Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

10. The Commonwealth Jazz Orchestra


  The History of British Jazz

The three important orchestras to which I have already referred—those of Tubby Hayes, Tony Russell and Harry South, which took part in the 1965, and last, Jazz Jamboree—produce interesting recollections. As I have previously mentioned, there was some swapping of important personnel between them which would have made it impossible for the three orchestras to maintain their personnels and appear at three separate but simultaneously presented concerts—in the unlikely event of three promoters deciding to enter into such competition! Hayes’ Commonwealth Jazz Orchestra comprised Ian Hamer, Greg Bowen, Les Condon and Kenny Wheeler (trumpets), Keith Christie, Johnny Marshall, Nat Peck and Gib Wallace (trombones), Alfie Reece (tuba), Bob Burns, Ray Swinfield, Ronnie Ross, Ronnie Scott, Art Ellefson and Tubby himself (saxophones), Stan Tracey (piano), Freddy Logan (bass) and Ronnie Stephenson (drums). Bowen, however, also performed with the other two orchestras. Hamer, Condon, Christie, Marshall, Scott and Hayes also performed with the South orchestra, and Wheeler, Peck and Swinfield performed with the Russell orchestra.

Leon Calvert led the Russell orchestra on first trumpet. In addition to him, Bowen, Wheeler and Peck, the trumpet section included Gordon Rose. Chris Smith, Rick Kennedy, Chris Pyne and Jack Thirwell were on trombones. On reeds, in addition to Swinfield, were Alan Beever, Vic Ash, Stan Robinson and Alex Leslie. There was no pianist, the rhythm being provided by George Kish (guitar), Ron Mathewson (bass) and Tony Kinsey (drums). There were also four ‘cellists whose names I do not recollect.

The South brass section, in addition to Hamer, Bowen, Condon, Christie and Marshall from the Hayes orchestra, also included Ian Carr from the Neil Ardley orchestra, about which I have already written. and Smith from the Russell ensemble, the remaining brass player being Ken Goldie on trombone. In the reed section, in addition to Hayes and Scott, were Roy Willox, Alan Branscombe, Dick Morrissey and Joe Temperley. The pianist was Gordon Beck, the bassist Phil Bates and the drummer Phil Seamen.

It is, nevertheless, important to recall that, at that period, it would have already been possible to organise completely independent personnels, several times over, to play the books of the three orchestras.

For convenience at the Jamboree, and with the willing consent of those musicians involved, the leaders agreed to the swapping of players.

By the ‘sixties. the new trend—‘beat’, as it was then called—was having an unfortunate affect upon the Anglo,/American exchanges in the sense that, although we were continuing to receive the best of American jazz musicians, we were sending fewer and fewer British players of the same calibre to the States. In fact, a majority of the British participants were not jazz members, but the forerunners of our current merry band of electronic noisemakers. The craziness of the situation was that a well–,known American orchestra of fifteen musicians would come to Britain and, in exchange, three five–member groups would go to the States—any one of which would receive a bigger fee than the American orchestra! Furthermore, for some years it could be claimed, for what it was worth, that in the field of ‘beat’ the British were ahead of the Americans. But the sad fact was that the American public were seeing and hearing less and less d the best of British jazz orchestras and musicians.

In March 1960, Jazz At The Philharmonic was back in Britain, once again starring Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. This time, however, Coleman Hawkins was also allotted his own solo spot in the programme. The accompanying trio throughout comprised Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich, whilst the front–line personnel for the band set was Flip Phillips and Lester Young on tenor saxophones, Harry Edison on trumpet and Bill Harris on trombone. JATP was back again in the following November, this time with, apart from Hawkins, an entirely different personnel, comprising Dizzy Gillespie, J. J. Johnson, Roy Eldridge, the bongo player Candido and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, the personnel of which was, in addition to its leader on alto saxophone, Nat Adderley (trumpet), Victor Feldman {vibraphone), Sam Jones (bass) and Louis Hayes (drums).

I seem to recollect seeing JATP on another occasion, between the March and November tours, when the personnel was much the same as in March, but without Peterson and Eldridge, and with Tommy Turk replacing Harris.

In January and November 1961, the Dave Brubeck Quartet made tours of Britain; the first of these, I remember, was shared by the Joe Harriott Quintet.

During the March of that year, Ella and Oscar shared another tour, the former backed by the Lou Levy Quartet, the latter by Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen.

In the following month, we had our first look at the Thelonious Monk Quartet and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, who shared a tour. In September, the Modern Jazz Quartet returned, and in the November the Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane quartets shared a tour.

During 1962 and 1963, there were further tours by Ella Fitzgerald and JATP.

Also the Basie Orchestra, first sharing a tour with the celebrated Lambert, Hendricks and Ross vocal trio and later with Sarah Vaughan, who was accompanied by the Kirk Stuart Trio; Jimmy Rushing was the featured vocalist with the orchestra.

The Louis Armstrong All–Stars made a tour, with Louis still supported by Trummy Young, Billy Kyle and Danny Barcelona, but the clarinettist was Joe Darensbourg and Bill Cronk was on bass; the vocalist was Jewel1 Brown. The tour was shared by Gerry Brown’s Jazzmen, a talented British band from the Bournemouth area.

In the Spring of 1962, the late Errol1 Garner played the first of a number of tours of Britain and, like Armstrong, Basie, Brubeck, JATP and the MJQ, instantly won the hearts of British audiences. A most charming artist to meet, he was one of those astounding non–reading players of the kind about which I wrote many chapters ago. His death, in January 1977, robbed jazz of one of its finest exponents, leaving a gap that could never be filled. Sarah Vaughan returned for another tour, which she shared with the George Shearing Quintet, in the following October and, one month later, the Brubeck Quartet were back for another of their many British tours.

Mention of Shearing’s visit reminds me of an example of George’s sense of humour. It was at the Hammersmith Gaumont; the concert had reached its conclusion and I was standing just offstage when the quintet played the National Anthem, which, I must admit, sounded a bit thin on piano, vibraphone, bass, drums and guitar in an auditorium of that size, although everything seemed to be going off as solemnly as usual. George, however, presumably to give things a bit of a lift, and much to at least my amusement, played against the final chord the well–known “Good evening, friends” phrase! I thought it sounded quite effective.

Shearing was one of the first of Britain’s best players to make a permanent move to the States, and it is interesting to note the predominance of pianists among them. Alco to be listed are Marian McPartland, Ralph Sharon, Dill Jones, Ronnie Selby and, of course, Victor Feldman, who those of us who were around back in the ‘forties well remember as the wonder boy drummer! At an early stage in his career, he made it his business to study and master the technicalities of the piano, from which the vibraphone was but a logical step. Eddie Thompson also spent some ten years in the States,. but his return to Britain in 1973 was indeed most welcome.

Another well–known British musician lost to the States is, of course, Joe Temperley who, like the pianists listed, has achieved considerable success across the Atlantic. As has drummer Ronnie Stephenson, whose British “Drum Spectacular” album recorded in partnership with Kenny Clare back in 1966 is well remembered.

In retrospect, it is significant that, unlike the situation in the ‘twenties, ‘thirties and the present, many musicians during the ‘forties and ‘fifties were able to make quite a good living out of playing little else but jazz. Many more, in fact than the number able to do so during the early years of jazz in Britain just after the first World War.

True it is that such orchestras as those of Ambrose, Lew Stone, Fred Elizalde and “Spike” Hughes achieved an extremely high standard of big band jazz, but it was only the first two of these that were able to remain in existence for any length of time. This they did, employed as they were in West End hotels and restaurants, by playing commercial though never “corny” arrangements interspersed by some first–class swinging jazz. Elizalde, too, under pressure from Savoy Hotel patrons and management, found it necessary to modify his “hot” policy. Hughes’ activity on the British jazz scene was even briefer but, because he was involved almost entirely in the field of recording, he was able to stick fairly tightly to a purely jazz policy.

Many lesser–known bands, then employed in the West End, also followed the Ambrose/Stone policy, where there was a will to do so, as did many of the dance hall and Palais bands then in existence. Jazz was heard in clubs such as the Nest, the Shim–Sham, the Bag O’ Nails, Jigs and the never–to–be–forgotten 43, run by the celebrated Mrs. Kate Merrick and situated in the street destined to become, several decades later, the centre of the new Chinatown of London. This was the club that became subject to more police raids than most in the days when the “plain clothes” advance guard of the force used to turn up “disguised” as customers, wearing dinner suits and size 12 boots. Whereupon the stylish small band led by pianist Dave Frost would segue into “The Policeman’s Holiday”, giving the management time to show out through the back exit, a convenient lavatory window, any royal patrons who happened to be present.

I am not forgetting the early “rhythm “, the first of which was established back in 1933, all of which offered regular though casual employment for musicians, as did the hundreds of one–night–a–week jazz clubs that were established throughout Britain during the early years following World War II. In addition to contributing towards the livelihood of musicians able and willing to play jazz, they made an important contribution to the popularising of jazz in Britain. Indeed, it was during that period that the description “jazz”, which had gone out of favour in the late ‘twenties, was firmly rehabilitated.

In those early post–war years there were few full–time clubs established that presented a purely jazz policy and which provided six–nights–a–week employment for musicians, Ronnie Scott’s being about the one exception. The other well–appointed clubs, where musicians found employment on two, three, four or more nights each week, were the Feldman, the Flamingo and the Marquee, and there were also jazz clubs run on a casual basis at Mack’s Restaurant, at 100 Oxford Street, on the one–night–a–week policy. One of these I recall was the Humphrey Lyttelton Club, another the London Jazz Club and yet a third was called Jazzshows Jazz Club. There were also the Dankworth Club, which met on two nights each week at 79 Oxford Street, and Studio 51, in Great Newport Street near Leicester Square, which presented Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen on four nights each week.

The Scott Club, which was first established in Gerrard Street in 1959, not far from the site of the old 43 Club, experienced many early struggles, but its fortunes changed when the Musicians’ Union and the then Ministry of Labour agreed upon a set of conditions which permitted the employment of a limited number of individual foreign musicians in clubs each year, without the necessity for reciprocal exchange arrangements. These conditions, of course, included a stipulation that a specified number of British musicians were to be permanently employed on a six–nights–a–week basis.

So far as I can recollect, the only other club management who were able to take advantage of these arrangements were Eric Striven and trumpeter Ernie Garside, a partnership who ran the Manchester Club 43 during the ‘fifties. Garside, however, left Manchester back in 1966 to work with and, in fact, manage the orchestra of that magnificent trumpet technician Maynard Ferguson.

By 1966 the Scott Club was able to move to bigger and better premises in Frith Street, where it proved possible to present not only the visiting foreign soloists but also, by arrangement with Harold Davison, entire American orchestras, such as those of Basie, Herman and Rich, as a part of the tours they fulfilled under the reciprocal exchange arrangements.

The BBC, too, had played its part in winning public interest in jazz, commencing with its war–time Radio Rhythm Club, of which Harry Parry’s Sextet, firmly in the Goodman groove, had been the “house” band, and other programmes that featured the best in British jazz. In its early days around 1941, Parry, on clarinet, was leading George Shearing (piano), Roy Marsh (vibraphone), Frank Deniz (guitar), Sam Molyneux (bass) and Ben Edwards (drums), and a grand sound it was indeed! By 1945 Buddy Featherstonhaugh was leading his Radio Rhythm Club Sextet, which comprised himself on tenor, Don McCaffer (trombone), Malcolm Lockyer (piano), Alan Metcalf (guitar), Reg Beard (bass) and Stan Marshall (drums) but, by 1949, the R.R.C. had been superceded by Mark White’s Jazz Club, from which the BBC extracted some choice tracks for one of their published albums a few years The personnel of one of these comprised Jack Jackson (trumpet), Sid Phillips (clarinet), Harry Gold (tenor), Nobby Clark (trombone), Billy Munn (piano), Jack Llewellyn (guitar), Will Hemmings (bass) and Max Abrams (drums), whilst another consisted of Freddy Randall (trumpet), Cliff Townshend (clarinet), Laurie Gold (tenor), Geoff Love (trombone), Dill Jones (piano), Vic Lewis (guitar), Hank Hobson (bass) and the worthy Max again driving things along from the drum stool.

Yet another driving BBC group, a broadcast of which was also recorded, but some fourteen years later, was the Jazz Club All Stars, the line–up being Tommy McQuater (trumpet), George Chisholm (trombone), Cliff Townshend (clarinet), Jimmy Skidmore (tenor), Billy Munn (piano), Joe Muddell (bass) and Eddie Taylor (drums).

The performances of any of these three recorded so long ago, represented the best in jazz and will stand the test of time for man; decades ahead.