Jazz Development in Britain 1924—1974

6. Big Show, UK Ltd


  The History of British Jazz

Big Show, U.K., Ltd., in organising the Empress Hall presentation of Louis Armstrong’s band, had underestimated the high level of jazz appreciation that had already been developing in Britain for several years prior to 1956. Many jazz concerts had been presented at the Royal Festival and smaller concert halls, in theatres and cinemas, and jazz club performances were regularly presented in scores of towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. The audiences for these were generally sophisticated, although those following the bop trend perhaps had to work a little harder in the process of trying to understand ,what was going on! The rather wearisome habit of labelling the concerts as either “Traditional”, “‘Dixieland”, “Mainstream” or “Bop” was then very much in evidence but quite unnecessary, for the jazz enthusiasts knew perfectly well the kind of jazz to expect from their experience of the work of those who would be playing it.

The Company, however, were reluctant to trust themselves to a straightforward presentation of Louis’ band along with one of the best of British bands, and we had the distracting spectacle of the band, on a revolving rostrum, rotating slowly throughout the show—with Edmond Hall, Louis and Trummy Young passing by in that order followed by the back view of Billy Kyle, Jack Lesberg and Barrett Deems, with the sound being thrown around in all directions in what was a most unsuitable venue for jazz.

Nevertheless, the sheer personality and performance of Louis and his colleagues was sufficient to put the show across despite the circus–like environment.

There was also vocalist Velma Middleton, plump and exuberant, who knew what jazz was all about. although she was by no means in the same league as Ella and Sarah, who were to follow in later exchanges.

Two other artists of repute were engaged for the first half of the show, Ella Logan and one–legged dancer “Peg Leg” Bates, who were accompanied by the Vic Lewis Orchestra, but received a poor reception from an audience who had come along only to see and hear the Armstrong band. I also recall that, during the London run, Humphrey Lyttelton’s band was brought in to infuse some jazz into the first half, although, by the time I saw the show, they were no longer involved.

Meantime, although engaged to tour in the States as a part of a package show, Freddy Randall’s band met with considerable success, which was hardly surprising for, in addition to the leader, there were Betty Smith on tenor and Eddie Thompson on piano, well backed by Orme Stewart (trombone), Stan Bourke (drums) and Jack Pebardy (bass/arranger).

Before the end of 1956, two further Anglo/American exchanges took place, the first of which was in fact an Anglo/American/French exchange, for it involved Sidney Bechet, then living in Paris, who elected to be accompanied on his trip to Britain by the band of Andre Reweliotty, which had accompanied him for most of his engagements in France and for recording purposes.

This meant that a British musician had to work in the States in exchange for Bechet and a British band in France in exchange for that of Reweliotty. I believe it was Tommy Whittle who went to the States and the band of Chris Barber that went to France.

The Barber band certainly shared the bill with Bechet and company at the Royal Festival Hall concert I attended, which did not rule out my thought that it also went to France, as the dates of reciprocal engagements did not have to coincide precisely. At that time the remainder of the band comprised Monty Sunshine (clarinet), Pat Halcox (trumpet), Dick Smith (bass), Ron Bowden (drums) and Dick Bishop (banjo). The vocalists were Ottilie Patterson and Johnny Duncan, Clarinettist/Leader Reweliotty was supported by Guy Longnon (trumpet), Jean–Louis Durand (trombone), Eddy Bernard (piano), Georges D’Halluin ((bass) and Jacques David (drums), but, of course, Bechet dominated the proceedings, When I met the great jazzman before his part of the show it was a pleasurable experience for me, for I had previously heard him only on records—when he had come to Britain with Will Marion Cook’s Orchestra, just after the First World War, when even I was young! At first I found Bechet to be somewhat reserved, resulting from the problems that had arisen for him through his having been persuaded in 1949 to perform in London without a work permit, an unfortunate incident to which I have already referred, but after a friendly chat, in which I was able to explain that the authorities had been compelled to institute enquiries, irrespective of what the Union

might have thought about it, he thawed out and went out on to the stage to give a great performance that endeared him to musicians and audience alike.

The final exchange that year involved Lionel Hampton with his big band and, like the Bechet tour, was organised by the Harold Davison office. The opening date was at the Empress Hall and, like the Armstrong presentation at the same venue, was not a financial success. This was no reflection upon the artist’s ability to attract, for the audiences came in thousands, but the economics of using such a vast hall for purposes for which it had never been intended made it impossible to clear the overheads.

For some reason that I cannot now recall, I never saw the great vibraphonist in the flesh—a matter of much regret to me—although judging by some of the antics in which I have seen him indulge in film shots I have the idea that the sheer artistry of his musical performance might best be enjoyed through the medium of the record. I should nevertheless have enjoyed meeting him, for I had admired his work with the Armstrong band as far back as 1931 and, of course, had been knocked out by his 1938/9 records with Goodman—which to me still sound as fresh as ever.

Hampton played further London concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and the Gaumont State, Kilburn, and it was, I seem to recall, the Vic Lewis Orchestra that went to the US in exchange. Vic had, since 1947, been devoting himself to maintaining a big band which, in the autumn of 1956, included Alan Ross, Colin Bradfield, Art Ellefson, Ray Webb and Brian Fogerson (reeds), Dave Loban, Dickie McPherson, Ray Hutchinson and Ray Martin (trumpets), Fred Crossman ‘(French horn), Alec Gould, John Watson (trombones), Johnny Clarke (piano), Ken Williams (bass) and Andy White (drums). Around that time, too. and although better known as a guitarist/composer, Vic in some numbers used to add his weight to the trombone section.

All through the ‘fifties, jazz concerts were given by British bands, occasionally shared by visitors from across the Channel, which later, in fact, overlapped the Anglo /American exchange concerts, the first few of which I have already discussed. Also in previous chapters, I have recollected British bands widely acclaimed in those years, such as those of John Dankworth, Kenny Baker, Tommy Whittle, Harry Gold, Sid Phillips, Chris Barber, Tony Crombie and Vic Lewis, among many others, all of which continued to rely upon live performances in addition to their recording and radio work. I have also recalled the fine work of the earlier bands of Ronnie Scott and made passing reference to the Jazz Couriers, but I think that this important group needs special mention for its just about unsurpassed standard of performance.

Alas, with the premature death of Tubby Hayes in June 1973, the sound produced by the tenor saxophone partnership he shared with Ronnie Scott could never be truly recreated—a sound which I still regard as one of the greatest in jazz. I heard the group play a concert at London’s Dominion Theatre in 1958 with a rhythm section comprising Terry Shannon (piano), Phil Bates (bass) and Bill Eyden (drums). It had the packed house on its feet and cheering! In following years, both Kenny Napper and Jeff Clyne took over on bass for periods and Phil Seamen came in for a while on drums., and by then,, too, Tubby was featuring flute and vibraphone in addition to his first love, but it was the unique tonal quality of the two tenors that remains for ever in the memories of those who heard them.

Among the many fine then modern–style groups to be heard at various periods during the ‘fifties, in addition to the Couriers, were the Jazz Makers, the co–leaders of which were drummer Allan Ganley and baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross, aided and abetted by Art Ellefson (tenor), Stan Jones (piano) and Stan Wasser ‘(bass); the Tony Kinsey Quintet, with drummer Tony leading Les Condon (trumpet), Ken Wray (trombone), Bill Le Sage (piano, vibraphone) and Dave Willis (bass); the Vic Ash Sextet, with the leader on tenor and clarinet, John Scott (alto, flute), Ian Hamer (trumpet), Alan Branscombe (piano, vibraphone), Spike Heatley (bass) and Dave Pearson (drums); and two interesting groups led at different periods on tenor saxophone by Don Rendell. The first of these, around 1957/58, was called the Jazz Six and, in addition to the leader, comprised Ronnie Ross, playing both alto and baritone, Bert Courtley (trumpet), Eddie Harvey (trombone, piano), Kenny Napper (bass) and Phil Seamen (drums), whilst the second, sometime later, was known as the Jazz Committee which, with a complement of five, included Courtley and Harvey with bassist Pete Blannin and drummer Jackie Dougan.

Around the same period, Joe Harriott was also leading on alto a quintet, the other members being Hank Shaw (trumpet), Harry South (piano), Coleridge Goode (bass) and Bobby Orr (drums). At a later stage, Shaw, South and Orr were succeeded respectively by Shake Keane, Pat Smythe and Tommy Jones. Tubby Hayes was by then leading a quartet in which he was backed by Terry Shannon, Phil Seamen and Spike Heatley. Phil was later succeeded by Tommy Mann and Spike by Jeff Clyne.

I wish that space and my memory enabled me to recall all the fine and frequent changing groups of those years of healthy experimentation. but one that I must certainly not fail to mention was the New Music of Kathleen Stobart, around 1950, which was really forced out of business by the growing economic problems of touring, but which made an important contribution to jazz development on this side of the Atlantic. Her trumpeter, Bert Courtley, also became her husband, and his premature death all too few years later represented an enormous loss to British jazz performance. Other well–known musicians who served with the New Music were bassist Frank Clarke, pianists Dill Jones and Tommy Watt and saxophonists Derek Humble and Paul Bennett. The instrumental combination consisted of three saxophones, trumpet and three rhythm.

Fortunately for British jazz development, Kathy has remained in the forefront of the profession throughout the years as one of our greatest and most creative soloists on soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet and flute.

Alongside the foregoing bands of the ‘fifties, there was also a wealth of more conventional jazz bands, that is, those who drew inspiration from the traditional, Dixieland, or even ragtime schools, many of which made an important contribution to the development and –perhaps more so than the more modern experimenters–the popularising of jazz.

Foremost among these bands were those of Humphrey Lyttelton, Chris Barber, Alex Welsh, Bruce Turner, Sandy Brown, Cy Laurie, Ken Colyer, Mick Mulligan, Acker Bilk, Terry Lightfoot, Freddy Randall, Kenny Ball, the Christie Brothers and, ok course, those who had been doing it for years longer than the rest, like Harry Gold, Sid Phillips, George Chisholm and Joe Daniels.

Fairly soon after the Anglo–American exchange he shared with Louis Armstrong, Freddy Randall suffered a setback in health which compelled him to lay off work for some time, and it was then that three members of his band, tenor saxophonist Betty Smith, bassist Jack Peberdy and drummer Stan Bourke, formed the nucleus of the Betty Smith Quintet, teaming up with pianist Brian Lemon and guitarist Eric Ford. Betty and Jack are, of course, Mister and Missus and, as for so many of the other groups listed, it is gratifying to be able to record their continued professional success.

Several of the bands changed their styles almost out of all recognition during the ‘fifties and ‘sixties—that of Humphrey Lyttelton being an excellent example. In a previous chapter I made reference to Lyttelton having “moved on to better and more lasting trends in jazz” which was, in my opinion, when he abandoned the old line–up of two clarinets, cornet,, trombone and rhythm, including banjo, and adopted the more modern combination of trumpet, trombone, two or three saxophones and three rhythm. So far as I can recollect, Bruce Turner moved in on alto and clarinet somewhere between 1952 and 1957, as did Jimmy Skidmore on tenor, but Bruce was later succeeded by Tony Coe. For a period, before he left for the States, Joe Temperley was in on baritone, and when Jimmy became ill, Kathy Stobart came in to deputise.

The remainder of the players were John Picard (trombone), Ian Armit (piano), Brian Brocklehurst (bass) and Eddie Taylor, a former bop man, on drums. From then on, the Lyttelton grouping, for me, ceased to be one of our better “Trad” bands and, instead, became one of the really significant British jazz ensembles.

As one who, throughout the post–war years, has attended scores of concerts of all kinds, I would say that, prior to 1957, jazz concert audiences could be broken down into roughly three age groups.

Concerts by the more conventional jazz bands attracted the younger people, those by the so–called ‘mainstream’ bands attracted both the younger, and the more middle–aged who had grown up with the jazz of the ‘thirties, and those by the ‘boppers’ attracted enquiring if not always understanding minds from all age groups. With the next Anglo–American exchange, however, we were to witness the beginning of the erosion of Britain’s younger jazz audience.