Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

12. Gershwin Performances


  The History of British Jazz

Perhaps because the ‘twenties and ‘thirties often found me working in widely different fields of the music profession, during a period when there was a marked antipathy between the orchestral and theatre musicians on the one hand and jazz and dance musicians on the other, I always found interest in works that sought to bring together musicians from the fields of both symphonic and jazz music.

When thinking along these lines, of course, musicians invariably recall George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”, the first British performance of which was given in 1924 by an orchestra drawn from both the Savoy Orpheans and Havana ensembles of the time, augmented by a number of musicians from the symphonic field. I unfortunately missed the first public performance, given at the old Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, one of Britain’s finest, which was later to be destroyed during the 1940 blitz and never rebuilt, but I did hear the first British broadcast performance by the same orchestra. I also possess a copy of the original 78 version by Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra which, in fact, comprised musicians drawn from the fields of both symphonic and dance music. The great players of jazz, such as Venuti, Lang, Biederbecke, Trumbauer, the Dorseys and Jack Teagarden, joined the orchestra during later years.

Whiteman had commissioned Gershwin to write the “Rhapsody”, which I for one still enjoy hearing, as an orchestral work of symphonic proportions with a considerable element of jazz orientation. For the recording, the solo piano part was played by the composer. Ferde Grofe, Whiteman’s regular arranger, orchestrated the work and multi–instrumentalist Ross Gorman enjoyed the distinction of being the first clarinetist ever to play the opening cadenza! Other works, in a similar vein, have been Gershwin’s “Concerto in F”, Kurt Kern’s “Jazz Symphony”, Kurt Weill’s “Mahogany”, Erwin Schulhoff’s “Partita And Jazz Sonata” and Wiener’s “Syncopated Sonatina”. There are many others.

For me, however, the most fascinating of such works are those, much more rare, designed to combine both symphonic and jazz orchestras in their performance, such as Rolf Liebermann’s “Concerto For Jazz Band And Symphony Orchestra”, and the major work, in which the distinguished Hungarian composer Matyás Seiber teamed up with John Dankworth in 1958, entitled “Improvisations For Jazz Band And Symphony Orchestra”. In the light of my earlier remarks about professional antipathy, it is of some significance that this work was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

I first met Matyás Seiber soon after he had arrived in Britain in 1935 and, like many other members of the music profession at that time, I learned to admire and respect him for his enormous integrity both as a person and as a musician. A student of Zoltan Kodaly, he had left his native land during the mid‘twenties to escape the Horthy regime, and had set up home in Frankfurt where he, in fact, established a Jazz Academy.

Hitler’s rapid rise to power forced yet another move and Germany’s loss became Britain‘s gain. During the Frankfurt period, which lasted some ten years, Seiber produced what was probably his first work in the jazz idiom, entitled “Jazzolettes”, although this I have never heard. His tragic death in a motor accident in 1960 represented a major loss to music on an international scale, for he had contributed many fine orchestral, choral and chamber works, as well as solo and ballet works.

From 1964 until 1972, the Musicians’ Union, in conjunction with the Labour Party, sponsored an annual May Day concert at the Royal Festival Hall which became a major musical event in which were presented some of Britain’s finest symphony orchestras and soloists of international repute, in programmes of works selected from the classical, romantic and modern periods. In 1970 it became my responsibility to organise the Union’s side of the event and, recalling the Seiber/Dankworth “Improvisations”, I decided that it was time to give them another hearing. The orchestra that year was the New Philharmonic conducted by Adrian Sunshine, the comparatively young American who had settled among us with his family some years earlier.

His broad approach to music was ideal for the occasion, and the ‘jazz band’ part of the work was, of course, contributed by the Dankworth Orchestra.

To most members of the audience, the “Improvisations” were entirely new; like all such works, after the initial performances, the cost of presenting them had kept them out of the repertoire. To say that the 1970 audience rose to the performance would be the understatement of the year; they positively raved about it, on their feet, both Sunshine and Dankworth being called and recalled many times. For me the only sad note was that Seiber was no longer around to share the honour of the occasion.

There had been a recording made of the work back around 1963 and the London Philharmonic Orchestra had then been conducted, most appropriately, by Hugo Rignold, but it might be of interest to the reader to compare the personnel used by Dankworth on that occasion with that involved in the 1970 concert.

In the studio there had been John Dankworth, Peter King, Art Ellefson, Danny Moss and George Tyndale (saxophones), Dickie Hawdon, Kenny Wheeler, Derrick Abbot and Gus Galbraith (trumpets), Tony Russell, Ian McDougall and Eddie Harvey (trombones), Ronnie Snyder (tuba), Dudley Moore (piano), Spike Heatley (bass) and Kenny Clare (drums).

For the concert, some seven years later, only Dankworth, Moss, Wheeler, Russell and Clare were still present, the remaining trumpeters Stan Roderick, Butch Hudson and Martin Drover. The trombonists, in addition to Russell, were John Marshall, Chris Smith and Bill Geldard, an increase of one; the pianist was Bob Cornford and the bassist Kenny Napper.

The Seiber/Dankworth “Improvisations” were and still are unique in that the orchestral and jazz band composition was shared by both writers, and also that although some of the scored passages might have been more aptly described as ‘variations’, there are a number of passages in which either the orchestra, the jazz band, or both simultaneously, provide a scored accompaniment for genuinely improvised jazz solos.

I regret that I am now writing from memory, as I never managed to obtain a copy of either the album or the score and it is some seven years since I heard the work, but I especially recall a lengthy also saxophone solo from Dankworth in which he was backed by a sequence scored by Seiber for the symphony orchestra—a passage in itself worth hearing many times. There was also a fascinating passage for pizzicato strings, against which were played improvised solos on several instruments. At the concert, I seem to recall, these involved at least Dankworth, Wheeler and Moss, and later there was a build–up for a typical solo from Clare, the technical skill and unconventional sound of which made a terrific and obviously favourable impact upon the more–or–less conventional concert audience.

The most significant aspect of the concert was, as least for me, most clearly demonstrated at the rehearsal, where the mutual respect that existed between the two ensembles was obvious.

Encouraged by the success of the Seiber/Dankworth “Improvisation For Jazz Band And Symphony Orchestra” at the May Day Concert of 1970, I set about finding another such work that I could recommend for inclusion in the programme for the following year’s concert. This proved to be a by no means simple task but, in the process, I recalled that some years earlier Robert Farnon had composed a work for Dizzy Gillespie, in which he would be accompanied by a symphony orchestra.

Although I knew nothing of this particular work, I knew plenty about Farnon’s enormous contribution to the concert and light music repertoire, and therefore decided to consult him about the possibility of the work being presented at our concert, with one of our leading trumpeters as the soloist. He was, however, reluctant to have the work played by anyone but Gillespie, which was easily understandable, but expressed his willingness to compose another work for a British player and suggested Kenny Baker. The concert committee endorsed this idea, and I then approached Kenny, who was immediately enthusiastic. But, upon consulting his diary, he discovered that he would be out of Britain at the time of the concert some five months later. It was when I passed this news back to Farnon that he informed me that he had some time previously sketched out some ideas for a saxophone work, with his fellow–Canadian Bob Burns in mind, and suggested that if all concerned agreed he would be willing to get down to the scoring of this in substitution for a trumpet work.

When this proposal had been agreed, the composer discussed some of his ideas with me about required augmentations and also to enable me to write a suitable programme note—in all probability before the work was completed. For the 1971 concert the Union had engaged the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to which he suggested as desirable the addition of a trumpeter, trombonist, bassist and drummer, all experienced in big band jazz performance, as well as a saxophone section of five in addition to the soloist. To this I agreed but suggested that the saxophone section should comprise six players, to include the all–too–rarely–heard bass voice. I also asked Farnon to conduct the work.

My suggestion for the larger saxophone section was not based solely upon my own enthusiasm for the sound it would produce but because, at the previous year’s concert, I had noted the audience’s audible buzz of interest when the Dankworth reedmen had made their entrance on stage. I also recalled the popularity of Van Phillips’ Orchestra, Dance Band and Saxophone Quintet, used both collectively and as individual sections, in BBC and Luxembourg radio programmes many years earlier. Van Phillips had first come to Britain in the ‘twenties to play alto saxophone and clarinet with the Savoy Havana Band. After leaving the hotel, he concentrated his efforts upon composing, arranging and conducting, becoming one of our most respected music directors, but never lost his affection for the saxophone.

Robert Farnon’s “Saxophone Triparti” was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall on April 30, 1971, but a rehearsal, additional to the one that normally occurs in the hall on the same day, was held at the Camden Town Hall on the previous day. The orchestra was augmented by Stan Roderick (trumpet), Don Lusher (trombone), Arthur Watts (bass) and Bobby Orr (drums), plus the additional saxophone section comprising George Hunter and Dennis Walton (altos), Duncan Lamont and Ronnie Scott (tenors), Harry Klein (baritone and alto) and Harry Gold (bass and alto). As soloist, Bob Burns was required to play soprano, alto and tenor.

As in the previous year, when the New Philharmonia and John Dankworth orchestras had joined forces for the performance of the “Improvisations”, I noted the obviously mutual interest and respect demonstrated between musicians who normally played only in the symphony orchestra and others who could be found working in studio orchestras, theatres, dance halls—in fact, anywhere requiring first–class musicianship.

I recall enjoying a typical if somewhat irreverent crack from Ronnie Scott, the last of the saxophonists to arrive at rehearsal—but by no means late, I would hasten to add, although perhaps showing signs of a long night at his favourite club—who, after standing for a moment to survey the sea of faces around him, said: “Well, I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell somebody I can’t read a note”! Needless to say, nobody believed him! Another comment during rehearsal, this time from Bob Burns, is also recalled. After playing one of his busier solo passages, he indicated that he wanted to speak to me. I fully expected him to make some comment about the job in hand but, instead, he said: “That was a nice article you wrote for The Musician—keep up the good work”, and I realised that he was referring to something I had written for the journal of the Musicians’ Union about the work of some charlatans in the so–called avant garde school! It transpired that the “Saxophone Triparti” received inadequate rehearsal in the Royal Festival Hall, due to the fact that under the baton of the other conductor, John Pritchard, the symphony orchestra had first to rehearse Elgar’s “Cockaigne” Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, with David Wilde as soloist, and Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole”, leaving little time for the platform to be rearranged to accommodate the additional ten musicians.

During the afternoon, however, these rehearsed in a smaller room independently of the symphony orchestra. I remember thinking at the time that the lush sound of the saxophone team alone was worthy of a recording session but, unfortunately, this important work has still gone unrecorded.

At the performance, the impact of the “Triparti” was as expected, and it did, after all, represent something of an historic event for, unlike many concert works for solo saxophone, here was the successful marriage of two musical idioms. In three movements, Moderato, Lento and Allegro. the soloist is featured during the first of these on tenor, during the second on soprano and in the third on alto, briefly changing back to soprano for a slower passage in which he leads a choir of seven saxophones, plus the full orchestra.

It was in the Allegro, in which Bob Burns on alto was given a long extemporised passage, that a dramatic moment due to a simple mishap, occurred. During a brief scored passage in which the symphony orchestra was tacet, Farnon, misjudging the distance between himself and Bobs music stand, inadvertently knocked the solo part on to the floor. Those on the platform, and at least one member of the audience, held their breath whilst Bob proceeded to repeat his part from memory, the cue being picked up without hesitation by Farnon and the ten musicians immediately around them, until a moment when Dennis Walton, with real professional presence of mind, squeezed between the music stands, retrieved Bob’s part for him and returned to his own seat in time for the completion of the passage, at which point Farnon successfully brought in the full orchestra for the finale.

As the two Canadians took their bows in response to overwhelming applause from the genuinely enthusiastic audience, Ronnie Scott, from among the battery of saxophones, was heard to complain: “But that’s not the way we rehearsed it.”