Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

5. Reciprocal Arrangements


  The History of British Jazz

Throughout the first half of the ‘fifties, those interested in bringing American bands to Britain, without control over the protection of employment for their British counterparts, continued to exert pressure in various directions both behind the scenes and in the press which, on the face of it, appeared to be completely uninformed about the views and policy of both the British and American unions. In fact, the press, especially the music press, was fully informed throughout the period but generally chose to ignore the reasoned arguments of the British Musicians’ Union, which, having operated successfully the reciprocal arrangements with various European countries to which I have previously referred, consistently made clear that it ,would agree to similar reciprocal arrangements with the States if the American Federation of Musicians and the authorities on both sides were agreeable. For some years the A.F.M. proved to be reluctant to enter into such arrangements.

As the Union official then responsible for the subject of reciprocal exchange of musicians with foreign countries I had, during those years, many interesting and helpful discussions with personalities from the American jazz scene, such as Norman Granz, who first expounded for me his ideas for the “Jazz At The Philharmonic” type of presentation as early as March 1,950. Barrv Ulanov, the distineuished author and journalist. Marian McPartland, the fine British–born pianist who had adopted the States through marriage to cornetist Jimmy, and Mary Lou Williams, who for me has always been one of the greatest jazz pianists. I once enjoyed dinner at her London flat in company with the one and only Teddy Wilson and thought, at the time, that most British jazz journalists would have given their high teeth to have been present. I remember too an occasion when guitarist Ivor Mairants arrived in my office in company with the then noted bop pianist/arranger Tadd Dameron, a most interesting personality but who, sadly enough, had but a few more years to live. Then there was pianist/composer/arranger Phil Moore, who, in August 1951 was permitted by the then Ministry of Labour to record in London with a British orchestra. I was present at one of the sessions but, with the exceptions of Jack Parnell on drums and Max Abrams on timpani, regret that I cannot recall who else was present—apart from the late Maurice Winnick, who organised the project. But I do recall the great sound produced by all involved.

During July 1953, the then President of the A.,F.‘M., James C. Petrillo, was in Europe and the late General Secretary of the M.U.. Hardie Ratcliffe. who was also president of the International Federation of Musicians, took advantage of the opportunity to meet him in Paris. They spent a day together discussing many subjects of mutual interest including, of course, the MU.‘s proposals for reciprocal exchange.

Petrillo, hotwever, felt less than confident that his executive board would accept a long–term exchange scheme, but he did suggest that they might be agreeable. subject to the approval of the government departments in both countries, to lift the embargo for an experimental period of twelve months, without any reciprocal arrangement. To this, of course, the M.U. could never have agreed, for it would obviously have resulted in a one–way traffic into Britain.

In April 1954 I had a lengthy and, so I thought, fruitful discussion with Carroll Gibbons, who was still the principal Savoy Hotel music director. It was his idea that he should take his orchestra to one of the New York hotels, the name of which now escapes me, and the orchestra from that hotel should work at the Savoy for an equivalent period.

Subject to the approval of contracts, I could see nothing wrong with the plan, especially perhaps as Carroll had retained his membership of the appropriate AFM Local throughout the years and I wrote to Mr. Petrillo accordingly but, I confess to my surprise, his executive board turned down the idea. It so happens that, even had they not done so, the exchange would never have taken place for, within the period of a few weeks, poor Carroll died.

Another proposal brought to me, by a couple of well–known enthusiasts, for an exchange involving the bands of Sid Phillips and the New Orleans trumpeter Sharkey Bonano, came to nothing because they had failed to do their homework. After a number of telephone conversations we met to discuss the terms and conditions they would be expected to observe, and I learned that they had been in communication with Bonano, who was naturally interested in coming out of virtual retirement to perform in Britain. It was, however, when I asked what Sid Phillips’ reaction had been to the idea of flying the Atlantic that I discovered that, until then, they had omitted to consult him about their plans! So another bright idea had to be shelved because the reason for my question had been that I knew Sid to be averse to flying anywhere! In 1949, Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins were both persuaded to give ‘surprise’ performances at London concerts without work permits and, although the story is now water under the bridge, I should have loved to have had those responsible present a few years later, when I found myself having to convince Ministry of Labour officials, who were then considering well–planned exchange proposals for both musicians, that they were in fact distinguished artists who could be relied upon to honour the requirements of their work permits if granted! Many promoters came to the union with ideas for bringing American bands to Britain, although only a few had any ideas about how to promote British bands in the States, but it was obvious in those early days that the responsibility for promotions on both sides of the Atlantic would rest largely upon the shoulders of the British promoters, for the Americans were interested only in sending their bands to Britain.

Since the Harold Davison office had organised most of the early exchanges with the European continent, it was perhaps logical that Davison should prove to be the first to set up an Anglo/American exchange. During the early ‘fifties he had visited the States in company with Vic Lewis, whose orchestra he then represented, and there met Stan Kenton for the first time.

In 1955 Kenton and Ted Heath jointly played an important part in persuading the A.F.M. to agree to an exchange between their respective orchestras, and Davison was asked to handle the business side. So the first exchange was finally organised, with the Kenton Orchestra commencing its tour at the Royal Albert Hall on 11th March, 1956, and the Heath Orchestra, some days later, opening at San Antonio, Texas, before an audience of 5,000.

For some years prior to 1950, certain sections of the music press who were campaigning for the admission of American musicians into Britain without any kind of control, took the line that British musicians, when playing jazz, were vastly inferior to their American counterparts. British rhythm sections, especially their drummers, were notable victims of this kind of propaganda.

The arrival of the ‘fifties, however, saw some considerable modification of this prejudice, largely due, I think, to the work of such players as Kenny Baker, George Chisholm, John Dankworth, Kathy Stobart, Tommy Whittle, Don Rendell, Tommy McQuater, Harry Gold, Ronnie Scott, Bob Burns, Carl Barriteau and Tubby Hayes, to name only an obvious few from among those already mentioned in previous chapters.

The best of the British bands also played their part, those of Ted Heath, Geraldo, Dankworth, Jack Parnell and Vic Lewis being good examples. And we might also remember that, as late as 1953, Bert Ambrose was still directing a fine orchestra, well worthy of the reputation he had built up over some thirty–odd years.

Drummers of note were Phil Seamen, Jack Parnell, Eric Delaney, Tony Crombie, George Fierstone, Tony Kinsey, Norman Burns, Ray Ellington, Allan Ganley and Ronnie Verrell, among many others of high technical standard and the ability to lift a band without racing the tempo.

So it is perhaps not surprising, though unjustified, that the Stan Kenton Orchestra did not meet with the acclaim that might have been expected for its first tour of Britain. Some well–known British musicians, who had welcomed the orchestra’s engagement, rushed into print to voice their disappointment about various aspects of the performance they had attended, as did a number of bandleaders and jazz journalists. In my view, this was due to something of an anti–climax. I attended several of Kenton’s London concerts, and also enjoyed meeting him on a number of occasions at that time and during the course, of later tours, and I thought the orchestra produced a great sound—no better than I had expected, but certainly no worse.

Immediate comparisons that were made in favour of some British soloists against several of Kenton’s men were, I thought, odious, even though technically I might have agreed with them.

Broadly speaking, however, the first Kenton tour was most successful, even though its opening performance was not so spectacular as that of the Ted Heath Orchestra at the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium on April 1, 1956, to which I have already referred.

At around the time when Heath was commencing his American tour, Kenton was meeting with some orchestral domestic trouble which resulted in two of his reedmen, Jack Nimitz and Spencer Sinatra, returning home. Their immediate replacements on tenor and baritone respectively were Tommy Whittle and Harry Klein and then, after a couple of days, when the former had to leave in order to fulfill a previously signed contract, Don Rendell moved in. So, at that very early stage in the Anglo/American exchange scheme, the myth about the alleged inferiority of British jazz men was exploded! Some three years later. Incidentally, when making his first British tour, Woody Herman elected to employ an orchestra described as the Anglo/American Herd.

The entire reed section was British, comprising Don Rendell, Art Ellefson, Ronnie Ross and Johnny Scott, whilst the trumpets were half and half, with Americans Nat Adderley and Reunald Jones alongside our own Kenny Wheeler and Bert Courtley. The trombone trio consisted of America’s Bill Harris leading Britain’s Eddie Harvey and Ken Wray, and only the rhythm section was entirely American, with Vince Guaraldi (piano), Jimmy Campbell (drums), Keter Betts (bass) and Charlie Byrd (guitar).

I heard only one of their concerts—at the old Tooting Granada Cinema, and they sounded as though they had been working together for years! The second of the Anglo/American exchanges occurred barely a month after the first, and involved the bands of Louis Armstrong and Freddy Randall, but it was unfortunately by no means so well organised as had been the first. Arrangements for it had been planned during November 1955, when I received a visit from two Americans, Lee Gordon and Benn Reyes, who were proposing to present Armstrong each night, from May 4 to 13, 1956, at the long–since demolished Empress Hall, Earls Court, and to follow the London presentation with a series of one–night stands in seven major cities.

The Americans knew of the Anglo/American exchange requirements, but asked me which British band the MU would want to have sent to America in exchange for and of a similar size to Armstrong’s group. I hastened to assure them that the MU did not make such choices or recommendations. It was nevertheless obvious that they knew nothing of the best of Britain’s small jazz groups of the time; so I did agree to provide them with a list of all those then recognised as leaders in the field, from which they were free to make their selection. After a week or two they notified me that they had selected the Randall band.

Armstrong’s tour commenced about a week ahead of Randall’s; so the latter was able to attend, as I did, a reception for Louis at the Savoy Hotel on May 3, 1956, and it was there that Freddy received a cheque for a substantial part of his fees in advance. When the American lawyer who represented Big Show, UK Limited, the British company set up by Messrs. Reyes and Gordon, signed the cheque he could not restrain himself from saying: “Gee, man—you’ve never seen so much money before in your life!” Fearing that Freddy might agree with him, I chipped in with: “Well—he hasn’t been invited to work in the States before!“.

Needless to say, it gave me a kick to be meeting Louis again after some twenty–five years. He had, of course, aged considerably (hadn’t we all?), but was as exuberant as ever, making me feel quite old by addressing me all the time as “Pops”, although some years my senior. When I saw him again some days later at Empress Hall, he was playing great jazz and indulging in far less exhibitionism than when I had first seen him work at the Palladium in 1932.

When I visited him in his dressing room at Earls Court it was also my pleasure to meet Edmond Hall, who was to become one of my best friends during the all too limited remainder of his life, and Mezz Mezzrow, who, then living in France, had come over to meet Louis.

It also came as a relief to find that they, and everybody else, were also addressed as “Pops”! The London end of the tour did not prove to be a financial success, despite the thousands who attended the ten performances at Earls Court, and when Armstrong moved out of London, Big Show, UK Ltd. handed over the promotion to Harold Davison, who was to organise and manage most of Louis’ subsequent European tours.