Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

13. May Day Concert


  The History of British Jazz

When the time came to organise the Musicians’ Union’s May Day Concert for 1972, some financial restrictions were brought about by the rapidly increasing overheads, and I was compelled to think in terms of reverting to a more or less conventional symphony concert.

My proposals for the concert committee were, therefore, that we should seek to engage the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Groves, and that the programme should include the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E flat major, with the principal trumpeter of the orchestra, Alan Stringer, as soloist, the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, Janacek’s “Taras Bulba”, and a work by the distinguished British composer, Alan Bush, entitled “Dance Overture”.

I had recalled hearing his work broadcast back in 1935, the year of its composition, and also that it had required the use of both alto and tenor saxophones and, although it had no connection with jazz, the composer, I knew, had been influenced to some extent by the dance music of the period. The management of the orchestra asked me to engage the saxophonists, and my choice was Bob Burns on alto and Harry Gold on tenor. Although missing the spectacle of the two previous years, with their jazz content and contingents, the audience responded warmly to the overture, especially, perhaps, when the contrasting figures of the two famous jazzmen rose to play their more important passages. The concert proved to be a huge musical success, but unfortunately not financially so, and circumstances dictated that it should be the last of the more ambitious May Day events.

In previous chapters I have written mainly about the perhaps more significant performers of jazz based upon London for the simple reason that, at least up to the end of the ‘forties, these were the players of whom I had heard most and, of course, this account has been based throughout upon what I have heard rather than upon what I have heard about. Many of these players had, however, migrated to London from the English provinces and from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I should certainly not want it to be thought that I am without knowledge of or respect for the many tine jazz ensembles past and present that have made important contributions to jazz development without ever, or hardly ever, working in London.

Prior to World War II, I heard little of the bands and orchestras outside London, for the obvious reason that, except when I was engaged to tour or work in some other town or city, I was more or less tied to the Metropolis.

Similarly, when working out of London, my commitments coincided with those of the local bands, so I rarely heard them. In an earlier chapter I have already recounted how I first heard George Chisholm playing with Duncan Whyte’s excellent small band at Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow, back in 1936, the year before George first came South to revolutionise the London trombone scene, but I can recollect hearing few others during those years, although there were obviously many around.

In the post–war years, however, as an official of the Musicians’ Union, I heard very many, including some really outstanding ones, and I now regret that I failed to register their names, having no idea at that time that I should one day be writing this account. Some I can nevertheless recall, starting off with several based in the Portsmouth area in the early ‘fifties. There was, for example, the Johnny Lyne Orchestra, one of the most stylish I have heard. The leader, who I believe wrote all the arrangements, played alto saxophone, clarinet and trumpet in equally great style and skill, and directed a combination comprising four saxophones (baritone and three tenors), trombone, piano, bass, bongo and drums. There were a number of fine soloists among the personnel, and the ensemble, due to imaginative scoring and the astute use of doubling, was just about perfection. If my memory serves me correctly, at least one other saxophonist also doubled trumpet.

Other fine bands at that time in Portsmouth, I recall, were those of Jimmy Nash, with five brass, five reeds and rhythm, Reg Bannistra, the long–serving Musicians’ Union secretary for the area, Benny Freedman, with which I remember sitting in to play the “St. Louis Blues March”, and Phil Tate. Both Benny and Phil moved on in turn to the Leas Cliff Hall at Folkestone, and Phil, of course, has for many years been booking bands for the Mecca ballroom circuit.

The Midlands have made an important contribution to British jazz dating back to its earliest days, although my own opportunities for hearing much of it have occurred only during the past twenty–five years or so. Many fine jazz bands I have heard in Birmingham, Wolverhampton,. Coventry, Leicester and Peterborough, without, I regret, registering their names, but there are several of which I do have special note.

Back in 1959 the Midland District Council of the Musicians’ Union organised a social event at the Digbeth Civic Hall, Birmingham,, in honour of the late Paul Robeson, with whom I had the privilege of sharing the platform. I recall that the music for the occasion, in addition to Paul’s own contribution, in which he was accompanied by his pianist, Lawrence Brown, was provided by a section of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Harold Gray, Second City Jazzmen, Johnny Patrick’s Modern Jazz Quintet, and Dennis Hunt (solo piano).

Jazzmen, then at the top of their form, comprised Alan Hewitt (trumpet and valve trombone), Dave Lee (clarinet, bass clarinet), Jim Hyde (clarinet, soprano), Brian Casson (trombone), Stan Keeley (guitar, banjo), Brian Porter (bass), Pete Vicary (piano) and Len Cotton (drums), whilst the modern group comprised Johnny Patrick (piano), Johnny Collins (saxophone), Vic Mortiboys (bass), Alan Randle (vibraphone) and Tom Webster (drums).

Johnny Patrick who, of course, was to become well–known as music director of various ATV programmes emanating from the company’s Birmingham studios, and also for his voluntary work for the Musicians’ Union, organised, back in the ‘sixties, one of the finest of British big bands—much inspired by the Basie Orchestra. Yet another Midlands big band is that of Eric Pembleton, which has been working at the Festival Inn, Trowell, for many years past. It includes a brass section comprising four trumpets and four trombones that produces a tone that is a joy in itself, and all sections bristle with excellent soloists. It features many of the swinging arrangements of the American big bands of the ‘thirties and ‘forties that never seem to date.

Other really great provincial big bands were the former BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, based in Manchester, the disbandment of which was, in my view a disastrous decision, and, of course, the Syd Lawrence Orchestra which, although often criticised as an alleged carbon copy of the Miller Orchestra, can at least be thanked for the part it has played in bringing back a good big band tone and style to the British jazz scene at a time when the cult of the over–amplified rock band, if ‘band’ is a correct description for most of them, has reached the point of ear–shattering lunacy.

I have referred to only one area in the South of England, Portsmouth, where I recall hearing first–class stylish bands. Of course, there were others during those years between 1945 and 1955, when in towns such as Bournemouth, Brighton and Southampton there were still many opportunities for fulltime employment, and the field of casual employment had not suffered the ravages of pop and disco.

Most of the provincial events at which I often heard good jazz were miniature ‘jazz jamborees’, run as dances but with anything up to a dozen bands taking part and, as the proceeds were donated to the benevolent funds of the local Musicians’ Union branches, the musicians gave their services without payment of fees. In any case, no such event could have brought in enough money to pay so many musicians. An added advantage was that the many bands capable of playing jazz were in no way inhibited, as they often were by commercial dance promoters who favoured strict ballroom tempos, “party” novelty dances, and the various other soul destroyers from which all dance musicians have suffered through many decades.

I recall attending events where jazz was the dominant music in such towns and cities as High Wycombe, Ipswich, Luton, Aldershot, Bournemouth, Southampton, Weymouth and many others, and now wish that I had noted the names of the scores of good jazz groups I heard. I do, however, recall the excellent band of Eric Wakefield at High Wycombe, as well as that of the late John Haim. In Ipswich I sat in with an excellent co–operative band to play, among other numbers Woody Herman’s “Apple Honey”. This band, I recall, comprised four reeds, four brass and three rhythm, but the only names I can now recall were those of tenor saxophonist Stan Jones and the bass player whose surname was Chaplin; my apologies to the rest. The team work was extremely good and there were several good soloists; so it is, in fact, the performance that causes me to remember this band after some thirty years.

I recall a trio in Aldershot–piano, bass and drums—who, at literally five minutes’ notice, accompanied the star of the evening, Elaine Delmar, with the pianist filling in all the orchestral cues in a display of sight–reading that was perfection itself. In Margate many years ago, I heard a driving Dixieland band of mature players, the excellent saxophonist of which came to see me some time later with his son, who was on the point of completing his national service and proposing to enter the profession. He was Tony Coe.

In Bournemouth, back in the ‘fifties, there were numerous good jazz musicians, but a trio that I shall always recall, then employed full–time at one of the town’s smarter restaurants, was led by Scottish pianist Alex Haddow, with Bill Mader on tenor saxophone and clarinet and the late Syd Fay on drums.

This group had a tasteful bouncing style that would make good listening for any modern jazz audience.

It was in their home town that I first heard the Avon Cities Jazz Band working at the club in Bristol’s Great George Street somewhere around 1960. Then an excellent purely jazz team, they have, I believe, since dropped the ‘Jazz’ from their title, though not from their repertoire. They have nevertheless broadened their canvas by demonstrating their ability—in other forms of tasteful popular music, as I discovered when reviewing one of their albums as recently as 1975. It was then also interesting to learn that the band’s frontline still comprised its three original members—Ray Bush (clarinet), Geoff Nicholls (trumpet) and Mike Hitchings (trombone, soprano saxophone)—and the band was actually founded in 1949! Yet another excellent Bristol band, which I heard in 1973, was that of Dennis Mann, comprising six musicians who played really stylish jazz ‘to an enthusiastic and discerning audience at a social evening given for those attending the Musicians’ Union’s Delegate Conference of that year.

Scotland, of course, has made its own special contribution to British jazz with its many local bands, only as few of which I have had opportunities for hearing. I certainly recall enjoying the late Sandy Brown’s Jazz Band playing to an enthusiastic audience at the Edinburgh Jazz Club, which was then based at the Lido Hotel. This, needless to say, was long ago, as was a performance I heard, somewhere in Glasgow, by the Clyde Valley Stompers, as well as some others the names of which I did not register.

It is, however, to the London jazz scene that several Scottish ‘invasions’ have contributed so much over many decades, and to merely short–list the names of some of the distinguished Scots who long ago came South across the border could underline this fact. But although it would include very many familiar names, it could hardly do justice to those who would be excluded, to many of whom I have referred on numerous occasions in previous chapters.

Recalling an orchestra that worked in Liverpool in the late ‘thirties reminds me of another that, although of a very high standard, never worked anywhere! When Jack Hylton first took his band on tour in the ‘twenties it consisted of only eleven musicians,. and the personnel comprised Jack Raine, Charles Pemmell (trumpets), Lew Davis (trombone), Chappie D’Amato, Gerry Hoey, Johnny Raitz (reeds), Claud Ivy (piano), George Shannon (bass), Basil Wiltshire (drums), Emile Grimshawe Jnr. (banjo, guitar) and Johnny Rosen (violin). In those days a regular ingredient of the Hylton programme was a waltz, usually one of Irving Berlin’s, the finale of which always came with Rosen standing to play the last bars accompanied only by the piano, and with a blue spot concentrated on his finger–board as all other lights were dimmed. It was a little later that the band was first augmented by the jazz ingredient of Jack Jackson (trumpet), Edward ‘Poggy’ Pogson (reeds) and Hugo Rignold (violin), whilst in the years between then and its ultimate disbandment it was augmented still further with many distinguished players passing through its personnel.

Rosen decided to branch out as a bandleader, with a London hotel engagement in mind and, with the aid of another former Hyltonian, bassist Wally Morris, he formed an orchestra that for those days was quite large: four brass, four reeds, three strings and four rhythm. Although I was the drummer, I find it difficult to recollect the identities of its personnel, mainly because it existed only for two or three weeks. Morris was on bass, the violinists were Harry Balen, Cyril Harling and Zus Wiseman, the trombonist was Tony Thorpe and two of the four saxophonists were Harry Goodman and Jack Ambrose, but the identities of the other six players completely elude me. It was an excellent ensemble, with a book that contained some good swinging arrangements by some of the best writers of the day, but the potential salary list made the cost prohibitive in days when most of the London hotels and restaurants employed no more than eight or nine players.

Rosen eventually negotiated the Liverpool engagement for a smaller orchestra at Lewis’s Restaurant but, for obvious reasons, we were not enthusiastic about leaving London and he decided to form an orchestra from among Liverpool players. I am not certain about how long the orchestra remained at Lewis’s, but I recall hearing it broadcast on at least one occasion and, although in those days BBC restrictions could be somewhat inhibiting to dance bands, it came across extremely well and with the efficiency demanded by its leader. Unfortunately, the more glamorous London orchestra was never heard outside the rehearsal room.