC Jazz Club but no we’ve never hit those dizzy heights.
So, is it business as usual these days then Rob?
Yeah, it’s a constant slog. We’ve managed to keep it going for 51 years.
That’s incredible isn’t in 51 years? It’s got to be a record of some kind I would have thought?
I wouldn’t think they’re many bands now sort of..
Rolling Stones perhaps! No I’m only joking.
Same here, they’ve earned slightly more than us, Mr Taxman! Obviously we’ve managed to keep going. You know during those years I've done most of the work as far as management of the band and bookings, and it means spending a lot of time on the phone, and it also means for the band if we want to keep playing, doing a lot of travelling. So I mean today, these days we play as far afield as Penzance, we do little Cornish and Devon tours, we do work up in the North of England, Leeds, Rochdale, we’ve played in Scotland a few times. We do work in the Midlands and work in the Home Counties. But if we want to play and we want to play at Jazz clubs then we’ve got to be prepared to travel distances, which is becoming a grind as we get older. It’s becoming more difficult, and there are times if one’s honest, certainly I feel it and I’m sure other blokes in the band tthink, “Gosh if this carries on, how much longer will you want to slog and do it?” But then the music overrides that, so once you get to the session and you’re playing you seem to forget the travelling and relive the misery on your way home.
There still seems to be, looking at the list, a week ago, of all the Jazz Festivals in the UK, the majority of the Jazz festivals in the UK are still New Orleans, Dixieland, Trad-based aren’t they? There’s plenty of Modern Jazz festivals but the majority still are… I don’t know the correct term for it but…
Yes, I mean Traditional Jazz let’s say, they try to incorporate the New Orleans and sort of more modern British version of the New Orleans music. There are still lots of festivals. I mean you can praise those and also say they have an effect of the Jazz clubs because as people have got older, incomes perhaps have reduced. We’re now in very difficult times for people financially. I suppose most people have a very limited amount of disposal income, they’ll look now as to where they can best spend it and in fairness, a lot of these Jazz weekends are very good value for money, they can get 5 or 6 different bands or more playing over a weekend, no travelling, food included. The audiences, as they’ve got older, aren’t so keen on driving around half into the night so the Jazz weekends have become quite popular. We do a few a year. We still prefer the Jazz club work if we can get it.
It’s a smaller audience isn’t it, therefore it’s more intimate. You get more of an impact right by the dance floor…
Yes, and it’s less hassle. The festivals, if there are several bands, as you know from playing, you get your slot and your given a limited time to get yourselves, your instruments and everything on the stage ready to start your set, and musically there’s nothing worse than being hassled. That’s something you have to live with so it’s not a moan but it’s much nicer if you can set up calmly get yourselves ready, relax for a bit and then get on and play.
That’s right, the crosses we have to bear.