Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

14. The Critics


  The History of British Jazz

When reviewing the fifty years covered by this account, and remembering that music from which sprang the roots of jazz was being played during the early years of the present century: and realising that this music form, having weathered the perils created by the competition and commercial exploitation of forms of popular ‘music’ requiring in performance neither roots nor talent, it is interesting to recall that the doom of jazz, including dance music, was being prophesied by its critics way back in the ‘twenties.

These critics ranged from the late Sir Henry Coward, who in his lifetime made a most important contribution to choral music, to the late Billy Merson, one of the most popular comedians in the heyday of the variety theatre. Sir Henry’s criticisms amounted to nothing short of a vitriolic attack, whilst Billy contented himself with telling the world that the saxophone was then playing its ‘Swan Song’! Igor Stravinsky, however, has in the past been known to express some not unfriendly interest in jazz and, in an interview reported in The Observer, with Robert Craft back in 1959, he expressed himself as follows:

“Jazz is a different fraternity altogether, a wholly difficult kind of music–making. It has nothing to do with composed music, and when it seeks to be influenced by contemporary music it isn’t jazz and it isn’t good.

“Improvisation has its own time world, necessarily a loose and large one, since only in a precisely limited time could real improvisation be worked up to; the stage has to be set and there must be heat. The percussion and bass (not the piano; that instrument is too hybrid and besides, most of the players have just discovered Debussy) function as a central heating system. They must keep the temperature ‘cool’, not cool. It is a kind of masturbation that never arrives anywhere (of course), but supplies the artificial genesis the art requires.

“The point of interest is instrumental virtuosity, instrumental personality, not harmony and certainly not rhythm. Rhythm doesn’t exist, really, because no rhythmic proportion or relaxation exists. Instead of ‘rhythm’ there is ‘beat’. The players beat all the time (merely to keep up and to know which side of the beat they are on. The ideas are instrumental or, rather, they aren’t ideas because they come after, come from the instruments.

“As an example of what I have said about timing, I can listen to Shorty Rogers’ good style with its dotted–note tradition, for stretches of fifteen minutes and more and not feel the time at all, whereas the weight of every ‘serious’ virtuoso I know depresses me beyond the counter–action of equanil (sic) in about five.”

I have never been certain whether I quite understood all this, certainly not so well as I can understand the maestro when he expresses himself in his own field of music, but I found interesting his contention that jazz had ‘nothing to do with composed music’ for, it seemed, he had never heard anything of the work of Duke Ellington, to mention only the obvious; and I wonder whether Peterson, Garner, Wilson, Basie and others have been aware that their ‘hybrid’ instrument was not to be included in the ‘central heating system’! Yet, during the war of 1914/1918, Stravinsky wrote a work described as “Ragtime, For Eleven Instruments” and, because the instrumentation used in his “The Soldier’s Tale” written in the same period, resembled to some extent that of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, there were those who tried to read into the work some jazz influence. This, to me, has never been obvious, although one of the dances within the work is also described as a ‘Ragtime’. He also wrote a work described as “Piano Rag Music” which, unfortunately, like “Ragtime, For Eleven Instruments”, I have never heard; and his excursions into the world of jazz appear to have progressed no further.

Many years later, of course, during the ‘forties, he wrote “Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman Orchestra of the period, although this had little to do with jazz, except that it was scored for a large jazz orchestra with Herman’s clarinet well to the fore. It was, in fact, a significant concert work for clarinet and an unusual instrumentation. When the John Dankworth Orchestra recorded the work some years later, it was not John who played the clarinet part but the concert soloist Gervaise De Peyer.

Mention of the latter recording encourages me to list the full and most impressive personnel who took part: Dickie Hawdon, Jimmy Deuchar, Kenny Wheeler, Derrick Abbott, Gus Galbraith (trumpets), Tony Russell, Ian McDougall, Eddie Harvey (tromtbones), Denis Wilson (horn), Ronnie Snyder (tuba), John Dankworth, Peter King, Art Ellefson, Danny Moss, George Tyndale, Ronnie Ross (saxophones), Gervaise De Peyer (clarinet), Michael Jefferies (harp), Dudley Moore {piano), (guitar), Spike Heatley (bass), Kenny Clare (drums). This recording was originally included in the same album as the Seiber/Dankworth “Improvisations For Jazz And Symnhony Orchestra”, about which I wrote several chapters ago, and another work, which I have yet to hear, entitled “A Rondo For Jazz Band And Symphony Orchestra” by Leonard Salzedo, the prominent composer and music director from the fields of ballet, chamber and film music, and David Lindup, who has enjoyed a long arranging and composing association with Dankworth.

Jazz has also suffered to some extent in the internal sense,. by which I mean there has been criticism over the years from musicians who, whilst enjoying the music, found it difficult to make a living from playing it, and others have been determined to play it, no matter what, and have appeared to take little interest in whether or not their reward has been adequate. In my opinion, both attitudes are wrong. To play jazz, a musician does not have to ignore other forms of music and, if he or she has got what it takes for the jazz idiom, participation in other fields can only improve the technical capability of such players. The old idea that playing jazz damaged one’s ‘straight’ performance or vice versa, went overboard many years ago. One has only to look at the careers of many members of the great studio orchestras of today, such as those of Parnell, Rabinowitz, Braden, Sharples, Hazelhurst and Aldrich, the work of which consists mainly of providing first–class accompaniment rather than featured music of any kind, and consider whether individual jazz performance has suffered as the result. No doubt many of these musicians get a greater kick out of playing jazz, but you cannot play any kind of music too well on an empty stomach! True it is that a comparative minority of musicians make a living solely from playing jazz, but this is equally true, for example, of chamber and ballet music. Yet these forms of music will never die, despite their special nature and the lack of adequate State subsidy, so long as there are musicians around, when required, capable of playing them.

In the earlier chapters of this account, covering the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, it was a fairly easy matter for me to pick out, as ‘milestones’ as I described them, orchestras like those employed at the Savoy Hotel, notably Fred Elizalde’s, and those of Bert Ambrose, Lew Stone and “Spike” Hughes, all of which set a standard that many others of the period were inspired to emulate. The contributions of Ambrose and Stone were unique inasmuch as they managed to maintain such a standard for longer periods than the rest.

Apart from the disruption of the war years, Ambrose led some of the finest personnels from 1920 to 1949, as did Stone from 1932 to 1968, although in the post–war period the latter found himself compelled to reduce the size of his orchestra.

As I have previously emphasised, these orchestras, the exception of Hughes’s, were not involved solely in the playing of big band jazz, a fact that is confirmed by the various re–issued examples of their work among current albums but, when required to ‘swing’, they boasted excellent arrangements played by the most talented of interpreters.

During the ‘thirties, too, orchestras such as those of ,Jack Jackson at the Dorchester Hotel, Sid Lipton at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Bert Firman at the London Casino, Howard Godfrey at the Waldof Hotel, and those of Harry Roy and Roy Fox also featured swingy arrangements and fine soloists with truly excellent effect. Geraldo’s interest in this kind of presentation, however, did not begin to show itself until the war years, influenced, I always assumed, by the many experts in the field who, by then, he had recruited into his orchestra.

Geraldo’s personnels between 1939 and the mid–‘fifties included such players as saxophonists Harry Hayes, Andy McDevitt, George Evans, Billy Amstell, Aubrey Frank, Harry Gold, Douggie Robinson, Nat Temple and Wally Stott; trumpeters Max Goldberg, Tim Casey, Freddie Clayton, Clinton Ffrench, Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson, Stan. Roderick and Alfie Noakes; trombonists Ted Heath, Eric Tann, Eric Breeze, Jock Bain, Ladd Busby and Lew Davis; guitarists Ivor Mairants, Bill Tringham and Joe Deniz; bassists Jack Collier and Don Stutely, and drummers Jock Cummings, Max Abrams, Maurice Burman and Eric Delaney. The pianist throughout was, to the best of my recollection, as in pre–war days, Geraldo’s brother Sidney Bright.

Geraldo’s series of Sunday Night Swing Concerts at London’s St. ‘Martin’s Theatre in 1939, and at the Stoll Theatre in 1942, broke new ground for British orchestras, although during the ‘forties and early ‘fifties, first the Service bands and later the ,post–war civilian bands, both large and small, were presented in innumerable jazz and Swing concerts in London and elsewhere. The best remembered of the big band concerts must surely be the long series on Sunday nights, when Ted Heath presented his fine orchestra, about which I have already written, at the London Palladium. Ted, incidentally, enjoyed a lifetime of association with famous bands and orchestras. He was with ‘Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra during the early ‘twenties, moving on to Jack Hylton’s Kit Kat Club Band, to the Ambrose Orchestra, next to Sid Lipton at Grosvenor House. followed by a period of several years with Geraldo’s Orchestra and many studio orchestras before forming his own.

Another fine musician with probably the longest record of professional activity in the performance of jazz, dance music and stage work must surely be Joe Crossman who, although playing saxophone and clarinet professionally as I write these words in December 1977, obtained his first major contract, to join Ambrose at the Embassy Club, during the ‘twenties, moving on a little later with the same leader to the Mayfair Hotel. Tiring of hotel work, Crossman joined the stage band of Jack Hylton and it was while the orchestra were playing an engagement at Ghent in Belgium during the early ‘thirties, that a member of the audience sent round a message that he would like to meet “the rouge saxophonist” in those days Joe had red hair! The invitation was from Igor Stravinsky and the meeting took place in the dressing room but, as Joe had not yet learned to speak French, Stravinsky’s second language, another member of the Hylton reed section, Chappie D’Amato, acted as interpreter. Stravinsky persuaded Joe to play for him and expressed his delight at what he heard.

Crossman later returned to the Ambrose Orchestra and thence to that of Lew Stone. A final return to Ambrose followed by short spells with Harry Roy and Maurice Winnick and then, during the post–war period, back once again with Stone. In 1952 the band was at the Pigalle in London’s Piccadilly when, in addition to Joe, the remaining saxophonists were Ernie Lockett and Sid Manikin.

The brass section comprised Kenny Baker, Sid Holmes and Harry Roche and the rhythm section Monia Liter (piano), Dave Fullerton (drums) and Benny Wright (bass). Soon afterwards Joe took his own band to an engagement in India but, late in 1968, he was back with Lew Stone whose death, in 1969, robbed Britain of one of its finest and most dedicated bandleaders.

A number of musicians who worked with the orchestras to which I have referred throughout my many chapters, became bandleaders in their own right, often of smaller bands, typical examples being Joe Daniels and Ray Ellington (both of whom had in turn played drums for Harry Roy), Nat ‘Gonella, Harry Hayes, George Evans, Eric Delaney, Kenny Baker, Jack Parnell, George Chisholm, Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson, Nat Temple, Harry Gold and Sid Phillips.

Many more of Britain’s finest musicians, both band members and bandleaders, virtually arrived on the scene during the ‘forties and later a fact which I believe entitles us to a sense of optimism about the further development of jazz in Britain, like other significant music forms, in the decades ahead, provided, of course, that no idiot presses the button! I do not think that jazz development can thrive only upon a constant repetition of one or more of its past successful phases, but I do not agree, for example, with the writer who described those who have become enthusiastic about the revival in recent years of the ,Miller sound as “Glenn Miller necrophiliacs”. Little harm listening to good musical sounds from the past, provided one also listens to the good musical sounds of the present, of which there are plenty despite the bombardment of distracting and earsplitting noises which at times seem to render it impossible to hear anything at all! Similarly, enjoyment of the Dixieland style of sixty years ago, when played by modem and more competent musicians, or the bop style of a mere thirty years ago does not prevent equal enjoyment of the work of some of the modern style jazz groups with which the British jazz scene today abounds. Here, of course, I am not referring to the ‘antimusic’ that has in recent years been developed in several fields of music, including jazz, by some who perpetrate their toneless antics upon us as a means of drawing attention to their otherwise inconspicuous presence.