Discovering the John Chilton collection

Some of the artifacts found in the John Chilton collectionNicholas Dunn shares his experiences as a volunteer and takes us through the exciting material held within the John Chilton Collection.

My participation in the National Jazz Archive began in November 2019. I had always had a passing interest in music and jazz, and I have a particular interest in history - so much so that my undergraduate university degree was in that subject.

Learning about historic figures has always been fascinating to me, but what makes it more compelling is seeing physical examples of their lives and work. This is something I get to experience through volunteering at the National Jazz Archive.

After becoming a volunteer, I initially worked on sorting books and items within the Archive and then was assigned some administrative work on the Archive’s database - This involved updating photos and images attached to interviews with well-known jazz musicians.

Most recently, I have been cataloguing a series of photos using a template spreadsheet which will be uploaded to the Archive's management system. This involves documenting items under headings such as description, reference number, photographer and format, which is important to the archival recording process.

Working at the Archive has brought me into contact with material that has not only caught my interest, but made me keener to explore music as a hobby. And nothing has caught my interest more than a collection that was donated to the Archive not too long ago.

The collection initially consisted of 14 boxes composed of various items with historic value. These came from the British trumpeter and historian, John Chilton. He had dedicated his life to jazz music, performing and working with several famous jazz musicians, most notably George Melly, whom he supported with his own band, ‘John Chilton’s Feetwarmers’.

From the 1970s onwards, Chilton wrote books about such jazz musicians as Sidney Bechet, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong and all of these books are in the National Jazz Archive’s collection. It’s supposed that much of the material within the collection was used in background research for his biographies.

I initially assessed each box, summarising the contents and recording them on a collection list. Within the boxes were folders that either contained material relating to a specific jazz musician, or a wide range of items relating to multiple artists. Some items were in wallets and albums whilst others, including books, were loose. There was even one box dedicated to American singer Bob Crosby, who was the younger brother of the more famous singer and actor, Bing Crosby.

The items I discovered included letters, documents, photos (including some photographic negatives), tape-recordings, newspaper cuttings and more. Knowing that we have such broad material related to some of the biggest names in jazz makes this a truly remarkable collection.

One box in the collection is dedicated to photos, with albums full of pictures of jazz artists, such as the great British drummer Phil Seamen, at the Marquee club in the early 1960s. Indeed, the majority of the photos in the albums come from around that time. These mainly show musicians playing in clubs, such as the Marquee Club or the Wood Green Jazz Club, but they also include self-portraits, musicians relaxing away from the clubs and even some advertising material. My work as an archive volunteer has included cataloguing these photos using the template previously mentioned, which ensures a consistent approach to recording.

Several reel-to-reel tape holders from the Tape BoxAnother of the boxes is primarily dedicated to audio tape-recordings. These contain interviews and early takes (informal recordings) of songs. One tape is labelled ‘Ellington interview + piano solo’, referring to the legendary composer, bandleader and musician Duke Ellington. Once transcribed and catalogued, it is feasible that the recordings will act as a window into the creation and development of various compositions – all within an historical context.

Chilton gathered background research relating to the lives, work and encounters of each individual he covered. Within one of the boxes are letters and newspaper articles. Many of the letters are correspondence between Chilton and various parties writing in response to his requests for information.

The collected articles cover the stories of various musicians and bands. As such, they provide an historical background to the development of jazz, its culture, and its artists.

The photographs (as delivered to the Archive) were mounted in photo albums or loose in boxes. For archival purposes, some photos will be repackaged. In the albums, the quality of the packaging varies - some photos have been stuck to their respective page, some are held down by corner stickers, while others are loose.

Another smaller album had all of its photos in loose wallets attached to the inside – These will be taken out of the album and put into more secure wallets. The photos, along with all of the other materials in the Chilton boxes, will be transferred into secure archival boxes. They will then be stored securely in the Archive.

It's easy to get lost in the sheer volume of historic material stored within these boxes. I found it particularly interesting to know how many of these jazz artists had connections to each other.

John Chilton had great passion and went to considerable effort when researching, writing, and curating his books. Through his collection we have a great resource providing unusual insight and historical context to the world of classic jazz in particular. This includes the work of notable jazz musicians, including some legendary artists whose work is recognised across music generally, and in the popular media.

I believe it is important that we place great social value on collections like that from the John Chilton estate. Doing so will help us secure reference material for those who want to research jazz, or who are curious to learn. It will also help preserve remarkable parts of entertainment history, and the history of one of the oldest and most elegant genres of popular music.


Nicholas Dunn

Read more about the work of the National Jazz Archive or more articles about jazz artists


John Chilton (1932 – 2016)

John Chilton was a British trumpeter, bandleader, songwriter, composer and writer. Born in London, he began playing the cornet at 12 and switched to the trumpet aged 17. After national service in the RAF he formed his own jazz band in the early 1950s. He then played in various bands during the 1950s and 1960s, forming John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in 1974. The Feeetwarmers toured with British jazz singer and writer George Melly and accompanied him for nearly 30 years.

Chilton was a prestigious writer on jazz and won a Grammy Award for his album notes on American jazz Trumpeter ‘Bunny’ Berigan in 1983, and the British Jazz Award for Writer of the year in 2000. His books on Coleman Hawkins and Louis Jordan both won him the American Association for Recorded Sound Collectors’ Award for Historical Recorded Sound Research. For his books on Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet he was given the freedom of New Orleans. His Autobiography, Hot Jazz Warm Feet, was published by Northway Books in 2007.

The above picture of George Melly on the left and John Chilton holding his trumpet is a detail from a concert programme held by the National Jazz Archive: George Melly & John Chilton's Feetwarmers, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry - March 27th 1977. 

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