Posted on 21st Dec 2020 by John Rosie
Following our recent article on the collections of bandleader, writer and trumpet player John Chilton, publisher Ann Cotterrell further reflects on the origins of his love of jazz.
What brought you to jazz? Jazz people all have their stories of the sounds, the person, the event or the moment which made them realise that this was their music.
Here is an example from the autobiography of John Chilton, whose jazz memorabilia are now providing excitement in the National Jazz Archive. He remembered a moment at the age of twelve when he first heard jazz and was firmly captured by it. John went on to have a long career writing books about jazz, and as a jazz musician (probably best-known for leading the Feetwarmers accompanying George Melly).
Like many children of the 1940s and 1950s, he started a ‘scrapbook’ in line with his new interest and this led later to his parallel career as a writer of acclaimed biographies of musicians including Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Bob Crosby, Louis Jordan, Henry ‘Red’ Allen and Roy Eldridge.
An extract from John’s autobiography describes his early beginnings in jazz in rural Northamptonshire, in the home of the Horton family who fostered him as an evacuee. He remembered how he felt as a twelve-year-old in the winter of 1944 when a football match he was due to take part in was cancelled:
‘I returned home in a bad mood, angry and thwarted at not being able to take part in the match. I entered the Horton’s cottage and irritably flicked on the radio, just for something to do — my life was about to be changed forever.
The music that came out of the radio literally entranced me, I had never heard anything like it before. I stood motionless until the piece ended, then I heard the radio announcer say, ‘That was “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”, by Jelly Roll Morton, featuring Sidney Bechet.’ This was my introduction to jazz. I fell in love with it there and then and went round asking everyone in the village what they knew about jazz and drew a series of blanks. However, I did find out that a shop in Stony Stratford sold jazz records.
Next day was Saturday so I went there, found the shop and immediately began quizzing the male assistant about jazz. There was no point in buying a record because no-one I knew in the village possessed a gramophone. The assistant was very patient considering the absurd nature of my questions, he eventually tapered off the interrogation by selling me, for one penny, a catalogue that listed all of the HMV recordings then available.
I pored over it again and again, happy to see it contained a photograph of Sidney Bechet. I vowed that I would begin a jazz scrap book as soon as possible, allocating first page prominence to Bechet. I began listening avidly to any radio programmes that might contain jazz, noting down the title of each piece as well as writing a brief critique of the performance. From this auto-didactic approach I came to the conclusion, without any guidance whatsoever, that Louis Armstrong was the supreme jazz musician — a viewpoint that I have never considered it necessary to change.
But compiling a scrapbook and analysing radio performances didn’t satisfy an urge that began blazing within me — I felt that to get closer to the world of jazz I had to play an instrument. As soon as Mr Horton heard me say I wanted to play a musical instrument he and his wife put down the money for a second-hand cornet on the proviso that I pay them back at sixpence a week — a strategy that would encourage me to make regular use of the instrument.’
The sixpences were saved by the Hortons but given back to John before he left the village. He had started his jazz education in a place where no one knew about jazz but they had a tradition of brass band playing and gave him lots of encouragement in his new passion:
‘A neighbour gave me a basic tutor and someone else gifted me a mouthpiece. Mr Horton gave me guidance: both his sons had played briefly without developing a passion for music; nevertheless they too urged me on, and in a sympathetic atmosphere I’d sit at the kitchen table practising the cornet while the rest of the family sat nearby reading their newspapers. No-one was more delighted to hear of my involvement with the cornet than [my school teacher] Eric Clayton Jones. His practice of abruptly stopping a lesson to read to us was now occasionally supplemented by him saying, “Tubby, go home and get your cornet so that you can give us a tune.” It was all marvellously encouraging.’
The war ended and John returned to London to finish his formal education before leaving school soon afterwards at the age of fourteen. Sixty years later, he was delighted when one of his friends from the village attended a launch event for his autobiography, Hot Jazz, Warm Feet, at Wavendon.
When John delivered the manuscript of his memoir to Northway in 2005, we were uncertain because of other commitments but we read the first few pages and knew that we couldn’t resist publishing it. Soon afterwards he arrived at our home with twenty-two perfectly chosen photos illustrating his career with The Swinging Blue Jeans, Bruce Turner, George Melly and the Feetwarmers, Ronnie Scott, and other jazz luminaries, and said, with typical professionalism, ‘here is one for the cover’.
Sadly, John died in 2016 at the age of 83, and his autobiography Hot Jazz, Warm Feet is now out-of-print but there is a copy in the National Jazz Archive, and his large collection of photos and other memorabilia, the result of his early ‘scrapbooks’, have been donated to the archive to be catalogued and preserved for future generations.
You can read more about John Chilton's collection and how it is being preserved by the National Jazz Archive.