My friend Tony Pitt

Jazz clarinettist, singer and National Jazz Archive Ambassador, Adrian Cox pays a personal tribute to his friend, the jazz guitarist and banjo player Tony Pitt, who has died aged 80.

"I have never been asked to write an obituary for anyone and so I was more than honoured to be asked by the National Jazz Archive to write this one for my friend and UK jazz legend Tony Pitt.

On Friday, 8 January 2021, I heard the very sad news that Tony Pitt had passed away. Tony was an incredible musician and human being who had an amazing stance on life, which he really lived.

Over his career, Tony played with the who’s who of the UK jazz scene including Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Alex Welsh, Mike Cotton and Alan Elsdon, playing concerts and Television performances all over the world.

In his later years he performed with Terry Lightfoot, Phil Mason, TJ Johnson, and of course as the leader of his own band, The Tony Pitt All Stars. It was with TJ Johnson that I was first lucky enough to get to know Tony properly as we were both in his band, and I got the best first-hand insight into what life had been like touring in the trad-boom.

It soon became apparent that we were all in the presence of someone very special. I was brought up listening to recordings of Acker and Kenny, and so for me I was hanging out with a jazz celebrity. Although Tony was over 40 years older than me, his attitude was not, and as my friend and drummer Jack Cotterill has said, Tony was “the youngest old man” he’d ever met.

Tony would always be the first one to arrive at the concert, the first one to unload the band wagon, the sharpest dressed and the first one to buy a drink! He really was to me and many others the true meaning of rock & roll, as well as the most professional.

 

Tony Pitt on banjo with Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, Frankfurt, Germany in 1976 playing 'Riverboat Shuffle'

 

As for his playing, Tony had the best feel for rhythm on guitar and his solos made your hairs stand up, through choice notes and that sound that you always want to hear. As for the banjo, I can’t think of anyone who can swing and drive a band as Tony did. He attacked it every night.

He was a virtuoso player who knew how to pull a band together to make everyone sound good. It was an amazing feeling to be on stage with him. He taught me that you had to bring your A-Game every night and that (no matter what you had been through in the day) the gig was the most important thing.

One day, Tony and I were driving on the M25 motorway to a concert when we got a puncture. Selflessly, he told me to get out and stand on the verge and within 15 minutes Tony had: unloaded all of the PA system from the back of the car; jacked the car up; changed the wheel; and loaded the car back up again. He didn’t even mention it to anyone where we arrived ... What a pro!

Writing this tribute has brought back so many memories of Tony. He was someone I never thought would leave us and who I thought would survive forever. I think for everyone who knew him, we were all very lucky and learnt so much about doing the right things, not just in the music world but in life.

There will never be another Tony Pitt on this planet. Thanks for all the good times mate, the stories and inspiration (and the cigarettes).

My thoughts are with all of Tony’s family at this very sad time.

We will all miss you."  Adrian Cox

 

Biography

Anthony Russell ‘Tony’ Pitt was a British guitarist and banjo player of the traditional New Orleans jazz style.

Pitt was born on March 1, 1940 in Wolverhampton, and came from a musical family (his father Jim played banjo and the bass and tuba player Vic Pitt is his younger brother). 

The family moved to Chatham, Kent, when Jim took over a pub called ‘The Good Intent’. Tony first learned the violin in school and then switched to the banjo when he performed with the local Crescent City Stompers jazz band. 

In the late 1950s he turned to the guitar and founded his own skiffle trio with his brother, playing in London’s Soho district. In the 1960s he became part of Kenny Ball's band (with whom he also played in the 1970s), and played with clarinettist Cy Laurie and trumpeter Nat Gonella. 

Pitt was also a member of Alex Welsh's band until 1963 and performed with blues legend Memphis Slim. Between 1964 and 1974 he played for Acker Bilk's Paramount Jazz Band and with trumpeter Alan Elsdon’s band.

In the 1990s Tony was a member of Laurie Chescoe's Good Time Jazz, then performed with Terry Lightfoot's Jazzmen and Phil Mason's New Orleans All Stars. He also played with Bob Bates' Sousaphonia. Since 2006 he toured with his own All Stars. He can also be heard on albums by Humphrey Lyttelton and Wally Fawkes.

 

Photograph with thanks to Brian O'Connor ©Brian O'Connor

« The Feet-Warming Trumpeter